Harvard turned down 1,100 student applicants with perfect 800 scores on the SAT math exam. Yale rejected several applicants with perfect 2400 scores on the three-part SAT, and Princeton turned away thousands of high school applicants with 4.0 grade point averages. Needless to say, high school valedictorians were a dime a dozen.
It was the most selective spring in modern memory at America's elite schools, according to college admissions officers. More applications poured into top schools this admissions cycle than in any previous year on record. Schools have been sending decision letters to student applicants in recent days, and rejection letters have overwhelmingly outnumbered the acceptances.
Stanford received a record 23,956 undergraduate applications for the fall term, accepting 2,456 students, meaning the school took 10.3 percent of applicants.
Harvard College received applications from 22,955 students, another record, and accepted 2,058 of them, for an acceptance rate of 9 percent. The university called that "the lowest admit rate in Harvard's history."
Applications to Columbia numbered 18,081, and the college accepted 1,618 of them, for what was certainly one of the lowest acceptance rates this spring at an American university: 8.9 percent.
"There's a sense of collective shock among parents at seeing extraordinarily talented kids getting rejected," said Susan Gzesh, whose son Max Rothstein is a senior with an exemplary record at the Laboratory School, a private school associated with the University of Chicago. Max applied to 12 top schools and was accepted outright only by Wesleyan, New York University and the University of Michigan.
"Some of his classmates, with better test scores than his, were rejected at every Ivy League school," Ms. Gzesh said.
The brutally low acceptance rates this year were a result of an avalanche of applications to top schools, which college admissions officials attributed to three factors. First, a demographic bulge is working through the nation's population — the children of the baby boomers are graduating from high school in record numbers. The federal Department of Education projects that 3.2 million students will graduate from high school this spring, compared with 3.1 million last year and 2.4 million in 1993. (The statistics project that the number of high school graduates will peak in 2008.) Another factor is that more high school students are enrolling in college immediately after high school. In the 1970s, less than half of all high school graduates went directly to college, compared with more than 60 percent today, said David Hawkins, a director at the National Association of College Admission Counseling.
The third trend driving the frantic competition is that the average college applicant applies to many more colleges than in past decades. In the 1960s, fewer than 2 percent of college freshmen had applied to six or more colleges, whereas in 2006 more than 2 percent reported having applied to 11 or more, according to The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006, an annual report on a continuing long-term study published by the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Multiple applications per student," Mr. Hawkins said, "is a factor that exponentially crowds the college admissions environment."
One reason that students are filing more applications is the increasing use of the Common Application, a form that can be completed and filed via the Internet.
The ferocious competition at the most selective schools has not affected the overall acceptance rate at the rest of the nation's 2,500 four-year colleges and universities, which accept an average of 70 percent of applicants.
"That overall 70 percent acceptance rate hasn't changed since the 1980s," Mr. Hawkins said.
But with more and more students filling out ever more applications, schools like the California Institute of Technology received a record number of applications this year — 3,595, or 8 percent more than last year — and admitted 576 students. Among so many talented applicants, a prospective student with perfect SAT scores was not unusual, said Jill Perry, a Caltech spokeswoman.
"The successful students have to have shown some passion for science and technology in high school or their personal life," Ms. Perry said. "That means creating a computer system for your high school, or taking a tractor apart and putting it back together."
The competition was ferocious not only at the top universities, but at selective small colleges, like Williams, Bowdoin and Amherst, all of which reported record numbers of applications.
Amherst received 6,668 applications and accepted 1,167 students for its class of 2011, compared with the 4,491 applications and 1,030 acceptance letters it sent for the class of 2002 nine years ago, said Paul Statt, an Amherst spokesman.