Swamped with applications, the nation’s top-flight colleges and universities have done what many high school students and their parents thought was impossible.

They’ve become even choosier.

The Ivy League has more students than ever applying with perfect grades and a raft of extracurricular work. Many other top schools have become nearly as selective.

Even “safety schools” — where the parents of today’s high school students knew they’d get in, even if their dreams of admission to Harvard or Stanford or MIT didn’t pan out — have become picky enough to make the spring college-admission season that ends today, with the deadline for students to let colleges know if they’ll enroll, a season of rejection even for many bright high-schoolers.

Didn’t get into Cal Tech or MIT and expected to settle for Pomona or Johns Hopkins? You were likely to be disappointed. The average SAT scores of students accepted to the small California college and the well-known Baltimore university have soared above 1,420. Admission rates at each are near-equal to some of the Ivies.

Thinking of a place that is small but prestigious? You might need to present yourself as just as much of a catch as those of your parents’ generation did to get into the Ivies. Consider Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. The average SAT score there: around 1,450.

“If you had the highest grade-point, the highest test scores . . . I could not guarantee a student’s admittance,” Melanie Leach, a college consultant at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, says of getting into what she calls “holy grail” schools such as the Ivy League, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Stanford, Duke and Georgetown.

Even among the best high school students, there are “no clear admits” to top colleges today, says Jim Mohan, director of guidance at Hinsdale Central High School.

“You could be class valedictorian and have three patents,” Mohan says, and there’s still no guarantee you’d be accepted.

That’s thanks in large measure to the Echo Boom — the result of Baby Boomers putting off having children. Those kids are now coming of college age. That’s fueled steady growth in the number of high-school graduates nationwide since 1994, even as the number of spaces in college hasn’t significantly changed. The U.S. Department of Education expects the number of high-school grads to keep growing throughout the coming decade.

But it’s not just that there are more kids of college age. Their aspirations have grown, too, often in line with the growing affluence of many of their parents, who could afford to send them to the best summer schools and get them classes or tutors to coach them on how to do well on the standardized admissions tests, the SAT and ACT. More of these students want to go to college.

And more want to go to what they view as the best colleges.

They’re conscious of “brand names,” says Rebecca Dixon, associate provost of enrollment for Northwestern University.

“Ninety percent of them want the same 10 percent of schools,” says Jim Conroy, chair of post-high school counseling at New Trier High School in Winnetka.

That’s brought a flood of additional applicants at many of the nation’s elite universities and also a trickle-down to other colleges, as students, parents and high school counselors recognize the increased competition and try to hedge their bets to make sure they ultimately get in somewhere.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign got 20,000 applications this year — up from 19,000 last year and 15,000 in 1992. About 12,000 were accepted. Of those, 6,200 actually are expected to enroll, including an extra 100 freshman slots added to accommodate increased demand for admission to the university’s coveted engineering school.

Also, the U. of I. has decided for the first time to have a wait list, says Ruth Vedvik, director of admissions and records. That reflects not just the growing number of students applying but also that more of them are applying to multiple schools as a way of ensuring they will get in somewhere.

Becky Long, a senior at Barrington High School who is active in dance groups and scored 1,500 on the SAT, applied to eight colleges even though she had her hopes set on just one: Yale, where her sister went.

She got into seven. Yale put her on its wait list. If enough students accepted by Yale decide to go elsewhere, Long still could get in. She’ll know in June.

Some top schools are actually accepting fewer students.

The University of Chicago saw 7,455 students apply this year and accepted about 3,000 for admission — 50 fewer than last year — though the number expected to enroll — 1,070 — is the same. That’s because more of those who apply to the U. of C. are deciding to go there, says Ted O’Neill, dean of admissions.

The stress that’s a part of the college admissions race takes a toll, educators say.

For Long, the worst of it came when she was writing the essays to go with her applications. “It’s really hard to write one that’s going to stand out,” she says.

Most people would think she did great, getting into so many colleges and ending up choosing the highly regarded University of Virginia. Still, she can’t help thinking about the one that she didn’t get into.

