One recent afternoon, Kimberly Pollock visited the college counseling office at the Derryfield School, a small independent day school set on 84 wooded acres in Manchester, N.H. It had come time to talk number of applications, and the senior honors student was starting to wonder about her list.
At other elite high schools around the country – the kinds of places that, like Derryfield, boast crew teams and dignified crests and annual tuition north of $25,000 – students are applying to 12, 15, even 20 colleges this fall, fueling a high-stress admissions arms race that shows no signs of slowing.
Even Kimberly's supportive mother, a nurse at a Harvard-affiliated hospital, succumbed to the pressure. Her bedroom is crammed with books on how to craft the perfect essay and talk to the dean.
Kimberly had settled on a reasonable, realistic list of five schools she loved. Still, on the day she met guidance counselor Brennan Barnard, she was having second thoughts.
"Is this a thoughtful list?' Barnard asked.
"That's all that matters."
And just like that, a measure of sanity was restored to the process of applying to college.
Like never before, college admissions are being driven by big numbers and an appetite for prestige. As more students compete for slots and colleges go to greater lengths to compete for students, it's become easier for students to over-apply and harder to get into the most selective schools.
"As acceptance rates go lower, families feel like they have to make it up with quantity," said Michael Acquilano, college counselor at Staten Island Academy, a private college prep school in New York. "They throw 15 applications out there and see what goes in."
The growth of the Common Application – which makes it possible to apply to more schools with a touch of a button – plus easy online applications and some colleges' aggressive marketing of free "fast apps" that arrive unsolicited in students' mailboxes are all contributing to the rise in applications.
Colleges want to boast about how sought-after and selective they are – and possibly move up the U.S. News and World Report rankings that hold sway over so many families. Admissions officers that don't keep numbers up run the risk of unemployment and lower bond ratings for their schools.
The result: 23 percent of high school seniors applied to six or more colleges last year, a huge jump from 13 percent in 2000, according to surveys of college freshmen by the University of California, Los Angeles.
The consequences range from stressed-out 17-year-olds to parents spending needlessly in a struggling economy to colleges that have no idea how many applicants actually want to enroll. That has contributed to longer waiting lists and a whole new cycle of confusion and stress for everyone.
A small but determined group is going in the opposite direction: Families more concerned with finding a good match than the most impressive bumper sticker. Colleges making it harder instead of easier to apply. And high-school counselors getting through with the message that less is more.
The Derryfield School looks like it ought to be an accessory to application proliferation.
It was founded in 1964 by 39 families who wanted rigorous college prep and small classes but also dinner at home with their kids instead of boarding school.
The school has a sculpture garden, new turf field and strong tradition in athletics and the arts. The crew team trains at the Amoskeag Rowing Club on a five-mile stretch of the Merrimack River. The comedian Sarah Silverman is a graduate. Tuition is $25,200.
Not surprisingly, the wealthiest students are most responsible for the more-is-better application trend, according to the UCLA research. Almost 4 in 10 students from families that earn $250,000 or more apply to six or more schools. Because many low-income students get their application fees waived, those in the middle – in the $40,000 to $75,000 income bracket – are least likely to be serial applicants.
Wary of becoming a pressure cooker, the Derryfield School adopted an approach to the college search in keeping with one of its core values: "Aim high and balance."
Barnard said students start hearing about the college application timeline when they're freshmen. As juniors, they fill out a 6-page questionnaire meant to identify their values.
The message: The process should be fun, not stressful. It's a time to learn about yourself and develop life skills like decision-making, researching, interviewing and networking.
"It's a fine line," Barnard said. "You don't want to start too early and create anxiety. But with a lack of any kind of information or guidance, they tend to buy into the cultural norm and pressures that get built up through the press and through cocktail parties."
One or two Derryfield kids blast out 15 applications each year, he said. But they're the exception. The average for the senior class has held steady in recent years at six or seven.
Like most college counselors, Barnard urges balance: Identify schools you're legitimately interested in and find a range of schools that are reaches, toss-ups and likely to accept.
"Just because you apply to more schools doesn't mean your chances are better," he said. "You can apply to 20 of the most selective schools in the country and still not get in."
Simple enough, but not always easy to follow.
Kimberly Pollock felt the pressure. An A-minus student, ski team member and defender on the Division IV state champion soccer team, Kimberly heard about classmates applying to nine or ten schools. While at an overnight, a friend's father wondered aloud whether she was pushing herself hard enough.
She, like other classmates, received a few "fast apps" from colleges seeking to boost their application volume and profiles – a growing trend that guidance counselors deride as "crap apps." The offers typically involve waived application fees and essays, and promises of a quick answer.
"I put them in the recycling bin," Kimberly said. "I think you should find the school rather than the school finding you."
She was intent on finding a place where she could fit in, where it just felt right. Her top choices are St. Lawrence University and Colgate University, both in New York state. She also plans to apply to the University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire and Cornell, her "reach."
"I said to her at dinner one night, 'I made a checklist. Don't you think you want to consider eight or nine?'" said her mother, Mary Pollock. "She said, 'Why do you want to waste your money?'
