Competition has increased, prices have skyrocketed beyond normal inflation rates and except for in-person campus visits, everything is done on the computer.
It's different in almost every way. I've identified five basic reasons why it's no longer "your father's college admissions process."
1. A rising tide of college applicants -- Students in high school today are referred to as the "echo boomers," the children of baby boomers. Five years ago there were 2.5 million high school graduates, and today there are more than 3.3 million annually. Thirty years ago half of the high school graduates were applying to college, but today more than two-thirds are submitting applications.
2. More students are applying to more schools -- In 1975, only 3.2 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, In 2006 that number increased to 17.4 percent and in 2009 it rose to 23 percent. Some students attempt to hedge their bets and apply to 15 or more schools.
3. The Common Application -- Filling out one form for multiple colleges has made life a lot easier for students. Yes, they still need to complete specific supplements for many of the colleges, but once the main application is complete it is easier to point and click and add colleges. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling research, four-year colleges received an average of 43 percent of their applications online in 2004. This number increased to 68 percent in 2007 and 80 percent in 2009.
4. Stagnant number of colleges and a stable number of freshman seats -- Opening the doors to a new college is an enormous undertaking with almost insurmountable odds. While there has been some growth in colleges and in enrollment numbers, it has not kept pace with the growth in applicants. With a growing pool of high school graduates competing for a fixed number of freshman slots, it is really a case for Econ 101 -- Supply and Demand.
5. Aggressive college marketing -- Colleges now employ "enrollment managers" and "recruitment specialists," as well as full-service advertising and design departments. If you haven't started receiving the glossy materials yet, I assure you they will start flowing shortly. Colleges purchase lists of students and market themselves across the country. Unfortunately in many cases, the colleges are marketing themselves to students they are certain to reject. College rankings are, in part, determined by the size of the applicant pool (as large as possible) and the acceptance rate (as low as possible). Rankings are an unfortunate way for colleges and sometimes parents and students to keep score.
These factors feed the frenzy of college admissions. Don't get caught up in the anxiety. Identify colleges that represent a good fit. Strive for the best performance possible in high school and on standardized tests. Get involved in extracurricular activities, community service or employment. Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Send questions to: leecollegeadmissionsstrategies.com; www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com