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Say, Chicago Astronomy. That department got 100 applicants in 2007 (200 in 2009). Then Texas has 125 and Colorado has 132 (both in 2007). Meanwhile, a school like Princeton only got 56 applicants in 2007 and 70 in 2008. Why do schools like Princeton have so few applicants, compared to many of the other schools? I know the generic answer "because more students are interested about their research groups, and have heard about them". But I'd like to hear more specific answers/ideas, if people have any.
In response to your specific example, perhaps a large portion of applicants feel that Princeton is too far of a reach to even be worth their time (and money) applying. This is understandable given the strength of the applicant pool and the dearth of spots available. The other two institutions, for a variety of reasons, may appeal to more applicants as places where they have a more realistic shot at getting in.