It’s not just your imagination. College admissions IS more stressful today!
college applications
August 1, 2021

It's not just your imagination.

With all the other radical changes to the world we’ve seen in the last 18 months, it’s almost difficult to look back at “Operation Varsity Blues”, the scandal that rocked our nation in 2019. Thirty-three individuals exchanged around $25 million to get wealthy kids into schools like Stanford, Yale, and USC. 

While we understood at the time that this is not how the majority of college personnel, counselors, or families behave–and that it certainly wouldn’t be the first, nor last, time–it did signal something significant to the American public–times have changed for college admissions.

Maybe as a parent you’ve felt an overwhelming sense that your child’s experience is exponentially more stressful than your own.  Maybe as a student you’re thinking that your parents really can’t seem to grasp the pressure you face today.  

The reality is that it doesn’t just “seem that way”. College admissions really has radically changed in the last 30, 20, 10, 5, and even 2 years. In fact, the world of admissions is constantly in flux, dynamically changing each day, and that may seem overwhelming for those starting out in the process. 

We’re here to help.  Here are 5 major ways college admissions is more stressful today, and what you can do to meet those challenges.

5 ways college admissions is more stressful today:

1. Increased Competition

Accessibility, globalization, and rising pressures to go to a 4-year college has led to a 37.7% increase in enrollment over the last 30 years. That’s 5.4 million additional students competing for spots–many applying to competitive schools. Indeed, in 1991, Penn accepted almost 50% of its applicants, but that number dropped to a sobering 7.44% by 2019.  

In addition, the competition is not just domestic. Increased globalization means that a record number of international students enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2019, bringing the total to 1.1 million, or just over 5% of the total number of enrollees. 

With the sheer volume of applications, some schools report spending as little as 8 minutes reviewing an application. That means it’s vital that students take this process seriously so they stand out. 

2. Common App

Furthermore, gone are the days when student applicants applied to 2-3 colleges total.

Beyond increased numbers of kids applying to college, broad-reaching uniform applications like the Common App and Coalition App have made it easier than ever to apply to several schools at once. In fact, students applied to an average of 8 universities in 2017, flooding competitive institutions with higher volumes of applications. This number continues to increase due to pandemic-driven test optional admissions policies.

This increased competition is a cycle that feeds itself. Rather than dialing back the number of applications, experts suggest that students apply to 6-12 colleges, especially so for those applying to highly-selective universities. Not to mention that the average price to apply is around $50 PER application. 

3. Higher Tuition

Speaking of costs, paying for college is a lot more expensive today than ever before. Between 2000-2020, tuition increased by 143.7% at private schools, 167.3% for out-of-state, and a whopping 212.6% for in-state on average. 

(This may be a good time to direct you to the University of Michigan’s page on deep breathing exercises.

The point is that these decisions carry more gravity than ever before. In 2019, nearly 70% of students and 14% of parents took out loans to pay for college. The average debt upon graduation was $29,000 per student, and $37,200 for parents. (For more staggering statistics on student debt increases, check these out.) 

What does all this mean? For the majority, the institution they choose comes with a hefty price tag, and there is increased pressure to be realistic about the cost of an education, the ROI of their time and major, and the credibility of the university.  The average time to pay off loans is 21.1 years, meaning that a student could be paying for college for more than two decades past graduation, depending on their circumstances. 

4. Early Decision

Early decision (ED) has actually been around since the 1950s, but the pressure to apply ED has increased over the last couple of decades. Students apply to a single school ED, and if accepted, they are in a binding agreement that they will enroll and withdraw their applications to all other institutions. One caveat. They don’t tell you ahead of time what kind of financial package or aid you will receive. 

It has its advantages, as schools like Harvard have reported selecting roughly half of its freshman class via early decision. Students who truly have the grades and credentials to be a good fit for a highly-selective university should at least consider this option. 

For some, ED is the right choice, but it means that the student and family need to be absolutely sure that this is the right school and program for the applicant, regardless of cost. But despite this not being the right choice for many families and  a lot of negative opinions about the inequality of the system, students today face increased pressure to apply this way due to the competition. 

5. Standardized Testing

Finally, standardized testing has changed college admissions tremendously, and it continues to evolve. Not only has the SAT been redesigned twice in the last 15 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to test-optional policies at the majority of colleges and universities. In fact, this actually increased the competition, as it led to a rise in the number of applicants and competitive universities. Rather than not applying to colleges due to the belief that their test score would exclude them, many students saw test-optional as a chance to show themselves more holistically to top universities.

We won’t say too much more here, but check out our blog on test-optional policies for guidance on whether or not standardized test reporting is a good choice for your family.

So what can you do?

So now that you believe us that modern-day college admissions is a whole new ball game, what can you do about it?

1. Subscribe to this blog!

We are dedicated to writing content that will help guide you through this process. We’ve already written about test optional and college essays, and we’re just getting started. 

Plus, if you have a topic that you want us to cover, just email hello@pittsburghprep.com, and we’ll do our best to answer your questions! 

2. Listen to your college counseling offices.

Do not miss a meeting, and seriously consider what they tell you, even if it doesn’t line up with your original perceptions or expectations. Be open to suggestions, and wiling to listen to experienced professionals in the field.

3. Do your research.

Treat colleges like you want to be treated–as individuals. Pay attention to what they’re looking for specifically, and try to follow their guidelines. 

4. Consider extra support.

Some families need more specialized guidance to go through this process, and hiring an independent college consultant may be the right option for your family. This guidance is tailored to help individual students navigate the process, represent themselves authentically, and bring forth the value they will add to the college setting. Custom programs can start as early as freshman year to help students journey through high school, or be utilized for a few months during senior year. 

Whether you choose to work with us or someone else, we want you to know what kind of additional support is available.  

(I know, I know. We just talked about the serious cost of a college education today. However, in many cases, the cost of a college admissions consultant can actually save money in the long run. A good consultant will offset their own cost by providing opportunities for merit scholarships, as well as guiding the student to thrive in college and avoid major missteps that might cost them an extra semester or year of college.)

5. Avoid too much extra advice.

In recent years, we may have told you to seek advice from someone–such as a family friend–who has gone through the process in the last five years or so.  But things are now shifting so rapidly that we don’t know that it’s the best option. Moral support? Definitely. But when it comes to the actual process, try to stick with the pros.  

Conclusion

Yes, college admissions is more stressful today than ever before, but navigating the process is not impossible.  It’s easy to get frustrated or overwhelmed, but stay focused and don’t be afraid to seek help along the way. 

Speaking of help, remember that Pittsburgh Prep offers comprehensive ACT/SAT Prep courses, personalized Private Tutoring, and College Consulting packages.  We NEVER turn away a student or family due to financial need. 

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