Colleges, swamped by applications from increasingly anxious high schoolers, are changing their admissions rules to weed out applicants who try to game the system by getting easy A's or plagiarizing their essays.
Interviews with admissions officers at some of the nation's most popular colleges reveal recent and important shifts in the weighting of traditional admission factors. Recommendations and high school class rank matter less to many colleges, especially big public universities, than they used to. Instead, a growing number of colleges of all types are putting more emphasis on students' essays and the difficulty of applicants' high school classes. Some colleges, burned by scamsters such as Adam Wheeler, who lied his way into Harvard and Stanford universities, are also starting to do tougher auditing of applications.
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(Source: National Association for College Admission Counseling .)
College officials outline 8 major changes to their admissions practices that will affect applicants from now on:
1. Less time per application. A survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that the average college admissions counselor was responsible for 514 applications in 2009, up from 423 the previous year. And the ratio has gotten only worse in 2010, because students are sending out more applications while tight budgets prevent colleges from hiring additional staff to manage the deluge, colleges say. The caseload is far greater at popular public colleges: The 15 admissions officers at Binghamton University are handling about 30,000 applications, for example. Even at private colleges—such as Johns Hopkins University, Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Pitzer College, in Claremont, Calif.—admissions officers take an average of just 15 minutes for the first read of each application.
2. Earlier deadlines. Many students, desperate to make sure they get admitted somewhere, are swamping colleges' early decision programs. Northwestern University, for example, reported a 25 percent increase in early applications this fall over last year. Many public universities are also encouraging or requiring early deadlines to give staff more time to work through the applications. At Purdue University, where each admissions officer handles about 1,200 applications, "we encourage students to apply in September and October because we can't possibly read that kind of volume in one or two months," says admissions dean Pamela Horne.
3. Less reliance on recommendations. As high school teachers and counselors get overwhelmed with recommendation requests, they often provide less specific or thoughtful comments, admissions officers say. NACAC found that the percentage of colleges giving "considerable importance" to teacher or counselor recommendations fell from 21 percent to 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. "Ninety-eight percent of recommendations tell us what students already told us," says Philip Ballinger, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington. UW this year stopped asking for or even reading teacher recommendations from applicants. The trend towards bland or generic recommendations causes headaches for schools that still rely heavily on them. About half of the applicants to Pitzer have perfect or near-perfect grades and test scores, says Angel Perez, director of admissions. "How do you differentiate among perfect GPA and SAT scores? I lean on those letters," he says. But, he complains, a growing number of the recommendations "are not that useful…. It is making our job a lot more difficult."
4. Less emphasis on high school class rank. Because a more high schools are refusing to rank their students, colleges have little choice but to reduce their weighting of student rank as an admissions factor, says Jim Miller, NACAC president and coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The NACAC survey found that the percentage of colleges giving class rank "considerable importance" dropped from 42 percent in 1993 to just 15 percent in 2009.
5. More emphasis on tougher high school courses. Responding to growing evidence that students who take more rigorous courses in high school are more likely to succeed in college, admissions officers are increasingly weeding out applicants who take it easy in high school by giving more weight to grades in tougher classes. The percentage of colleges giving considerable importance to a student's "strength of curriculum" has jumped from 62 percent to 71 percent since 2006. "Looking for easy A classes can be costly because colleges look for students who are better prepared and who will succeed at their institutions," says Suzanne McCray, dean of admissions at the University of Arkansas. "Trying to game the system can only make a student lose out," she adds. "We would much rather see a student challenge himself and get a B" than take an easy class to inflate a GPA, agrees Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College.
6. More emphasis on application essays. The percentage of colleges that give essays lots of weight rose from 14 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 2009, NACAC's survey found. Essays are especially crucial to elite colleges, where they "can make or break your application," says Pitzer's Perez.
[Read 10 tips for writing an application essay.]
7. More attention to the applicant's senior year. In the past, many admissions officers focused on an applicant's sophomore and junior years, and didn't put much weight on senior year courses or grades, says the University of Washington's Ballinger. That's changing. "We think senior year is the most important, and we don't want to see any slacking off. We want to see acceleration of educational difficulty." UW last year withdrew 27 offers of admission of students who goofed off too much during senior year, he says.
8. More application auditing. Stanford, Harvard and a few other colleges have increased their factchecking of applications in the wake of the Adam Wheeler scandal. One tool that a growing number of colleges are using, says NACAC president Miller, is Turnitin, a plagiarism software program that looks for phrases in essays that match those in millions of websites, articles and books.
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Updated on 11/18/2010: An earlier version of this story referred to the National Association for College Admission Counseling by an incorrect name.