Students expand college options

Increasing numbers apply to 10 or more institutions

November 28, 2007|By Lisa Tom . | Lisa Tom .,Special to the Sun

Lauren Simenauer has spent many late nights and weekends on college applications. The Centennial High senior is completing 12 of them with the help of "lots of coffee."

She is one of an increasing number of Howard County students applying to a double-digit number of colleges.

"In my Advanced Placement classes, most people are applying to 10 or 15 schools," said Simenauer, adding that in other circles "people think I'm crazy."

In part, technology allows students to do this.

"Fourteen out of the 15 [schools I'm applying to] use the common app ... so it's not that much more work than applying to two or three schools," said Lise Harbom of Reservoir High.

Students can explore schools and other resources more easily than before through Web sites and virtual tours.

Students "have more access to testing, more information, so that makes them want to apply to more schools in addition to increasing selectivity," Simenauer said.

Increasing selectivity, especially at the nation's top schools, often drives the decision to complete so many applications.

Colleges and universities are "so selective that it's basically a crapshoot," said Simenauer. "It's more likely that I'll get into more if I apply to more."

While the acceptance rate at America's 2,500 colleges and universities has remained at 70 percent, top-tier schools have seen an increase in applicants.

Last year, Princeton rejected thousands of applicants with a 4.0 grade point average, and Harvard posted a record-low admittance rate of 9 percent, according to an April article in The New York Times.

With numbers like these, it's easy to understand why students want to keep their options open.

"I feel so anxious," said Preethi Reddy of Centennial High, who is applying to 20 schools. An aspiring oncologist, Reddy has focused on accelerated programs in which she can earn a bachelor's degree and medical degree in seven or eight years.

"I'm just trying to make sure that I have a shot," said the 17-year-old. "I'd rather apply than have regrets later about, `Oh, I should have applied there.'"

While 20 is still unusual, the average number of applications per student is rising.

"Students are going from applying to five or six schools to seven or eight," said David Glenn, a Howard High guidance counselor with 19 years' experience.

Students hope that they will have more choices when they start receiving their admissions decisions. "No matter the school, I'll be happier knowing that I chose it from a wide variety of options," Harbom said.

Forty years ago, less than 2 percent of American college freshmen had applied to six or more schools, according to the Times article. In 2006, 2 percent applied to 11 or more, according to a study, "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006," published by the University of California, Los Angeles.

It's a bit of a vicious cycle. The increase in applications causes admissions to become more competitive, pushing students to increase their number of applications.

"It's certainly the case that over a period of time the University of Maryland has become more competitive," said Shannon Gundy, senior associate director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Anecdotally, it does appear to be a trend that students are applying to more and more institutions."

She added: "That increased competition doesn't mean that we're using grade or SAT cutoffs."

Applications at the university have increased every year for the past three years, though the admittance rate has fluctuated between 44.5 percent and 49.1 percent.

"The biggest influence on the percentage of students admitted is the number of students that we want to enroll in the freshman class," Gundy said. "It's still early in the process. At this point we are still ahead of where we were last year [in the number of applications received]."

The situations in admissions offices affect the dynamic in guidance offices in Howard County.

"You as a counselor are between a rock and a hard place," said Atholton guidance counselor Kevin Kelly. "Some of these places they're applying to, they probably can't get in on the surface because they don't meet the GPA requirement. But if you tell them not to apply you're the bad guy.

"What I would say to them is present to them the average GPA or SAT scores ... [and say,] `It's a long shot. There's always a chance.'"

Harbom said that her guidance counselor "knew I wanted to go to a really competitive school. He didn't really try to discourage me because he knows it's my choice."

Along with competition for admission often comes competition for merit and need-based financial aid.

"Now people want to look into scholarship options to see where they get the most money," said Atholton senior Diane Peng.

Just applying to college can be costly, with application fees at $50 to $100. Students with financial needs can speak to a guidance counselor about obtaining an application fee waiver.

High school counselors stress that they are available to help.

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