Boston College finds a way to cull the herd of applicants

How do you plan to serve others? Did you ever know all the facts but not their meaning? How has time changed your perception of something you heard for the first time? What book would you pick to explore Jesuit ideals, community service, and learning?

Boston College this year required an extra essay of no more than 400 words, answering one such question above. It was a simple act that instantly stripped away casual applicants from those who truly wanted to attend BC: Applications for its 2,270 freshman spots dropped nearly 27 percent, from 34,000 to 25,000. Many of the 9,000 applicants who disappeared were probably long shots. Many others were sure bets who really wanted to go somewhere else, tossing in an application to BC in case a preferred college didn’t come through.

After nearly 500 colleges started using the so-called common application, making it easier to apply to dozens of schools at once, those institutions saw their applications skyrocket. BC was among them. In the last year alone, seven universities in the Boston area saw increases of 10 percent or more, led by a 20 percent rise at Boston University. John Mahoney, BC’s director of undergraduate admissions, said the number of US high school graduates has increased by 5 percent since 2004, during which time the number of applications to BC swelled by 52 percent. That’s largely because a whopping 45 percent of this year’s freshmen applied to 10 or more colleges. “We know we’re talking about 17- and 18-year-old people, but there needs to be a little introspection here,” Mahoney said.


Most colleges love to advertise huge increases in numbers of applicants, thereby boosting their level of selectivity. BC’s against-the-grain effort to cull the herd of applicants may also be motivated by a desire to improve its admissions statistics — making sure that a higher percentage of accepted students actually go to BC. But unlike the colleges that pad their stats with superfluous applicants, BC’s effort serves the larger interest of higher education: It’s important that students put real thought and effort into choosing their college. A little extra forethought and understanding helps them to adjust to college life and embrace the opportunities in front of them.

In a perfect world, Mahoney said, high school seniors would unplug their devices, go into a quiet room, and ask, “Who am I? What kind of college do I want to go to?” Short of that, BC has found a way to get students to begin to answer that question. It’s also sent a strong signal to high-school students and their families to take a more thoughtful and focused approach to the stressful act of applying to college.