DISCLAIMER: I am not involved in Stanford undergraduate admissions, and I am writing this more as a parent and observer than as a faculty member. I am trying to address the problem of ballooning numbers of applications and plummeting acceptance rates at many collegess.
Anybody who has a high school student contemplating college knows that there has been a bubble of applicants to colleges, and the acceptance rates at many places have gone way down. I think Stanford’s acceptance rate last year was just under 10% (yikes!). One reason for this is that it is incredibly easy to apply to many colleges by pressing a button and paying a fee. I remember vividly applying to college and having the “pain in the neck” factor affect what schools I applied to and how many school.
So let’s just be a little retro: colleges should set up admissions so that students have to make a separate non-trivial effort for every college they apply to. I don’t really care what it is–mail in a hardcopy essay, make the questions all different so that you can’t cut and paste easily, whatever. The point is that we should add a barrier to applying that will force young people to think a bit before they apply. I applied to college “early action” specifically to increase the chance I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday break writing essays. It worked. Accusing me of being a short sighted 17 year old? Guilty.