Boston College received almost 10,000 fewer applications for admission this year, down from 34,051 applications in 2012. Officials have attributed this 26 percent decrease mostly to the addition of a 400-word supplemental essay, a first since the University joined the Common Application in 1998.
According to John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions, part of the goal of adding the essay was to select for students who were truly interested in attending BC.
“We wanted to identify students who were more serious, more thoughtful, and more deliberate about applying to BC,” Mahoney told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It seems that we’ve lost the ‘Why Not?’ applicant.”
Before instating the change, Mahoney and the admissions department weighed the pros and cons of adding a supplemental essay. The addition of the essay gives students another chance to explain why they are interested in BC, an opportunity that the common personal statement on the Common Application does not provide. On the other hand, the essay had the potential to decrease the total number of applications and thus potentially increase the admissions rate.
The admissions department also held focus groups with students at BC, who were asked if the addition of an essay would have made them less likely to apply. The consensus, according to Mahoney, was no-because students who ended up attending BC would have been willing to put the extra effort into a 400-word essay.
The supplemental essay for the incoming class of 2017 provides four choices. One references St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, and his call to service. Another quotes David McCullough’s 2008 commencement address at BC, and asks applicants about “a time you had all of the facts but missed the meaning.” The third question asks applicants to respond to a quote from Colum McCann on the topic of changing perceptions, and the final question asks potential students what book they would select for the freshman academic convocation.
The goal of these questions, Mahoney told The Chronicle, was to give admissions counselors a better picture of applicants as individuals.
In terms of numbers, the addition of the supplemental essay could have a variety of effects beyond decreasing the total number of applicants. BC, which boasted an admissions rate of 28 percent last year, has long been noted as one of the more selective schools in the country, and also one that receives a relatively high number of applications.
This explosion of applications, however, has been concentrated in the last five to 10 years of the University’s history, and has been coupled with a general decline in yield, the percentage of students offered admission who choose to enroll. Although the effects of the supplemental essay cannot be predicted exactly, it is likely that the University’s yield will increase for the coming year, and while the decrease in applications is significant, Mahoney pointed out that the total number is not always the most important indicator.
“The big question is, ‘How many apps are enough?'” Mahoney said. “It’s diminishing returns.”
In terms of applicant quality, the addition of the essay seems to have had little effect. Students applying this year had similar average SAT and ACT scores to those who applied the year before, despite the loss of nearly 10,000 applications. “Probably what we’ve done is right-size our applicant pool,” Mahoney said.