In its annual survey of nearly 166,000 first year students, HERI found that the proportion of students submitting applications to four or more colleges jumped substantially in 2013.
In fact, more than half (55%) of incoming students in 2013 applied to more than three colleges in addition to the application submitted to the college they currently attend. This is up by more than 10 percentage points in the last five years (44.5% applied to four or more colleges in 2008).
While nearly 11 percent reported applying to one college, almost a third (31.6%) applied to seven or more colleges last year.
These numbers generally support a recently released survey by the Princeton Review in which the majority of parent and student respondents (48%) projected that they or their child will apply to five to eight colleges—up by four percent from 2013. Another 21% told the Princeton Review that they/their child will apply to nine or more colleges.
Clearly both surveys suggest a sea change in application strategy from 1975, when 40.5% of students entering college submitted one and only one application.
HERI speculates that students perceive stronger competition in the college admissions process and are applying more broadly to increase the likelihood of being admitted to at least one campus.
In addition, “The increase in the number of applications may also be due to services such as The Common Application making the process of applying to multiple institutions less burdensome for students.”
The Common Application does not dispute that they’ve contributed to an overall increase in applications submitted. Last year, about 3.05 million applications were submitted through their system alone. And this year is coming in at a significant increase over last.
But when looking at individual applicants, the Common App found that without counting transfers and single Early Decision applications, the average Common App user submitted 4.6 applications during 2012-13. Students from New England topped the list submitting an average of 5.4 Common Applications while those in the Midwest and South submitted 3.6.
Other electronic applications serving multiple colleges, such as the Universal College Application, as well as the availability of system-wide forms used by various states (California and Texas for example) have also contributed to an overall uptick in numbers based on ease of submission.
And this is borne out by numbers generated by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) which found that nearly two-thirds of colleges (64%) reported an increase last year in the number of applications they received.
So how many applications are enough?
The College Board suggests there is no magic number, but “five to eight” applications are usually enough to ensure that a student will be accepted to a “suitable institution,” depending on the student’s record and circumstances as well as how much effort has gone into finding schools representing a strong fit.
Similarly, NACAC recommends six to eight applications.
But at the end of the day, it’s the pressure students sense from the seemingly randomness of the process that drives how many applications they will submit.
And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Disclosure: Nancy Griesemer is a member of the Princeton Review National College Counselor Advisory Board, 2013-2014.