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Students Cast Wider Net in College Search, Survey Shows

High school students eager to cast a wide net in their college search drove up application volume again last year at the majority of U.S. colleges, according to a recent survey.

For 10 of the past 15 years, more than 70 percent of colleges reported year-to-year increases in the number of applications they received, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports in its latest survey of members. About one-third of college freshmen in the fall of 2013 had submitted seven or more applications for admission, up 10 percentage points since 2008.

Colleges report 92 percent of applications are received online, up from 85 percent in 2011.

Despite the frenzy around single-digit acceptance rates at the most highly elite colleges, NACAC notes that the average selectivity rate at four-year colleges for fall 2013 was 64.7 percent, up slightly from 63.9 percent in 2012, after a steady decline in recent years.

The most important factor in evaluating college applications, in order, according to the NACAC report, are:

1. grades in college-preparatory classes

2. strength of curriculum

3. standardized admission test scores; and 

4. overall high school grade-point average.

The next most important considerations: essay, demonstrated interest in a college, counselor and teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and class rank.

At about 25 percent of colleges, admissions officers said an applicant's high school, first-generation status, and race/ethnicity was "moderately important" in their evaluation.

For high school students sitting on a college wait list this spring, some good news: Institutions accepted an average about 30 percent of students who were on their wait list, up from 25 percent in the previous year's report.

Juniors thinking ahead to the possibility of applying early next year should note that it does improve chances of acceptance. NACAC reports 49 percent of colleges had an increase in the number of students admitted through early decision. Acceptance rates for early decision (those who opt to commit to a college that selects them early) were higher—64 percent versus 53 percent&mdash. Colleges report in the fall of 2013 that they accepted 68 percent of students who apply through early action, where students find out if they are admitted early but don't have to decide to accept until May.

The 2014 State of College Admission report by NACAC was based on member surveys of about 730 high school counselors and 350 college admissions professionals in 2013.

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