Harvard is up. MIT is up. Northeastern is up. UMass Amherst is up. Boston University is up. But at Boston College, the number of applications received for its incoming freshman class is down. And that’s just the way the school wants it.
BC saw its applications decline by 26 percent after it made a strategic effort to raise admissions requirements. The school added a supplementary essay to its application, university officials said, with a goal of attracting more serious students and deterring less interested ones from applying.
“This was a deliberate move on our part,” said John Mahoney, the director of undergraduate admission for BC, who explained that the new supplementary essay helps the university make more informed choices about which students to accept. “We’re trying to make good decisions.”
In 2012, 34,061 students applied to BC; this year, the number dropped to about 25,000. The college admits about 2,270 to its freshman class.
High school counselors and education observers say the less-is-more approach by BC and other schools reflects a growing trend as colleges confront an applications “arms race.”
Some high school seniors now apply to a dozen or even two dozen colleges. And with one year at some top colleges surpassing $50,000, students, parents, and educators are keenly aware of the admissions process and the stature of various colleges, often summed up in national college rankings published by magazines and other publications.
Mahoney said he does not think a smaller applicant pool will affect BC’s standing in national college rankings, because the rankings tend to focus on selectivity.
But David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wasn’t so sure, and said BC’s showing in popular lists like the U.S. News & World Report ranking could suffer, though he thinks a drastic change is improbable.
He also said that BC now has a pool of applicants who are more likely to attend if they are accepted, meaning the school could accept fewer students than in years past and still retain a good-sized freshman class.
“They may have actually found a way to improve their statistics,” he said.
And BC is not alone with its strategy.
Kevin McMullin, president of Collegewise, an organization that helps students apply to college, said some other colleges are adding challenging essay questions to weed out those who are applying not because they sincerely want to attend, but because it is their backup, or a so-called “safety school’.’ Even if they got in, it is unlikely they would attend unless they had no alternative.
For example, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles recently added an essay, McMullin said, and “it stopped a lot of kids from tossing in an application.”
Universities, of course, have no way of knowing which students are serious about attending and which are not. In some cases, admissions offices have to accept a substantial amount of students and hope that only a small portion will enroll.
“It’s like sending out 5,000 save the dates for a wedding when you only have 100 spots,” McMullin said.
Brad MacGowan, director for the College and Career Center at Newton North High School, said some students and their parents now think of applying to college as if they are playing the lottery: the more applications the student submits, the better chance he or she has of being accepted into a good university.
MacGowan said he suggests his students apply to eight to 10 schools, though he has seen students apply to as many as 25 to 30. At a certain point, the process becomes too expensive and time consuming, he said.
“I definitely don’t subscribe to the more-is-better theory,” he said.
Among area schools that saw an increase in applications this year, Boston University reported a 20 percent jump in applications after it dropped two requirements — a second supplemental essay and the SAT Subject Tests.
Among other local colleges:
ª A record 35,022 students applied to Harvard, a 2 percent increase from the previous year.
ª Applications to Northeastern University increased 7 percent, to 47,321.
ª The Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw a 5 percent increase, to 18,989.
ª Numbers also rose at the state’s public flagship, UMass Amherst, where figures show that more than 36,000 have applied, a 5 percent increase.
At BC, the number of applicants had become overwhelming since the birth of electronic applications in the 1990s, Mahoney said. From 2004 to 2012, BC’s applicant pool grew by 52 percent.
Mahoney said that in 2009, he and other admissions officials began discussing how they could make the application more challenging and draw students who truly were serious about attending if they were accepted. After consulting focus groups, the admissions department chose to add an essay.
This year, applicants were asked to choose one of four questions and write a response of no more than 400 words.
One of the questions was as follows: “In his novel, ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ Colum McCann writes: ‘We seldom know what we’re hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is certain: we hear it as we will never hear it again. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.’ ”
Students were asked to “tell us about something you heard or experienced for the first time and how the years since have affected your perception of that moment.”
The application picture at Boston University has been markedly different.
Last year, BU received 44,006 applications for 3,900 spots. This year, the number rose to 52,691 applicants for 3,800 spots.
Kelly Walter, associate vice president and executive director of admissions at BU, cites the university’s strengthening academic reputation as one key reason for the surge. She said BU has also intensified its recruiting efforts and is hosting more student visits.
One year after BU added a second essay to its application supplement, the college dropped it this year, finding that many essay answers lacked originality. “The responses, sadly, were very generic,” Walter said.
BU also eliminated the requirement for SAT Subject Tests, she said, because standardized testing can be a barrier for many students, particularly those from other countries. With the changes, BU admission officials had expected an increase, but not one quite so large.
“We did not have a goal of increasing our applicant pool — not by 20 percent,” Walter said. “This certainly surprised all of us.”
Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@