Students send in more college applications today than they did eight years ago, according to a Common Application analysis released Monday. And the students driving up the average are overwhelmingly applying to selective private institutions.
Those facts aren't surprising on their face. Admissions officers have long discussed a trend of students applying to more colleges, fueled in part by the growth of the Common App, which now counts more than 1,000 member colleges and handled submissions from over 1.2 million unique applicants in 2021-22.
But the new analysis adds important details about how high-volume application behavior is changing, which students are sending in a large number of applications, and which colleges are seeing their application totals rise.
These are important factors, because more applications per student can cut multiple ways for colleges. It can add to downward price pressures if families cross-shop different financial aid offers, and it can make it harder to predict how many applicants will show up in the fall after they're admitted.
But higher ed leaders generally want more students to apply to their colleges. Common App argues more applications per student give institutions exposure to a greater pool so they can better shape their entering classes. It touts recent research finding a 12% increase in applications for colleges that joined its platform.
Growth among Common App members and a trend toward eliminating application fees mean applications per student could continue to go up in the future.
"At least on the Common App platform, it is likely that we will see more continuing growth in applications per applicant in the coming seasons," Common App's analysis said.
Below are some key findings from the Common App's analysis, plus important details about them.
High-volume applicants are driving up averages
The average applicant submitted 6.22 applications in the 2021-22 admissions cycle, Common App found. That number has climbed steadily over the years from 4.63 in 2013-14.
But students sending large numbers of applications is still far from the norm. More than half of applicants sent materials to five or fewer Common App members.
Most students submit 1-5 college applications
The share of students applying to more than 10 colleges shot up from 8% to 17% between 2014-15 and 2021-22.
Even among those high-volume applicants, growth skews toward the upper end of the distribution. In 2013-14, only 0.4% of applicants applied to 20 institutions. By 2021-22, the share applying to 20 was 1.8%.
Common App has capped the number of applications from a student at 20 per admissions cycle since 1998.
Private high school students, early decision applicants and international students tended to apply to more colleges
Common App contrasted those who applied to fewer than five colleges with those who applied to 15 or more. The resulting picture of high-volume applicants includes some factors that correlate with wealth and a high level of access to higher education.
High-volume applicants were 2 1/2 times as likely to attend a private high school as those who applied to fewer than five colleges. They were six times as likely to have applied under an early decision plan at least once.
Those who received fee waivers applied more frequently, which Common App said might be a result of the waivers removing a financial barrier to submitting multiple applications. For institutions that charge, application fees average about $50. Students in the Northeast were likely to submit a higher number of applications, which could be related to the fact that the region is densely populated with four-year institutions.
"Proximity is a primary determinant of where applicants are likely to apply, so it is expected that having fewer options within one’s geographic region would tend to predict less high-volume application activity," the analysis said.
International students posted higher application rates than domestic students. They also post higher standardized test scores, on average. But even considering their high scores, international applicants appeared more likely to submit materials to more colleges, Common App found.
A third of those applying 20 times are international applicants. That’s compared to just 10% of those sending fewer applications.
Private high school, international and early decision students submitted the most college applications
High-volume applicants tend to post high standardized test scores
High-volume applicants were eight times as likely to submit test scores when applying to institutions that allowed them to do so, compared to those who submitted five or fewer applications. They also posted higher scores — their reported scores averaged 130 points more than their lower-volume peers after adjusting ACT scores to the SAT scale.
Starting at a standardized test score of about 1200, high scores are associated with more applications per student. The phenomenon continues up to scores of 1500 or higher — a level hit by 6.3% of applicants using the Common App platform in 2021-22.
The highest-scoring applicants submitted roughly four more applications per student than those with scores below 1200.
Students with high standardized test scores submit more college applications
Standardized testing changed drastically during the pandemic, which supercharged the test-optional admissions movement as many institutions dropped score requirements when students struggled to find testing sites. Many colleges have since maintained test-optional admissions.
In 2019-20, before the explosion of test-optional policies, 55% of Common App members required standardized test scores. Just 5% of applicants did so in 2021-22.
Over the last two years, the number of applications per student grew fastest among students who did not submit scores and those who reported scores of 1400 or more.
But the high-scoring applicants still submitted to far more institutions. Their rates rose from about seven applications per student in 2019-20 to more than eight in 2021-22. Students without test scores submitted between four and five applications in 2019-20, on average, and just under six in 2021-22.
High-volume applicants are flooding private, selective colleges
Whether measuring an institution's selectivity by admit rate or average standardized test score, selective colleges' applicant pools were made up of students who submitted three more applications, on average, than less selective colleges.
"As the chances of admission to any single institution are more uncertain, the overall odds of admission to at least one can be increased by submitting more applications," the analysis said. "Naturally, this effect would tend to result in a greater concentration of high-volume applicants in the pools of the most selective members."
Selective colleges' applicants submitted a larger number of applications
Private colleges averaged 1.36 more applications per student than public institutions. Common App said applicants who want lower in-state tuition are less likely to consider colleges beyond their home state's borders.
Special application requirements, such as a recommendation from a teacher or counselor, were also associated with more applications per student. This is likely because such institutions tend to be selective.
"The selective members on the platform are most likely to attract high-volume applicants, and the extra requirements they impose do not appear to disrupt this pattern," the report said.
Common App also looked at member colleges that received the most applicants from students who submitted materials to 12 or more members. Those institutions were all private colleges. Their admit rate averaged 24%.
Members whose applicants had applied on average to eight or fewer Common App members were 45% private. Their average admit rate was 75%.