"And I thought, 'She has more sense than half of America.'"
The drawbacks to applying to an excessive number of colleges are many, counselors say.
There's cost in time and dollars. The average application fee is about $40, according to the College Board. It's $90 to apply to Stanford. That adds up, especially in this economy.
Danya Berry, college liaison at Dayton Early College Academy, a charter school in Dayton, Ohio, said money is the largest factor holding her average applications per student between three and five.
"You don't want to commit that many dollars for application fees," said Berry, who works in an urban area in which 80 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. "But we're also are trying to combat applying to these reach schools, and focusing on schools where you have a shot."
There's the law of diminishing returns: The more colleges in play, the harder it is to write quality essays or get even basic information right.
Jim Miller, the University of Wisconsin Superior's coordinator of enrollment research, has read applications that sing the praises of the school – and get the school's name wrong.
"I question sometimes whether the student is just playing the game," said Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "It isn't a game to be won as much as it is a match to be made."
Jasper Lee attends what is considered one of the nation's best public high schools: Hunter College High School in New York City, a magnet school that students must test into.
The school says it caps private college and university applications at eight per student to encourage careful consideration and assure colleges of genuine interest.
Many seniors save slots for the Ivy League, befitting for a school that produced Supreme Court justice (and Princeton and Harvard law grad) Elena Kagan.
So when Jasper told a fellow senior he was applying early decision to Wake Forest – meaning he would be locked into attending if accepted – he got a perplexed look.
"I was looking for somewhere I could be myself and not this crazy Hunter invention," Jasper said.
He likes the outdoors – he fishes for bonefish in the Bahamas with his father and volunteers for a program helping wounded war veterans fly fish – and wanted to be near friends and family.
Jasper's father, Howard Smiley, said he has tried to make the college search not seem like life and death. On a college tour through North Carolina, father and son went whitewater rafting.
"Look, parents are wacky," said Smiley, a consultant and former record label marketing executive. "You always want what's best for your kid. The pressure, it comes from parents, it comes from peers, where the kids almost have to say, 'I'm applying to Harvard.'
"A lot of kids, I think they'd be happy in another environment."
By chance, Jasper Lee chose one of the few schools trying to calm the admissions waters.
In 2008, Wake Forest made fundamental changes in how it screens applicants. It made SAT scores optional, beefed up its essay questions and asked students to interview face-to-face or online.
Short-answer questions encourage students to design a fantasy class or name a final "Jeopardy" category that would ensure his or her victory ("The Carter Family Songbook," wrote one fan of old-timey music).
Some in the university community worried application numbers would drop – and they did plateau at 10,500 after going up 16 percent the first year the school went test-optional, said Martha Allman, the dean of admissions. Some of Wake's peer schools receive 40,000 applications.
"We began saying to anyone who would listen that the number of applications do not really denote the quality of the school," Allman said. "We want serious applications."
Wake took inspiration from Tufts University, a pioneer in asking more of its applicants. In 2006, the university adopted an approach that uses standard measures such as test scores and grade point average but also tries to draw out creativity, practicality and wisdom – yes, wisdom, from a 17-year-old.
The approach, called "Kaleidoscope," was the brainchild of then-Tufts arts and sciences dean Robert Sternberg, who writes about it in a new book, "College Admissions for the 21st Century."
The Tufts-specific supplement to the Common Application asks standard questions such as "Why Tufts?" and "What makes you tick?"
It's the optional essay section where things get interesting. The first year, students could imagine how the world would be different if Rosa Parks had given up her bus seat.
Last year, Kermit the Frog made an appearance in a question: "He once lamented, 'It's not easy being green.' Do you agree?"
Admissions dean Lee Coffin expected answers about the environment – and there were plenty. But others wrote about being different, inexperienced or green with envy. One applicant wrote about being gay.
Making it harder to apply comes at a price. While other applications to other colleges have shattered records, Tufts applications have plateaued at about 15,000, Coffin said. At the same time, more accepted students are enrolling and applicants' mean SAT scores are up.
Tufts remains exceptionally hard to get into. It accepted 24.5 percent of class of 2014 applicants.
While it's easier to apply to a multitude of schools with a keystroke, Coffin sees that as providing an opening to colleges who want to be unconventional. Because students don't have to bang out 10 unique applications, a thought-provoking extra essay question isn't asking too much, he said.
"It feels like we are at a moment where colleges could say, 'You know, we need a little bit more of you in this folder,'" Coffin said. "There are very few places saying that, though."
Indeed, most colleges are making it easier to apply.
This fall, the University of Pennsylvania did away with a legendary optional essay question that asked students to write page 217 of their imagined autobiography. School officials said they were getting enough from a more general essay question and the workload had become too much for admissions staff.
Schools such as Middlebury, Colby and Trinity colleges all have dropped essay questions from their Common Application supplemental forms.
Ann Wright, the College Board's vice president for the Southwest region, said it will be very difficult to scale down college applications given the era's intense competition.
"I do think there's always a tipping point," she said, "where it's just too much and you begin to see not just a few people but a lot of people recognizing things have gone too far."