You’ve seen the viral videos: high school seniors leaping around the room, overjoyed at discovering that their top-choice college has welcomed them into the ranks of the incoming freshman class.
But for every victorious online posting, there are multiple high school seniors simultaneously being rejected from those very same schools.
Getting into the country’s most selective colleges is more fiercely competitive than ever, with many schools reporting a record number of applicants, boosted by an easier application process and more aggressive recruiting. Twenty years ago, for example, Tufts University admitted 33 percent of the students who applied; last year Tufts made offers to just 15 percent of the pool. Northeastern University extended offers to nearly four out of five applicants in 1998, but only one out of five this year. Williams College’s admissions rate has shrunk from 26 percent to 12 percent over two decades.
The competition can be felt at public universities, too. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offered admissions to 60 percent of applicants this year, compared with nearly 75 percent 20 years ago.
Many high school seniors are increasingly struggling to gain a foothold at schools that their parents won admission to without breaking a sweat.
As a result, these teenagers are now dealing with perhaps the most significant disappointment of their young lives, awash in rejection letters that have cemented this season as one of dashed dreams and what-ifs.
“It’s a loss,” said Sherri Geller, a college counselor at Gann Academy, a private Jewish high school in Waltham. Geller said she tells some students “to take a day or two to grieve. And if they want to cry, that’s OK.”
High school counselors say they try to ensure that their students have applied to several colleges that are both affordable and attainable. But when colleges announce their largest-ever applicant pool and highest-ever grade point average for an admitted class, it makes them nervous, too.
“We’re seeing more denials and wait lists because of the large number of applicants,” said Tram-Anh Nguyen, a college access counselor with Bottom Line, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with low-income and first-generation students.
Despite demographic changes and declining numbers of college-aged students, applications to selective schools remain high. Counselors said the Common Application, which allows students to send the same forms to all prospective colleges, and other online tools have made it simpler for students to apply and increased the pool of candidates for colleges.
Colleges have also waived fees and are aggressively recruiting in more communities, both nationally and around the world, in the hopes of drawing a more diverse class with more students able to pay the full cost. And students, hoping to maximize the amount of financial aid they receive and concerned about the competition, are applying to more schools.
That leaves plenty of frustrated students, bingeing on tubs of ice cream and venting on physical and virtual message boards over their rejections. High schools, aware that this might be a stressful time for students and families, try to do their part to soften the blow.
Gann Academy discourages students from wearing sweat shirts to school bragging about their future alma maters until after March, when all the colleges have notified applicants and classmates are less likely to feel hurt. At Newton South High School, students can tack their rejection letters on the “Wall of Shame,” a bulletin board that fills up every spring. And seniors rejected from MIT in mid-March can pour out their disappointment on an online blog, sponsored by the school, with admissions counselors and MIT students offering words of reassurance and sympathy.
“MIT was my #1 choice and my dream for the last ten years and everything I did was for MIT but I didn’t get accepted,” one student wrote on the university’s not-admitted thread. “Not entirely sure where I’m going to go or what to do now.”
Other students wondered what they did wrong. Did they share too much in their personal essays, such as their bouts of anxiety? Were their grades just not up to par? Did they not participate enough in the robotics team?
“I now live in the universe where I wasn’t accepted,” another student wrote on the MIT blog. “I am groggy and I want to fall back asleep. Thank you for the hopes and dream, I am devastated to leave.”
MIT received about 21,710 applications from around the world to join the class of 2022, and by March 14 — admissions day — it had offered entry to just 1,464 students.
Facing the hurt and disappointment of the remaining 93 percent of applicants is Chris Peterson’s job. Peterson, a senior assistant director of admissions who runs the MIT admissions website, said he tries to remind students that the rejection is just a detour in their academic life, not the end of the line.
But Peterson knows that it can be a difficult message to hear.
“People feel that the college admissions process is so much more than where they go to college,” Peterson said. “It is wrapped up in the type of person they are, their hopes and dreams, and who they are as a person. It feels like an invalidation of who they are. But we have a lot of good applicants and a few spaces.”
Jonah Bachman, 18, of Newton South High School, wrote a piece poking fun at the college admissions stress for an online satirical magazine that he runs with a friend. But Bachman said he was still surprised enough when he got a rejection letter from Purdue University to post it on the school’s Wall of Shame board.
“This is a lot of what a lot of folks have been working on for the last four or seven years,” said Bachman, who eventually got into Case Western Reserve University and will be attending. “It’s built up.”
The rejection may feel personal to students, but for colleges trying to build their ideal class, the decisions behind whom to accept are usually more complex and broader, experts said.
Sometimes, a college may decide to admit more students from the Midwest, or more men, or those with higher standardized test scores or more first-generation students.
Even if students get rejected from their dream college or don’t get enough financial aid to accept, Tina Duong, 19, said, they have options: They can transfer later or learn to be happy with their selection.
Duong, of Dorchester, said Salem State University initially wasn’t her top choice. But when she began her first year last fall, she joined organizations and made friends that helped her adjust.
“Seniors that are feeling rejected and sad right now . . . should not let rejection affect their future,” Duong said. “If they don’t try to enjoy themselves at the college they end up attending, it will continue to make them feel sad, so it’s best if they change that around.”