“I did everything that I could do,” says Long. “It was disheartening not to get into Yale.”

Colin Beazley, a senior at Barrington High School, applied to nine schools. With Advanced Placement classes — college-level courses which many high schools give added weight to in figuring a student’s grade-point average — boosting his GPA to 4.33, an SAT score of 1,290 and work beyond the classroom that included being president of the student council, an editor on the school newspaper and playing on the varsity soccer and tennis teams, Beazley thought he had a good chance to get into any of his colleges.

Then, he started asking around and doing more research, and says, “It dawned on me how difficult it would be to be accepted.”

He ended up being offered admission to Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University and Middlebury College in Vermont. He was wait-listed at Boston College and the University of Michigan. Duke, Georgetown and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill all sent the dreaded thin envelope that meant rejection.

He’ll go to Northwestern — unless Boston College offers him a spot off its wait list.

For students who have worked hard to learn all they could and to stand out in high school, being rejected by the college of their dreams marks “the first time they’ve done everything right, and it doesn’t work out for them,” says Leach, at Stevenson High.

It can be just as hard on the parents, who in some cases have been dreaming since their kids were babies about how one day they’d go to Harvard, says Conroy, at New Trier.

Then, if your daughter or son doesn’t get in, “It’s one of those times in your life when you can’t do anything to make it better,” agrees Leach.

Carolyn Yousse is a Chicago-area freelance writer.

 

How to boost your odds of getting into a college

What can you do to improve your chances of getting into a top university?

Here’s advice culled from college and university admissions officers, high school guidance counselors and students who’ve made it:

Studying hard’s not enough. Everybody who seriously thinks they can get into the most-selective colleges is doing that.

Colleges “want students who are looking beyond themselves,” says Bruce Scher, a college consultant at Barrington High School. Students can show that through the ways they choose to spend their time outside the classroom, says Scher, who recommends doing volunteer work.

Cultivate your teachers in high school. Get to know them. Let them get to know you beyond the grades on your tests. The reference letters they write for you could be the thing that clinches it for you with an admissions officer, says Melanie Leach, a college consultant at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

“Colleges highly value self-motivated learners,” says Charles Melby-Thompson, a senior at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana.

In high school, he’s pursued passions for cello, physics and computers. Princeton University — his top choice for college — liked the total package he offered. He’ll be going there in the fall.

It’s great that you’ve wanted to go to Stanford since you were a little kid. But if you’re bright enough to be a serious candidate, you should also be smart enough to know it’s no sure thing. Lots more people are applying to such schools these days. So work with your high school guidance office to make sure you have the best information you can get on the admissions process, says Leach.

And have a plan B — and C and D and E — in mind by applying to several schools.

“Apply to your ideal school, leave yourself a safety school, and don’t get your heart set on one school,” suggests Becky Long, a senior at Barrington High School who got into seven of the eight colleges she applied to — but not Yale, the one she’d set her heart on.

If you can’t help but have your heart set on one school, and you’re certain you’ll say yes to the school if it says yes to you, consider applying for “early decision.” That’s one way you can show you’re really passionate about going to that school. Rebecca Dixon, associate provost of enrollment at Northwestern, says her school’s admissions team “is looking for a passion for Northwestern.”

Carolyn Yousse

 

Princeton grad sees college admission getting harder

How tough is it to get into a top university these days?

John Melby had top high school grades, a passion for music and the drive that got him in to Princeton University for graduate school from 1968 to 1972.

He later taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he’s now an emeritus professor of music.

But could he have gotten in to Princeton as an undergrad today, as his son, Charles Melby-Thompson, just did?

Melby’s not sure.

There’s good reason for yesterday’s college graduates to wonder if they could win admission to those same schools today.

They well might, says Rebecca Dixon, associate provost of enrollment for Northwestern University. But, says Dixon, Northwestern alumni would find the school’s current admittance criteria — which include not only grades, test scores and extracurricular activities but also signs of “extra initiative” — “more selective than in years past.”

Carolyn Yousse