Just as the sons and daughters of a wave of baby boomers are coming of age, U.S. News and World Report and a slew of others have marketed their ranking systems to ambitious applicants. Colleges try to attract many applicants, then reject as many as nine of ten in the admissions process.
Most highly selective colleges now accept a third or less fewer of their applicants. The Ivy League universities accepted less fewer than 10 percent this year. Between 2002 and 2008, the Johns Hopkins University saw an 80 percent increase in applications.
But rankings have contributed to the competitiveness by giving weight to the number of students a university turns down each year. So the more applications a college receives, the higher its ranking. Even colleges that turn down 90 percent of applicants recruit heavily.
Using lists supplied by the College Board, institutions target students with high test scores and the right demographics, sending them brochures, letters, postcards and e-mails. Some students receive mail nearly every day for a year from hundreds of colleges, shopping bags full in a couple months time.
"From an admissions perspective, it is not necessarily about getting more and more applications," said Angel Perez, an admissions officer at Pitzer College in California. "Everyone is really worried that applications will go down and they won't have the quality they want."
While the highest achievers will aim for the top-ranked schools, this mania does not affect most high school seniors. They apply to less competitive universities and colleges which take 50 percent or 70 percent of applicants. Admissions officers like to point out that the majority of seniors will be admitted to their first-choice college.
To be competitive at the highly selective schools, though, students will try to get straight As in the most rigorous classes. "Their whole schedule is based on their resume," said Tony Sohn, an AP economics teacher at Pikesville High School. From sophomore year on, students load up on Advanced Placement classes to gain points that will raise their class rank, a crucial factor in college admissions.
In a typical suburban high school, about 25 to 30 kids in a class of 330 will have a perfect A average by the end of junior year, according to a guidance counselor at such a school.
To impress admissions officers, students believe they must add a string of extracurricular activities to that schedule. They play musical instruments, take part in school plays, become star athletes and write for a school publication, sometimes all at the same time.
"There is a culture that you participate in outside activities. School ends at 2:15 p.m., but no one ever goes home," said Rebecca Suldan, a senior at Pikesville who is choosing between Yale and Princeton.
By junior year, many families start visiting colleges. Students who take a liking to a certain campus may up their chances by applying early decision. If a student gets in early, he or she is committed to going to that school and must withdraw all other applications, unless the family does not get enough financial aid.
Why limit yourself to one choice? The odds. Yale accepted 13.4 percent or 742 of its early applicants, a much smaller percentage than a year ago, but far better than its overall 7 percent acceptance rate. Some families use the strategy not just because it will give them a better chance of admission but because they believe it reduces the pressure on their children.
Leslie Monfred was pleased her family's admissions strategy had paid off. Her son, Jon Monfred, had applied to the University of Pennsylvania early, when the odds are best. He had visited only two colleges rather than traveling across the country as some families did, she said, and his early acceptance meant he didn't have to prepare another application or worry for months. She saw in her son only a "normal amount of apprehension" as the Dec. 15th deadline for early admissions decisions approached.
Two of Jon's classmates chose to apply regular decision to a dozen or more schools to widen their possibilities. Not only might they be surprised on April 1 by the choices, they may pay less money because they will see which colleges offer more merit scholarships and financial aid.
By applying to Tufts early decision, Andrew Lutz increased the odds that he would get in, but he might have reduced the chance to get financial aid there. Colleges know that an applicant is committed to coming if admitted early, so they are less likely to give money as an incentive.
When Andrew received his financial aid package, it was "zero," said his mother, Helene Lutz, making her thumb and finger into a perfect 0.
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, however, wanted Andrew. It offered an $88,000 merit scholarship over four years. Andrew might have been more inclined to go there if he had actually been to visit the school. But by the time he got a financial aid offer, the colleges had let out for the winter break and would not return until after Jan. 15, the date that Andrew would have to put down a deposit on Tufts.
Helen Lutz called it the family's "$90,000 mistake." Andrew might well have ended up at Tufts even if he had made a trip to Cleveland, but the error illustrates how even the most strategic-thinking families can be left wishing they had taken one more step.
Acing multiple tests is another way to play the game well. Kevin Chow started at age 11 by taking a prep course for the SAT he would take in high school. By sixth grade he dreamed of Stanford. By senior year at Pikesville, he was applying early to beat the admissions odds, submitting his near perfect scores. It worked.
While he acknowledges that that may have been extreme, most students applying to college now take a course before they sit for the SAT. Baltimore County, for instance, requires nearly every junior to take the half-year course. Many students go far beyond, spending $1,000 or more to enroll in six- or eight-week courses that are supposed to raise their scores.
And there's not just one test to take. Some students choose to take both the SAT and the ACT, another standardized test popular in the West, and submit the one on which they do best. on. In addition, students spend weeks studying for the Advanced Placement exams, taken each May in the subjects they have studied. If they score well enough, some colleges will give them credit, but more importantly, a high score might impress an admissions officer.
The third set of popular exams are the SAT subject tests, designed to measure how well a student has grasped the material in, say, biology or French. Some colleges require students to take at least two or even three of those. Rebecca Suldan took an SAT subject test in Hebrew.
When Nataniel Mandelberg managed to get a perfect 800 on each of the three parts of the SAT, he pulled off a rare feat. The College Board reported that only 294 of the 1.3 million students in the graduating class of 2008 scored that well. Still, its likely there are a couple dozen students with perfect scores in any metropolitan area. And there are several thousand students in a given year who are able to get an 800 on one test.