It’s that time of year. Teens are putting the finishing touches on their college essays; parents are bracing their wallets for the coming tuition expenses; and most college applications are coming due.

For many of your clients with teenagers, the prospect of surviving the college admission process is daunting and fraught with misinformation. I can feel the stress in a room when I ask parents this question during one of my college presentations:

“What percentage of high school seniors get accepted into their No. 1 choice college?”

“Ten percent?,” someone will ask worriedly. “Five percent?”

Actually the correct answer is 76 percent, according to UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen attending four- and two-year colleges and universities across the country. And that number, give or take a percentage point, has held constant for years. 

I can see why parents throw out low-ball figures. Sadly most of the higher-ed press coverage is focused on the Ivy League schools and a tiny number of other highly-elite institutions in this country, which do reject nearly all newcomers. But the reality is far different. According to the College Board, only two percent of colleges and universities reject 75 percent or more of their applicants.

A recent study on college admissions reinforces the reality that it’s not all that tough to get into college. In fact, four-year colleges and universities accepted 63.8 percent of its applicants in 2011, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a massive organization of college admission administrators, college consultants and high school counselors.

Hitting the Lotto

And college is more popular than ever. College enrollment has grown 37 percent since 2000, when 15.3 million Americans were enrolled in college, versus more than 21 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number of graduating high school seniors peaked in 2008, but college enrollment continues to rise because students, who in previous years wouldn’t have attended college, are now doing so.

The number of applications has risen dramatically over the past decade. In fact, during the past decade roughly three-quarters of institutions have reported receiving more applications every year, according to the NACAC survey. The rise in applications, however, has been most evident at private institutions. There are parallels, I would suggest, between Americans buying Powerball lottery tickets and applying to a place like Yale. The odds are dreadful, but teenagers figure they might get lucky.

In the fall of 2011, 79 percent of students applied to three or more schools (an increase of 12 percentage points over a decade), the NACAC survey found. Meanwhile, 29 percent of students last year applied to seven or more schools.

Early Bird Advantage

For your clients who are eager to get into elite schools, the survey illustrated that the odds are better if students apply early decision, meaning they agree to attend that institution and withdraw any outstanding applications if accepted. In the survey, the admission advantage for students applying early decision in 2011 was 6 percentage points.

The survey revealed that more institutions are using wait lists, but the practice is largely limited to schools that are more selective. Schools reported putting 9 percent of applicants on their wait lists. The average acceptance rate for students placed on wait lists has remained roughly 30 percent since 2004.

Starving for Information

When high school counselors were asked to rate sources of financial college information on a one-to-four scale (one being highest),“private financial advisors” fared the worst and college financial aid officials fared the best. Here is the breakdown of the sources from best to worst:

1.     College financial aid officials: 1.31

2.     State/federal departments of education: 1.79

3.     Education-focused nonprofits: 2.17

4.     Banks or other lenders: 2.98

5.     Private financial advisors: 3.65

Last year, there was one counselor for every 421 students attending public high schools in this country. And the typical public high school counselors only spend about a fourth of their time on college counseling.

Not only do counselors have little time to give families college advice, but their knowledge of how to make college affordable is nearly non-existent. And yet parents are starved for information about how to pay for college. Doesn’t that sound like an opportunity to you?