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Articles / Admissions / The Rising Tide of College Applications

May 18, 2020

The Rising Tide of College Applications

If you have been paying any attention at all to the world of college admissions, you surely must have noticed a stark trend: Colleges are getting more applications every year. In some case, the increase is dramatic.

One particularly impressive example of this is the University of Chicago. This highly regarded institution reports a 42% increase in application this year. U.S. News' The Paper Trail blog reports some details:

Applications to University of Chicago Skyrocket

The University of Chicago is a popular school—and rightfully so. It offers a world-class education in a fantastic city. But even with those positives, it was still surprising to read a report about the school in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday.

The University of Chicago received a whopping 19,306 applications from prospective undergraduate students for the 2010–2011 school year, the Tribune reports. That's a 42 percent jump in applications from last year, which saw more than 13,000 applicants. Even at a time when many schools are seeing increases in applications, a 42 percent rise is significant. The university plans to accept 19 percent of the applicants, the report says. That's roughly 3,500 undergraduates.

The school tells the Tribune that its increased popularity could come from numerous factors: a more prominent national identity, publicity stemming from having President Barack Obama as a former faculty member, or even the second year of use of the Common Application for the admissions process. Whatever caused the change, it's a welcome uptick in applicants. And the quality of applicants has remained high.

"These kids are every bit as witty and intellectually engaged as students of the past," University of Chicago Dean of Admissions James Nondorf tells the Tribune.

This situation has sent some shock waves through the ranks of high school seniors and their parents, who weren't prepared for the unexpected level of competition in this year's Chicago applicant pool. As always, the College Confidential discussion forum reflects the attitudes (and anxieties) of those involved in the complex process of college admissions. Here are some pertinent comments from a U. Chicago-related thread:

University of Chicago Sees 42% Increase in Applications

Wow. So it looks like about a 12% RD acceptance rate.

maybe a bit lower- could be 11 and change depending on how many EA's were deferred, which is a figure i haven't seen. hats off to JHS for an accurate prediction. Also interesting to note positive commentary in the article on Chicago's changing reputation, and the university's decision to release the story to the tribune instead of burying it in the campus rags as usual. defs a new sheriff in town......

Very impressive move in one year. Here's a BusinessWeek story that goes into some depth. Even a brief mention of CC:

Chicago Sees 42% Applicant Jump in Competition With Harvard - BusinessWeek

I agree, taxguy, and was always amazed by their relatively small applicant pool compared to their academic peers. A daunting application and a reputation for being a haven for relentless grinds were no-doubt off-putting to some applicants.

Kudos to Chicago for reversing that situation in such short order. I expect this could boost their ranking (not that it means anything), which will drive even more applicants.

Isn't this just a consequence , at least in part, of a prestigious school going to the common app? It is their second year and the word got out. All it takes is the click of a button and a charge card to apply. How do you think Harvard gets so many applications, guaranteeing a low acceptance rate?

>>a prestigious school going to the common app?

In Chicago's case, going to the Common App was a double bonus: not only did it make it easy to add Chicago to one's school list, it also replaced what was perhaps the most daunting application among US colleges. The app was many pages and included unique essays that couldn't readily be "repurposed" from other apps. To its credit, the challenging app did serve as a pre-screen which filtered out applicants who weren't all that serious about Chicago. It's one thing to check off a box saying, "hey, I might go there," and another to decide to spend hours laboring over essays and "short answer" questions.

great hopes, huge diappointment!

Thank you#116. Unfairness is exactly what many of the RD applicants and I feel right now. The main reason that many of us held back EA becos we wanted to spend time on the essays, which was supposedly what a UofC application is about. We applied in good faith of a 20-27% chance based on past EA and RD acceptance rates + some anticipated 10-15% increase and the numerous marketing emails that make us believe that we have a fair shoot. Many'd never pply if the chance of below 12% is known.

It is a fact that many applied EA to Chicago along with another ED university with the blessing of counselors, and Chicago knows that hence they took in 500 more despite the spike. The strategy of many applicants was to use Chicago as a safety becos it is non-binding, not becos Chicago is their first choice. Out of the 4 EA admits that I know, 3 are not going because they are binded somewhere, and the remaining one is aiming for an ivy with a safety at hand. There are of course many EA applicants considered Chicago as their first choice as well, especially legacies.

Another unfairness is about the uncommon essays that UofC stressed so much about and applicants labored so much on...even up till the last minute of application as impressed by the love letter. Someone in this forum already suggested that adcoms won't look much at the essays this year because of the surge, we totally agreed. It seems that the so-called uncommon essays would amount to nothing more than a marketing slogan, for this year and the future.

UofC adcoms model concept to this year's uncommon prompts would be as follows.

