Getting into top American varsities is 'like a crapshoot'
COMPETITION for spots in top United States universities is more cut-throat and anxiety-inducing than ever.
In the just-completed admissions season, Stanford University accepted only 5 per cent of applicants, a new low among the most prestigious schools, with the odds nearly as bad at its elite rivals.
Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are - inevitably - rejecting the vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted.
Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.
Mr Isaac Madrid applied to 11 colleges, a scattershot approach that he said was fairly typical at his private high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory. Students there are all too aware of the long odds against getting into any particular elite university.
"It was a crazy amount of work and stress doing all those essays by the deadline and keeping up with my schoolwork, and waiting on the responses, and we had more than US$800 (S$1,000) in application fees," he said.
Mr Madrid, 18, got a taste of how random the results can seem. He was among the 95 per cent turned away by Stanford, but he got into Yale, which he plans to attend.
Mr Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Pomona College, said he saw "the opposite of a virtuous circle at work" in admissions.
"Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot," he said. "So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps."
Counsellors and admissions officers say that the pool of high-achieving applicants continues to grow, fed partly by a rising number from overseas.
At the same time, students send more applications than they once did, aided by the electronic forms that have become nearly universal, and uniform applications that can make adding one more college to the list just a matter of a click.
Students applying to seven or more colleges made up just 9 per cent of the applicant pool in 1990, but accounted for 29 per cent in 2011, according to surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and counsellors and admissions officers say they think the figure has gone even higher.
This was the second year in a row that Stanford had the worst odds of admission among top colleges, a title that in previous years was usually claimed by Harvard.
Stanford dean Richard Shaw said he could not predict where the rates would bottom out - in fact, he never expected them to go as low as they have.
"Honestly," he said, "I'm sort of in shock."