Marcus Carter tried to do everything right.
At 17, he holds a 4.5 GPA in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program and spent a year as class president at St. Petersburg High.
His credentials include membership in the National Honor Society, Science Honor Society and Spanish Honor Society. When he wasn't busy collecting 150 volunteer hours at St. Anthony's Hospital and beyond, he was learning sailing and pottery — a couple of "key passions," just like the college counselors suggested.
But now, a little more than a week after colleges finished notifying students of their admissions decisions, Carter isn't feeling like the star pupil people tell him he is. He applied to five schools, then found himself wait-listed at his top two choices and denied at a third. Though accepted at his two safety schools — the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida — he's holding out hope that when things shake out at Duke University, he will rise off the wait list.
"I'm not too upset," he said, equivocating. "But not real happy."
What Carter didn't know when he started applying to colleges was that the numbers are increasingly stacked against him. Top-tier universities report record numbers of applicants and record-low acceptance rates, a trend that shows little sign of ebbing.
So-called application inflation has taken over college admissions, introducing a new level of unpredictability to the process both for would-be students and the people who decide their fate.
The statistics are staggering.
The University of Chicago this year received 21,669 undergraduate applications for a freshman class of 1,350. That's 59 percent more than just two years ago. At Duke, 29,689 students applied for 1,665 slots, up 46 percent in three years. Tulane University, which had 18,000 applicants in 2005, was up to 38,000 this year for 1,400 to 1,500 slots — and that was after the school introduced a new essay question to weed out those with less serious intentions.
"The percentage being admitted is so small," lamented Cathy O'Kelley Rome, a college placement counselor for St. Petersburg High's IB students. Rome spent the past week comforting students who, in her words, received a "reality check" from rejections or wait-list notices.
"These are high school students who have been very, very successful," she said, "and they're not used to not being successful."
A similar story
Carter said he felt good about his prospects when he started applying. But when letters from colleges trickled out to his peers, the mood among his friends started to change.
"People we thought were perfect students were getting wait-listed and deferred," he said. "People started getting slaughtered. Suddenly, the wind just dropped out of my sails."
Talk to highly credentialed seniors across the bay area and the story's the same.
Bradley Sykes, a senior at Plant High School in Tampa interested in political science and economics, loaded up on the most rigorous honors and Advanced Placement classes he could find. He has a 6.08 weighted GPA. He earned 2,300 out of 2,400 on the SAT, participated in youth government, theater and several honor societies.
Sykes applied to eight schools and was accepted by just three. Georgetown and Princeton denied him, and he was wait-listed at the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University and even Rice University, which offered him a fee waiver to entice him to apply.
"After I heard from Rice," he said, "my expectations went down."
He received yeses from Florida, Baylor University and Duke.
"I'm definitely taking a lot of humility away from this," he said, describing the process as "cut-throat."
The reasons for the increased competition are numerous.
Experts point to the simple fact that applying to several colleges is easier than ever thanks to online applications and the increasing popularity of the Common Application, a one-stop, online form used by 414 colleges — twice as many as 10 years ago.
Though the Class of 2015 is smaller than its predecessor, more members of that group are applying to more campuses.
Thirty-five percent of students entering four-year colleges in fall 2010 applied to six or more colleges, up 7 percent from 2009, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
With a few extra clicks (and application fees), students like Preet Patel, 17, of St. Petersburg High can ping applications to several schools at once as long as they are mindful that some may require supplemental essays to differentiate them from the pack.
Patel, another IB student who carries a 2,300 SAT score, as well as a 4.9 weighted GPA, applied to 13 schools and found himself denied at three, wait-listed at one. That means he is one of the few admitted at eight separate schools, including the coveted University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Still, David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, says universities bear much of the blame.
Under pressure to maintain the appearance of selectivity for the purposes of college rankings and favorability among alumni donors and trustees, admissions officials aggressively pursue more and more applicants.
Earl Retif, dean of admissions at Tulane, admits "presidents like to talk about their application numbers" to the point that the ramifications of application inflation are on admissions officers' minds: "It happens enough that it's talked about at some really good schools," he said.
But, like officials at other universities, Retif is more likely to credit changes in the school's culture for the increases. At Tulane, he said, students are newly attracted because of its post-Hurricane Katrina emphasis on community service.
Longer wait lists are one symptom of application inflation. They allow colleges to keep their admission numbers low while maintaining a talented pool to draw from should the students they most want turn them down.
"While we have not seen a substantial increase in the number of schools using wait lists," Hawkins said, those that use them "report they are putting more students on them and that students' chances of getting off have declined."
Meanwhile, as applications climb, universities face more uncertainty because the students they pick are also spread thin. They are choosing students based on very minor differences, Hawkins said, and increasingly picking those who are more likely to be a "sure thing" — traditional, upper-middle-class pupils who are less likely to be from an underrepresented demographic.
"What they are getting," Hawkins said, "is a class that is very marginally differentiated from the group that didn't get admitted."
At King High School, IB counselor Rosanna Hoit said the whole scenario has her and her colleagues rethinking how to advise the most ambitious students.
"It baffles me," she said. "These students — it's hard to imagine how they could do much more unless they discovered another planet."
At some point, Hawkins said, the situation must correct itself. And students and high school counselors may offer the most influential voice.
The closer schools get to having admission rates of 1 percent or less, the more likely parents, students and high school advisers are to demand change.
"Students are going to find out there's a point of diminishing return," he said. "I don't think it would be good for the college to have to tell students they have a better chance of winning the lottery than gaining admission to college."
Sykes said that despite the surprising wait-list decisions, he's not sure he would do anything different, chalking it up to an exercise in character building.
And he came out okay in the end: He chose Duke, which offered him nearly a full ride on expenses.
Carter, meanwhile, admits frustration and questions why he worked so hard if his credentials aren't recognized by the colleges he most wants to attend.
"I'm in IB. I've got a few passions. I've got a good GPA. I'm black," he said. "I mean, what else do they want from me?"
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8707.