We, and the applicants, got caught in the numbers games of today's admissions-the reality of life; we have outgrown all our peers in applications, and certainly the philosophical trousers of the former dean's that has made Chicago so distinctive; the essence of human personality is to outgrow your peers, and feel more superior (or never feel inferior) than all of them, especially Columbia; there are no rules of the game, all prior rules are discarded for a new era as long as the numbers look good; topic of your choice: the common misperception of uncommon essays--you are caught!

UofCApplicant you are talking as if you were already rejected. You still have a chance; don't be so pessimistic! And of course "it is a fact that many applied EA to Chicago along with another ED university with the blessing of counselors." That is the case every year. The yield for EA admits last year was only 43%. Additionally, I do not believe that the admissions counselors will skim through the essays. UChicago has an adequate admissions staff to read through ~13,000 RD applications. In fact, the essays will probably play an even bigger role this year. With 42% more students applying, most of whom have similar GPAs and test scores, creative essays may be the best means of sorting applicants.

If you are still nervous I would suggest sending an email expressing your interest in the school to your admissions counselor. Good luck! Perhaps I'll be seeing you in the fall.

lmao, so now it all makes sense. i was so confused with all the chicago recruitment crap my sister (hs senior) has been getting. when i applied to colleges, i dont remember receiving much from chicago - consequently, i didnt know its reputation and didnt apply- despite having higher test scores (i indicated wanting college stuff when taking standardized tests). i had a lot of stuff from the ivies, but nothing from schools like duke, chicago, even my alma mater etc. i had no idea chicago went to great lengths this year to beef up recruitment...

i flipped through some of the material. it's clear chicago spent a lot of money on this campaign and it sure has paid off! i just hope the school isn't giving up it's quirky and respectable reputation to be be a rank-whore.

i personally would never go to chicago for schooling...but that's just because i hate the cold, and i dont think i'd fit the mold in terms of student body quirkiness.

P.S. the true test of the success of this new strategy will be the strength of the incoming student body and not just yield/admissions rate. either way im sure all statistical categories will see marked improvements.

Well, obviously, Chicago's selectivity is far behind those of HYPSM at the moment, prodigalson. But considering that Chicago just had perhaps the largest increase in applications ever for a highly-selective school through the course of one year, I think that the admissions office probably has very high goals for the future, ones that probably don't seem very realistic at the moment.

I remember when I matriculated (3 years ago), I heard that Zimmer had a goal of boosting the number of apps to 15,000 in 5 years. At the time, it sounded crazy to just about everyone. How do you increase 10k to 15k over the course of 5 years? Well, Chicago went from 10k to 19k in 3 years instead, and this is perhaps the biggest change in selectivity over such a short time span ever - from 35% acceptance rate to 19% acceptance rate in 4 years. Is it really such a big step to go from 19% down to 10% in a decade? Well, yes, frankly, it is a big step. But one in which I think the current admissions office has a very good potential to attain. With Ted O'Neill, I don't think that there was a chance at hell at that happening. With Nondorf, I think it would take an extremely amount of hard work, but I think he could make it happen over the course of a long time.

Of course, you're absolutely right that it's way to early to be making comparisons between Chicago and HYPSM. First comes Columbia, which Chicago is still lagging considerably behind, and it will take a while to catch up. But you can't deny that the admissions office probably has HYPMS in the back of their heads (as is the case with many highly selective universities, I'm sure).

While we are giving attributing for this amazing jump to the common app, this year's Nondorf marketing savvy, smart policies by recent college administration, etc, we should acknowledge that no amount of such "window dressing" would have made this kind of jump possible if the university had not been been an outstanding academic institution with a deepest reservoir of respect among the peers in the world of higher education.

At an expert's hand, a diamond in the rough can finally shine brilliantly, but no amount of polishing and cutting will turn a glass into a diamond.

I give a lot of credit to the faculty, the students themselves past and present, and the myriad of those who worked for a long time in the past to build this institution to be the bedrock of higher learning.

I hope the school does not lose its focus on the intellectual zeal and pursuit for the life of the mind. The day U Chicago starts to admit significant number of athletes and celebrities with seriously sub par intellectual qualifications is the the day I will be sorry to see this institution becoming just like another "luxury brand name goods".

. . . and so on . . .
As I mentioned in America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Applicant's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, yesterday's safety schools have now become today's competitive colleges. The University of Chicago has shown that it's now among the elite, as far as acceptance rates are concerned.
What's the lesson here? Well, for starters you shouldn't be taking anything for granted when it comes to applying to college. Plus, as far as so-called "safety" schools are concerned, you had better be sure that those that you have classified as such are schools where you wouldn't mind spending four years of your life. I'll quote myself one last time: "When it comes to college admissions, there's no such thing as a sure thing."
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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