Every once in a while a college administrator happens on a sensible idea. When it happens, it's worth taking note. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Boston College's recent decision to add another essay to its application process. The result was a steep drop in applications, which, interestingly, is exactly what the university had hoped for.
In the past decade or so, the number of students applying to college has risen and the number of colleges each student has applied to has skyrocketed. Guidance counselors regularly advise students to request admission at a dozen different schools. According to an article in U.S. News reporting on findings from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, "A quarter of freshmen who enrolled in college in fall 2010 applied to seven or more schools. . . . That's an increase from both fall 2008 and fall 2009, when 22 and 23 percent of students applied to at least seven schools, respectively. For fall 2010, 77 percent of students applied to at least three schools."
The reasons that the number of colleges each student applies to have been going up are varied. One, of course, is the U.S. News ranking. Colleges are trying to better their "yield" number by encouraging more kids (even kids who really don't stand a chance of getting in) to apply and then the schools admit a small percentage of them. The smaller the percentage, the better the yield. But there are other reasons students apply to more schools. One is that there's relatively little incentive not to. Which is to say that the additional cost of another application is not much money in the grand scheme of middle-class family budgets (particularly when considered against the cost of college itself). And it's not much more effort either. Especially thanks to the Common Application. It began in 1975 with 15 member colleges -- schools that would accept the same essays and application information -- and there are now almost 500 colleges that do. Boston College is among them. College applications are arduous affairs but with the Common Application you can just check off another box essentially and add another school to your list.
But then BC decided to add an essay, a 400-500 word essay asking the student to explain, "Why Boston College." And that was enough to deter 9,000 students from applying. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Last year the private Jesuit institution received a record 34,051 applications for 2,250 spots in its freshman class. This year approximately 25,000 students applied." This from a generation that loves to write their innermost thoughts on everything. And perhaps that's the point. The essay is not merely supposed to be more navel gazing, though it will certainly be that too. It requires students to do a little research and know something about Boston College. (There are those, like Andrew Ferguson in his book Crazy U, who have criticized this sort of essay. It's a little like writing a love letter to an admissions officer, explaining why your school is the only one… XOXO.)
At any rate, the admissions officers at BC are not upset with this drop. According to the Chronicle: "John L. Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, described the numbers as good news. After all, he said, the quality of this year's applicants -- as measured by their ACT and SAT scores -- did not go down, compared with last year. 'Probably what we've done is right-size our applicant pool,' he said."
One can imagine what a relief this is for the admissions staff who will now have to comb through 9,000 fewer applications. Admissions offices spend a great deal of time trying to read student tea leaves to figure out who will really say yes if they are offered admission, which students are, in other words, serious about a school. In one fell swoop, BC has manage to cull their applications by 25%. What a refreshing bit of common sense.