The Waiting Game


Today, May 1st, is the day by which prospective college freshman must “commit,” – that is, they must click on the box that initiates the enrollment process. Writing that deposit check is hard enough for parents, but for many ambitious students, the uncertainty continues.  They are “waitlisted” all over.  Many of these students have applied to 12 or more schools. At this late date, colleges they thought would embrace them have neither accepted them nor rejected them, but invited them to remain in limbo until the schools can sort out who is coming, and who will never give them a backward glance. In the meantime, many over-qualified students will send non-refundable deposits to their safety schools, praying that before they pack their duffel bags, they’ll have a better option. For families, this process generates emotional havoc, loads of paperwork and unnecessary expense. It is easy to pin the blame on colleges, because they profit so greatly from the increased size of the pool, both in terms of the revenues they collect from application fees and in terms of their reputation. More applications make them appear more selective, meaning that they will rise in prestige and national rankings.  One could point a finger at The Common App Online, which in the last 14 years has simplified the process of applying to college, capping the number of applications that may be submitted at 20. Through an affiliated payment system, many colleges collect $50 to $100 per application. From this total, the Common App nets a fee of between $4 and $4.75.

But neither the Common App nor the colleges should be held responsible. The problem begins at homes like ours, where college prospects are discussed ad nauseam at the dinner table. The anxiety-provoking online forums of, obsessively followed by striving high school students, make it worse. In some exclusive prep schools, limits on applications are imposed, to avoid cannibalizing precious spots, but generally, students are free to apply to as many schools as they wish. Most don’t go hog wild:  According to Robert Killion, the executive director of the Common App, the average number of applications per student is just 4.6. But, noted Mr. Killion in email, there are the 2.6 percent of applicants – about 20,000 kids – who apply to ten or more schools. About 7,000 kids apply to more than 15.

These "high submitters," observed Mr. Killion, are statistically more likely to be white or Asian, more likely to attend a private school, and more likely to have parents with college degrees. A private college counselor in my region, employed by many public school families with highly selective university ambitions, recommends that students submit to 12 schools, although many clients opt for 16 applications, to “play it safe.”

In the end, it is not safe, nor fair. The proliferation of applications to selective schools serves no one. Ideally, just as parents monitor other aspects of their teenagers’ lives, we should limit the number of applications a son or daughter can make. In reality, when “everybody else is doing it,” this is going to be a hard sell.

According to Mr. Killion, The Common App is studying the problem. Last week, the organization sent out a survey to its advisors, asking whether the maximum number of applications ought to be capped at nine or ten. But what about the cash flow?  Although Mr. Killion assured me that money was definitely not a factor in maintaining the status quo, the statistics would suggest otherwise. In the 2011-12 admissions cycle, The Common App processed 2.75 million applications, from 660,000 users. That generated around $11.7 million in revenue, paying the salaries of 30 full-time staff. (Members of the organization’s board of directors and its advisors are unpaid.) Over the next two years, the organization proposes to invest $7 million in a new version of the App, streamlining the process further. It is hard to say how much colleges make from these applications, given overhead requirements. But it’s a good bet that the 17,006 apps that Emory University took in, yielding a class of 1,357, or the 42,242 that NYU received, for a class with 4,700 seats, helped to keep the lights on.

The Common App should indeed cap the number of applications at nine or ten. This can be achieved without affecting how most students will apply.  The 2.6 percent of students whose stacks of applications are gumming up the works would be compelled to research their options more thoughtfully, but that’s not a bad idea, given the potential for ballooning student loan burdens. In the future, some students will still find themselves on waiting lists, but appropriately, these lists will belong to their “reach” schools.  At the beginning of April, more students will be offered places at the schools they’d actually like to attend. And as parents, we could enjoy our kids’ last moments under our wings and at our dinner tables.