High school seniors are applying to more colleges than ever, inflating the competition at all levels and heightening the suspense for students and admissions officials looking to fill spots in the next freshman class.
With the click of a mouse on the Common Application and other popular online forms, students are flooding multiple schools at once to hedge against the increasing unpredictability of the process.
Colleges, too, say they are having to work harder in the courtship, engaging the prospects earlier and more often to determine who will say "yes" to their offers.
"It started at the elite schools. But as more students get shut out of those schools, there's a trickle-down effect happening, raising the profile of the less competitive schools," said Don Fraser, director of education and training at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). "All of a sudden, in the eyes of the public, your school is more competitive. But it really isn't."
As January and February deadlines for regular-decision applications near, students are in the final phase of crafting sometimes soul-baring essays and answering questions on colleges' supplemental applications. Since the school year began, they have lined up teacher recommendations and academic transcripts, and many took the SAT and ACT a second or third time hoping to improve earlier scores.
The annual college-app marathon is arduous and exhausting for students, their families and guidance counselors across Long Island, an area well-known for its high-achieving applicants.
"Everybody has great grades. Everyone has perfect SAT scores. Everyone has a million extracurricular activities, so the hard thing is figuring out how to set yourself apart and be the person that the college wants on their campus," said Erin Connolly, 17, a senior at The Wheatley School. "I've lost countless hours thinking about what to write and how I'm going to express myself."
The NACAC's 2012 State of College Admission Report found that the national average acceptance rate for four-year colleges declined from 69.6 percent in 2002 to 63.8 percent in 2011. The drop was most pronounced at highly selective colleges, which receive a disproportionately high volume of applicants compared with the number they enroll.
With students seeking to improve their chances for top schools, the volume of applications from each student has risen dramatically for a number of freshman spots that has remained relatively steady. Students are also taking advantage of a nearly complete transition to online applications from paper and the popularity of the Common Application, which is accepted at nearly 500 colleges and allows them to apply to up to 20 schools at once with one form. Other forms include the Universal College Application, which has 44 member colleges, and the Edu Inc. Common Black College Application, which has 35.
Most colleges -- more than 80 percent -- charge an average application fee of $40. Many top schools charge $75 to $100.
Acceptance rates shrinkingAs acceptance rates shrink, students look to more "safety schools," expanding the applicant pool at second- and third-tier institutions that in the past they might not have considered, NACAC researchers said.
Many Long Island universities, including Hofstra, Adelphi and LIU Post, have seen a steady rise in applicants in recent years. Stony Brook University has seen one of the largest jumps; the public research university receives 28,000 annual applications, up from 18,000 seven years ago, officials said, and from students with better credentials every year.
After all, one student's "reach school" is another student's "safety school" -- the top and the bottom of an applicant's college list.
Connolly, of Old Westbury, is working with a private college consultant to help her apply to the seven schools on her list, including Wake Forest University, Tufts University, Boston College, Binghamton University and the University of Delaware.
As the application process has become more complex, the practice of families hiring outside experts has become more commonplace, particularly in areas where families can afford the price tag -- anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.
Michael Binder, a former marketing executive from Woodbury, launched a business called Your College Navigator four years ago after successfully helping his children and a few others through the application process. He has personally visited more than 75 college campuses and carved a niche for himself in the growing cottage industry.
This fall, Binder gave free talks at several libraries across Long Island, drawing students and their parents from districts such as Garden City, Huntington, Harborfields, Locust Valley, South Huntington and Syosset -- all hoping to get a few inside tips on the process. He charges private clients up to $5,000, he said.
He offered this overall assessment: The overwhelming majority of students don't know what they are looking for in a college. If they did, they wouldn't need to apply to so many safety schools.
"It isn't about getting in to a college. It is about fitting in to the college," Binder said. "But first you need to know who you are -- and then you need to know who they are."
The majority of families take on the process themselves.
Dawn Mellish Brown, a physician from West Hempstead, has triplet sons all applying to college at once.
"This has forced me to put forth some extra resilience that I didn't know I had," Brown said. "It wasn't like this when I was going to school, and I didn't know how overwhelming it was going to be."
While many of her colleagues hire private consultants, it would be too expensive to do that for all three children, especially because application fees alone will total thousands of dollars, Brown said.
So Brown scours newspapers, magazines and the Internet looking for advice and college fairs to attend with sons Richard, Andrew and Kevin, such as a recent event at Adelphi.
"When you read that these schools have acceptance rates of 10 to 30 percent, it really makes you nervous," she said. "You can't really bank on any one school, and you don't want to be left with nowhere to send them."
Financial aid possibilities also play a big role, families said.
Financial aid mattersJessica Byrne, 17, a senior at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, said she and classmates are looking for the best buy in a college, but one must apply first to learn what aid a school will offer.
"I want to have a broad enough spectrum because I need financial aid, and if where I want to go can't give enough money, I need backup options," said Byrne, of Levittown.
The application bubble has given rise to new admissions practices, too. With so many applicants flowing through the system, it is harder for colleges to figure out who will eventually enroll on their campuses.
During the past decade, the percentage of U.S. colleges offering students the Early Action application option increased from 18 percent to 31 percent.
During the same time, the number of colleges that offered early decision, which legally binds the student, remained relatively constant, at about 20 percent.
College officials in the past few years have begun "on-the-spot" admissions for students at events or campus visits. Another new practice includes "priority" or what sometimes is called "VIP" applications that schools send directly to prescreened students who meet basic qualifications. Both methods are used in some form by about a quarter of four-year colleges, the study said.
Even when students apply early, it's difficult to gauge how interested they are in that particular school, some college admissions officers said.
"They're getting into the hopper early, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to come," said Matthew Whelan, associate provost for enrollment and retention management at Stony Brook. The university stopped offering the Early Action option, he said, "because there was little statistical benefit."
The admissions office at Stony Brook uses complex mathematical concepts to determine how to hit its annual enrollment target but there's still a lot of uncertainty, Whelan said.
"You can't always use statistics to predict human behavior," he said.
The volume of extra material students send to colleges to stand out -- websites, supplemental essays, athletic videos -- in addition to the application forms, test scores and transcripts -- also puts a greater burden on high school faculty and staff.
"It's really a team effort to get a student into college, from the teachers and coaches writing recommendations to the guidance counselors sending the transcripts. It's a lot more work for everyone," said Greg Wasserman, a guidance counselor at The Wheatley School.
"If a kid doesn't get in, I can give him all the stats in the world about how competitive it was, but it doesn't change anything," Wasserman said. "You're talking about validating an entire high school career and self-worth in this one acceptance."