The University of Chicago saw a 42 percent increase in undergraduate applications for next fall's freshman class, an astounding number even among universities accustomed to double-digit increases.
It will mean bad news for most of the 19,306 students interested in attending the Chicago school next year -- double the number who applied in 2006 -- but good news for a university trying to broaden its appeal and boost its popularity nationally.
The university plans to accept the same number of students as last year, about 3,700, meaning it will accept just 19 percent of applicants, compared with 27 percent of the 13,564 who applied last year. Twenty years ago, 73 percent of applicants got an acceptance letter.
U. of C. officials attribute the increase to a combination of factors, everything from more far-flung outreach to publicity that comes with having President Barack Obama as a former faculty member.
The university also is in its second year of using the Common Application, which enables students to use a single form to submit personal and educational data to nearly 400 colleges and universities. The U. of C. still requires supplemental essays.
There were increases in applications from African-American, Latino and international students, and those from all income levels and every region of the country. James Nondorf, the U. of C.'s admissions dean, said early indicators of academic quality, such as test scores, show a class at least as accomplished as prior years.
"These kids are every bit as witty and intellectually engaged as students of the past," he said.
Christopher Watson, the admissions dean at Northwestern University, said the U. of C.'s application increase is shocking. "I have never heard of an increase like that before," he said. Northwestern made news three years ago when it had a 19 percent increase, its largest ever.
Other selective universities also are reporting record numbers, though not as drastic as the U. of C.'s jump, in part a result of more students going to college and applying to more schools.
Applications are up at least 7 percent at Northwestern, 10.5 percent at Duke and nearly 3 percent at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Not all colleges are reporting their numbers yet.
Ted O'Neill, a longtime national admissions expert and the former admissions dean at the U. of C., said it's important to look beyond the dramatic increases.
"Large increases are always what we seek, and I think it is a measure of a kind of success. But the numbers have to be put into perspective: Who is applying, and why are they applying?" he said.
Nondorf, in his first year as the U. of C.'s admissions dean, said that when meeting with potential applicants, he boasted of new dorms, athletic facilities and student interest in comedy and the arts more broadly, not the typical images associated with a university known for its seriousness.
He also highlighted less-known aspects of the university's history, including its claim to the first Heisman Trophy winner.
In the last decade, the university has built two new dorms, and plans are under way for a new arts center. There are more research opportunities for undergraduates and new programs that allow students to study in the city and abroad.
"We are now seeing the fruits of these investments," said John Boyer, dean of the college and a historian. "Why such a big jump? That is an interesting puzzle."
Nondorf said recruiters this year emphasized not only the core liberal arts curriculum for which the university is known, but also the opportunity for undergraduates to take pre-professional courses such as those in the university's Booth School of Business, a graduate school.
When prospective students indicated an interest in a career in medicine, they got a letter from the dean of the medical school.
That strategy seemed to have worked.
At Lake Forest High School, 19 seniors applied to the U. of C. this year, nearly double the number from two years ago.
"What is of interest to me is that these applicants are not laser in their focus," said Jacquie Berkshire, the high school's college counselor. "Traditionally when people thought about the University of Chicago, they thought about math and science and economics. These are humanities kids who are applying."
Jim Conroy, a college counselor at New Trier Township High School, from where more than 50 students applied, said the university historically has been up against the stereotype that it's a campus "where fun goes to die."
"They are really fighting that, and they are winning that battle," he said. "The word is out that it is no longer what people thought it was."