Application inflation: As acceptance rates decline, seniors are applying to more colleges

November 15, 2023 — by Andrew Lin
Graphic by Andrew Lin
 In the first semester, seniors have a lot on their plates
Counselors and CCC have noted an upward trend in the number of college applications, and are concerned about its implications for the quality of individual applications.

With 96% of 2022 graduating seniors continuing their education at a 2-year or 4-year college, the school has earned its reputation as an academic powerhouse: It’s ranked No. 181 among 17,680 high schools nationwide by the U.S. News Report and No. 24 among 1,536 high schools in California. 

A large part of its academic excellence can be attributed to the rigor of courses offered here. The proportion of students who enrolled in at least one AP class increased this past decade, from 57% in 2013 to 69% in 2022, according to registrar Robert Wise. 

This uptick in AP class signups and increasingly competitive academic environment has gone along with another striking trend: More seniors apply to dozens of colleges each fall, with hopes of having several good options even if their top choices don’t work out.

Until 2020, the average number of colleges a Saratoga High senior applied to hovered around 13. That number started steadily increasing in 2020 all the way to 22 per student in 2023. 

It’s a trend guidance counselor Frances Saiki has seen since she started working at the school in 2007. Especially in the last four to five years, the majority of secondary school reports and counselor recommendation letters she’s sent to colleges have been for Early Action and Early Decision applicants, a dramatic shift from when applications were more or less spread evenly between Early and Regular Decision in 2007.  

Counselor Eileen Allen partly attributes this greater volume in applications to the increased competitiveness of the UC system, which is leading students to consider more out-of-state alternatives. UC Berkeley and UCLA, which both had 24% acceptance rates in 2002, have fallen to 11 and 9% respectively in 2022, and all UCs have seen declines in acceptance rates since 2020, other than the lowest-ranked Merced and Riverside, whose admittance rates are climbing.

According to College and Career Center adviser Brad Ward, in the past, an out-of-state college like the University of Michigan might receive 50 applications from Saratoga High seniors. Now, that number can be as high as 120. 

This trend coincides with the steady decrease in acceptance rates at top-tier universities nationwide, due to test-optional policies and grade inflation (the average unweighted 10-12 GPA at SHS has grown from 3.47 in 2013 to 3.67 in 2022, Wise said). This has led students who might not have applied to a competitive school a decade ago to apply now. 

While the number of college applications per student doesn’t really affect the amount of work for counselors, it does increase Ward’s workload, because she often helps students with their college essays. She suggests that students limit themselves to applying to 20 colleges maximum, with each UC school being counted separately. This approach both reduces seniors’ stress and can still ensure good acceptance outcomes.

Allen see other downsides to application inflation problem.

“We do have some students who we believe have way too many colleges on their list,” Allen said. “We’d rather see students have the time to be very thoughtful and deliberate with their applications and not be overwhelmed and rush through them.”

Students aren’t the only ones who have steadily increased their efforts for the past few years. A record-breaking 100 colleges visited SHS this year; the previous high was 94 in 2019, and that number included the military branches and for-profit institutions like cosmetology schools, which weren’t considered in the 2023 count. 

This increase can be partly attributed to Ward’s outreach efforts; however, she also believes that the ease of college visit scheduling through Naviance and the overall reputation of the school are also important factors in drawing colleges to visit.

Ultimately, guidance counselors see yet another downside of application inflation. “We recommend applying to reach schools you really love and feel are a good fit, but you want to be able to do a great job with applications and be thoughtful,” Allen said. “Applying to too many colleges can diminish the time you have to be thoughtful on your applications.”

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