HACKENSACK, N.J. - This year was the most competitive yet for college admissions as the sheer number of students - it's the nation's largest high school graduating class ever - made getting into colleges tougher for students.
The most competitive schools announced their lowest acceptance rates ever - less than 10 percent of applicants to Princeton got in. And the crunch trickled down, reaching big state universities and small private schools, and flooding community colleges with students, too.
Panicked students hedged their bets by applying to more schools than ever in the hope of improving their odds.
Applications to Teaneck-based Fairleigh Dickinson University were up nearly 23 percent this year. The university had 5,976 applicants for 1,065 freshman slots at its two campuses in Bergen and Morris counties.
At Ramapo in Mahwah, N.J., 5,469 students applied for 910 seats.
Rutgers University had more than 40,000 applications for 9,800 freshman spots.
Locally, Gainesville State College has seen its applications rise between 12 and 20 percent over the last several years, said Mack Palmour, director of admissions. And while the college accepts anyone who meets the application criteria, he said that translates into a larger freshman class.
"We're up 15 percent application-wise from where we were last year," he said, adding that the school averages a 50 to 53 percent enrollment rate. "Our total yield rate (freshman admissions) has gone up."
Meridith Charles, head of guidance at Kinnelon (N.J.) High School, said parents and students have become acclimated to the escalating competition and realize that the most selective schools are often out of reach even for the best students.
"The Ivy League numbers are such a gamble it's almost not rational," said Charles. "I think there is an understanding now that, at that level, it's beyond objective."
The average college-bound senior now applies to five to seven colleges, and upward of 32 percent send applications to seven or more schools, according to statistics compiled by the Kaplan Test Prep Co. Some students applied to as many as 15 schools, according to local guidance counselors. One admissions official said he recently spoke with a student who applied to 23 schools.
On top of the "fear factor," students are applying to more schools because it's easier than it once was to do so. Many schools, mostly private, accept something called the Common Application, which can be sent to multiple schools with a few keystrokes. Regardless of ease, the practice of applying to many schools is unlikely to end.
"The kid who is a junior now feels even more pressure than this year's seniors do, having seen some of the results," said Lawrence Mayer, vice principal of guidance services at Tenafly High School.
Students in Tenafly were admitted to every Ivy League school except the University of Pennsylvania, and there were a few "positive surprises," Mayer said.
But overall, "It was absolutely harder than last year, much more competitive," he said. Students with top-notch SAT scores, near-perfect averages and varsity sports records were rejected from their first choices.
One student with a top-five class ranking and 2250 score on the SATs swallowed four rejections from the Ivy League, but did get a full scholarship to another top-tier school.
More students wind up on waiting lists, but those lists are more fluid than in the past because so many students apply to so many more places.
Experts say the waiting list is no longer a dead end. "For students, the big take-away is: if you do get on the wait list, it's not a rejection," said Kristen Campbell, director of testing for Kaplan.