As college applicants compete for coveted spots, universities, too, compete in the race to drive up application numbers.

The Washington Post recently reported that some universities are misrepresenting admissions data, particularly applicant numbers and acceptance rates, by including incomplete applications in total application counts. Incomplete applications are ones in which the applicant did not submit transcripts or recommendations, failed to pay the application fee or did not submit the fee waiver form.

If the number of students colleges accept each year remains approximately consistent, the only way to report decreasing acceptance rates is through an increased number of applications.

“It really is disappointing that college applications are now more about marketing than about counseling,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon said. “But we’re glad to stay confident in our ethical stance that college rankings don’t matter. We compare ourselves with ourselves.”

Georgetown’s acceptance rate for the Class of 2016 was 16.5 percent, with 3,316 applicants admitted out of 20,111. In contrast, the acceptance rate for the Class of 2017 was 16.6 percent, with 3,293 applicants admitted out of 19,879. This represents both a decrease in the number of applicants as well as an increase in acceptance rate.

For the Class of 2017, 500 applications were deemed incomplete; the Georgetown admissions office sent emails to 74 of these students, offering them the choice either to withdraw or to meet the requirements and have their application considered. Only students who complied and submitted the required materials were counted applicants. Deacon said he could not remember what happened to the remaining 426 students, nor could he remember why the 74 were chosen.

Deacon said that the issue lies in the lack of enforceable standards governing the label “applicant.” Most ranking systems require universities to apply the label “applicant” only to students who have completed all admission requirements and received an admitted, rejected, waitlisted or withdrawn decision.

Among universities, however, this definition is often subjective because differences in application requirements and structures allow for the manipulation of statistics.

“What is an application in the first place?” Deacon said. “The question really boils down to how you define an application.”

The reality, however, is that a simple shift in admissions policy can lead application numbers and admissions rates to change dramatically.

For example, last year, Boston College added an essay supplement to its Common Application, and application numbers plunged from about 34,000 to 25,000.

Deacon categorized college applications into three types: the “fast app” or “zap app,” which is sent to high school juniors based on their PSAT scores, the Common Application and school-specific applications such as those used by Georgetown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Deacon pointed to school-specific applications, like Georgetown, as the most resistant to manipulation.

“You have to go online yourself, complete the info, pay the waiver fee in advance and write completely different essays,” Deacon said. “That really drives the number of applicants down to those who sincerely want to get in.”

U.S. News & World Report reduced the weight of acceptance rates in this year’s computing formula for college rankings from 1.50 percent to 1.25 percent.

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