Inside the Thick Envelope


    Photo by David Zhang / North by Northwestern

    When Fallon Gallagher began the college application process in mid-October, she was certain she would apply early decision (ED) to Northwestern. The University’s convenient location, hands-on journalism program and academic pedigree drew the high school senior to the early round. On top of that, Gallagher is a legacy.

    “The ED aspect made me an even stronger applicant,” she says. “The ED acceptance rate is slightly higher and I had already done everything I could to show NU how serious I was.”

    “Slightly higher” is an understatement: For the Class of 2017, Northwestern admitted 32 percent of ED applicants, compared to the 12 percent it accepted for regular decision. If application numbers are any indication, Gallagher isn’t the only one catching on to the early admission edge. After a frenzied season of Common Application submissions, Northwestern’s Class of 2018 broke records for the highest number of ED applications, set a year earlier.

    The upward-sloping popularity of early admission isn’t unique to Northwestern. Each record-breaking application cycle—and the resulting press release—adds to the ever-growing college admissions landscape.

    Why Generation Y?

    The American population saw a significant spike in its post-World War II Baby Boom generation. In time, these Boomers had children of their own, creating another population spike from 1980 to 1995, dubbed the Millennials generation, or Gen Y.

    These baby boomlets are the force behind recent college admissions trends. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education found a peak in American high school graduates in 2011. Fittingly, national statistics for the incoming college class of 2011—the same student pool that made up the high school graduate peak—showed a 3.3 percent increase in enrollment at four-year private non-profit colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

    What’s baffling, though, is admissions statistics have swelled beyond population trends. Although high school graduation numbers have peaked, year-by-year application numbers show a whole lot of waxing and not a lot of waning.

    “More students are applying to colleges than ever, and they’re applying to more schools per student,” says Jennifer Rucker, guidance counselor at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School, where about 72 students out of the near 600-student senior class have applied to Northwestern. “The average used to be six or seven applications per student,” Rucker says. “Those numbers have gone up, and the average is about eight or nine now. Of course, there are always the students who’ll apply to 25.”

    Playing the numbers game

    When Christopher Watson began his post as Dean of Undergraduate Admissions in September 2007, Northwestern was at a crossroads. In the previous admissions cycle, the university had joined the Common Application, which now serves 517 institutions in 47 states and six other countries.

    “Changing to the Common Application has always been very controversial because people make the assumption that the only reason you’re doing it is because you want to increase application numbers and drive down acceptance rates,” he says.

    The year after the University switched to the Common App, it received a record number of applications. That record remains unbroken. The switch has also changed the demographics of the applicant pool.

    “The increase comes from international students, lower socioeconomic background students, different races and ethnicities,” Watson says. “Simply joining the Common Application opened up a whole new cohort.”

    “Diversity” has been a touted theme, especially for Northwestern’s Class of 2016 and Class of 2017: University press releases introducing the classes tout each as the most diverse in university history.

    Early and binding wins the race

    The Common App has transformed college admissions across the board, but NU’s most pronounced changes have occurred in ED. Since 2000, overall applications have doubled, but ED applications have more than tripled. With 2,863 students accepted ED, about 45 percent of the Class of 2018 has already been determined. That’s the highest percentage of any incoming class filled through early admission and more than twice that of 15 years ago.

    Across the nation, early admission numbers have also reached historical heights. Brown, Boston University, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago and Vanderbilt all reported record highs. Even a Common App server crash in August, which forced 46 schools to postpone their deadlines, didn’t make a dent in these ED numbers.

    After over 28 years at New Trier High School in Wilmette, Ill., guidance counselor James Conroy has honed his elevator pitch for ED.

    “For a top-performing student, if you’re not a recruited athlete, if you’re not a legacy, if you’re not an underrepresented minority, the only trump card you have left at most schools is ED,” Conroy says.

    Record-breaking statistics aside, a more practical consideration also weighs on the minds of high school seniors: The earlier they apply, the shorter the wait and the freer their second semesters. Anthony Escobar, who will join his brother, Weinberg freshman Walter Escobar, at Northwestern next year, notes that the early notification of ED is its biggest plus.

    “It’s a big relief and now I can breathe again,” Escobar says.

    And for now, before the hustle and bustle of Pre-Wildcat Welcome Programs and Wildcat Welcome, before the deluge of summer reading, dorm selecting and summer packing, he’s got some peace of mind.


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