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Frank Bruni

The Cynical Reason College Applications Are Surging

An illustration of stacks of paper stamped with the word “DEFERRED” in red, arranged in a Penrose-stair formation.
Credit...Ben Wiseman

Frank is on leave this month and will return on Thursday, April 6. In the meantime, this newsletter is being written by a series of guest authors with some personal connection to him or a thematic connection to his work. Today’s contributor is Jeffrey Selingo, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.”

As the high school class of 2023 anxiously awaits the last of the admissions decisions from colleges in the coming weeks, one thing is a safe bet: This year’s seniors will have submitted more applications to colleges than ever before.

The number of college applications filed through the Common Application, the single online application now used by more than a thousand institutions, has jumped 30 percent over the past three years. That equates to some 1.56 million additional applications sent by this year’s class compared to their counterparts in the class of 2020 — although the classes are roughly the same size.

When I applied to college in late 1990, I recall petering out after filling out four applications on my family’s Smith Corona electric typewriter. Last year, nearly one in five applicants applied to 10 or more colleges, mostly by pressing a button on the Common App. That’s about double the proportion of seniors who applied to the same number of colleges just eight years ago.

Application inflation is most acute at the nation’s brand-name and top-ranked public and private colleges, whose application numbers have ticked up 32 percent since 2020, according to the Common App. Since nearly all these selective colleges promise that applicants will get a holistic review, not one based only on grades or a test score (if submitted), their admissions staffs are under pressure to wade through a rising pile of applications — with their essays, recommendations and laundry lists of activities — in the same amount of time as before.

No one has yet figured out how to add more days to January, February and March, the months when most applications are reviewed during so-called regular decision. To give themselves more breathing room, colleges have tried instead to spread out the process with multiple submission deadlines over several months. More than one-third of the colleges that accept the Common App now offer early action, which requires students to apply in November to typically get a decision in January.


Students like early action because they get a speedier response. “There is peace and solace in knowing early, in knowing I’m in,” said Rick Clark, the assistant vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, who is also an author of “The Truth About College Admission.”

But whenever colleges encourage anything in the game of hypercompetitive admissions, applicants respond accordingly to give themselves the best shot at getting in. In recent years, half of applicants who used the Common App applied early action somewhere. Sure, colleges succeeded in spreading out the arrival of applications, but they were also getting more applications overall.

Clemson, for example, received 26,000 applications this year for its first-ever early action cycle and then got an additional 32,000 regular decision applications for a freshman class that will end up having around 4,500 students. Overall, applications were up 10 percent from the previous admissions season. The University of Southern California, which like Clemson offered early action for the first time this year, recorded an even bigger increase — 16 percent — having collected 40,000 early applications and then doubled that number during the regular decision cycle for a first-year class expected to be just 3,400. The University of Wisconsin-Madison landed 45,000 early applications, a 10 percent increase over last year.

Now these colleges had another problem on their hands: They didn’t want to fill too much of their classes early in case applicants they really want come along in the regular decision pool. So instead of giving students “peace and solace” (as Clark said), they often didn’t give them any answer. They punted the decision on many early applicants by telling them they were deferred to the later regular round. Wisconsin deferred 17,000 of its 45,000 early action applicants. U.S.C. deferred around 38,000 — some 94 percent — of its early pool. (It accepted the other 6 percent and rejected no one.) Clemson told nearly 15,000 of its 26,000 early applicants to wait another two-plus months for a decision. (It rejected only 300.)

While some colleges like the University of Virginia published their deferral numbers right after decisions went out (it pushed 21 percent, or 7,707 early applicants, to regular), most don’t, leaving applicants in the dark about what a deferral really means. The University of Wisconsin initially told me how many students it deferred, then asked that I not publish the number but relented when I suggested it wasn’t being transparent with applicants.

Why the secrecy? A spokesman said the university has a “longstanding practice of not commenting on admissions … before the class matriculates.” Um, that’s in the fall, long after admissions season is over for this year’s seniors when they can’t do anything with the information — like maybe apply to some backup schools on their lists. Without knowing how many applicants were pushed to the next round, teenagers who have applied to six, eight, 12 colleges might be sitting on multiple deferrals with no idea if they really have a shot or if the deferral is simply a precursor to a rejection a few months later.

“The schools that students are most interested in are often the same ones most opaque with what a deferral really means,” said Andy Borst, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I like Borst’s approach here: He sends an email to high school counselors before decisions are released to provide, as he writes, “as much clarity as I can, with supporting data.”

More colleges should provide that clarity by revealing their numbers in real time. Or better yet, deny more students in early action so both sides can just move on. After all, as Greg Roberts, the dean of admission at the University of Virginia told me, “we know the number of students who eventually emerge as offers” from the early pool might be small.

If I learned anything about admissions in the year I spent embedded in three admissions offices for my latest book, it’s this: The process isn’t about the applicants, their needs or what’s fair, because admissions is a business for colleges. Much like airline executives who try to fill as many seats on a plane as possible with those paying the highest fares, colleges use their own enrollment management tactics, such as long deferral lists, to hedge against increasing uncertainty in the business.

Students can apply to 10 colleges and be accepted by all 10 but can go to only one. Stringing along students with deferrals can prove helpful to colleges trying to boost their yield — the percentage of accepted students who enroll — or to fill in gaps in their classes. Do they need more English majors? More students from the Dakotas? More full payers? More men? Well, then let’s go to the deferral bin and pick out what we need.

Olin Library at Wesleyan University.Credit...Bea Oyster for The New York Times

Most admissions deans I talked with said they don’t fully review the deferred applications again during regular decision, when they’re already facing another thick pile of files. They might look at new information they receive, namely grades from senior year. Those grades can help push someone over the acceptance line but, for the most part, only if the applicant also fulfills other institutional priorities.

Given the abundance of early applicants and the limited spaces available, certainly colleges could easily deny more of them and pull the “Band-Aid off,” as Kedra Ishop, the vice president for enrollment management at U.S.C, put it. A deferral in early action followed by a rejection in regular is seen, by both admissions officers and applicants, as a gradual letdown rather than the shock of an outright rejection.

Ishop echoed several other deans in telling me that a deferral is simply informing an applicant that the selection process isn’t finished (even if students applied early precisely because they wanted it to be over). “Why would we put out a denial when the pool itself isn’t settled?” Ishop asked. “Then we’re not giving students the full consideration we promise.”

Of course, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the aura of precision that admissions deans at selective colleges create around crafting a class. Cutting some of these early action students loose would help them know where they stand, but it won’t change the fact that in the end a sizable piece of any freshman class at a top-ranked college is eerily similar to that of any other highly selective campus.