The first-known aptamer for the stress biomarker cortisol was selected using a tunable stringency magnetic bead selection strategy. The capture DNA probe immobilized on the beads was systematically lengthened to increase the number of bases bound to the complementary pool primer regions following selection enrichment. This resulted in a single sequence (15-1) dominating the final round 15 pool, where the same sequence was the second-highest copy number candidate in the enriched pool with the shorter capture DNA probe (round 13). A thorough analysis of the next-generation sequencing results showed that a high copy number may only correlate with enhanced affinity under certain stringency and enrichment conditions, in contrast with prior published reports. Aptamer 15-1 demonstrated enhanced binding to cortisol (K(d) = 6.9 ± 2.8 μM by equilibrium dialysis; 16.1 ± 0.6 μM by microscale thermophoresis) when compared with the top sequence from round 13 and the negative control progesterone. Whereas most aptamer selections terminate at the selection round demonstrating the highest enrichment, this work shows that extending the selection with higher stringency conditions leads to lower amounts eluted by the target but higher copy numbers of a sequence with enhanced binding. The structure-switching aptamer was applied to a gold nanoparticle assay in buffer and was shown to discriminate between cortisol and two other stress biomarkers, norepinephrine and epinephrine, and a structurally analogous biomarker of liver dysfunction, cholic acid. We believe this approach enhances aptamer selection and serves as proof-of-principle work toward development of point-of-care diagnostics for medical, combat, or bioterrorism targets.