College Admissions: The Myth of Higher Selectivity

The number of high school seniors is actually shrinking, making it easier for students to get into highly selective colleges

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A freshman student enters the Admissions Building at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

One of the most persistent concerns I hear from parents is that it’s harder than ever for their children to get into selective colleges. They cite ever dropping acceptance rates among top schools and the rapidly increasing numbers of applications that the most selective colleges receive year over year as evidence. This inexorable trend has become somewhat mythic. (Meanwhile, Dartmouth, Williams, Vassar, Princeton, Hamilton and Amherst all saw slight declines in the number of applications for fall 2013.)

What many parents and students don’t realize is that increasing numbers of applications isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s harder to get into a selective school; rather, it’s a sign of changes in behavior among high school seniors. More and more people who aren’t necessarily qualified are applying to top schools, inflating the application numbers while not seriously impacting admissions. In fact, it has arguably become easier to get into a selective school, though it may be harder to get into a particular selective school.

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The inflation in the number of applications can be traced to the Common App — a single application and essay that works for multiple schools. When it was introduced in 1975 as a pilot program, only 15 schools participated. There are now 488 participating institutions, including the vast majority of selective colleges and universities. In 1998, the Common App went online, furthering the ease of applying to more schools. After all, what’s one more application when no additional paperwork is required?

The most recent study available from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows that between 2010 and 2011 (the most recent years available), the percentage of students applying to at least three colleges rose from 77% to 79% and the percentage of students applying to at least seven colleges rose from 25% to 29%. In 2000, only 67% of students applied to three or more colleges, while 12% applied to seven or more.

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The net effect of this behavior is to create an illusion of increased selectivity. Especially at the most selective schools, an increase in applications generally leads to the acceptance of a smaller percentage of the students who apply. However, students who meet the academic and extracurricular thresholds to qualify for competitive schools will still get into a selective college; it’s just less likely that they’ll get into a specific competitive college. These schools work hard to not admit students who won’t attend;  the acceptance rate and the matriculation rate (the percentage of accepted students who attend) are key measures in many college ranking methodologies, so both admitting too many students and admitting students who don’t attend can hurt a college’s ranking.

Meanwhile, the number of high school seniors is shrinking, having reached its peak in 2011. And while there has been a slow increase in the percentage of seniors who apply to college, it doesn’t add many students to the pool of applicants with academic qualifications to attend the most selective colleges and universities.

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So what does this mean for the future? Demographic trends predict that the population of high school seniors will continue to decrease over the next couple of years before rebounding to about 3.3 million, still below the peak of 3.4 million. On top of this, more schools are considered highly selective than ever before, and many of these schools have expanded the size of their freshman classes. Unless schools start to shrink the size of freshman classes in the coming years, the net effect of all these factors is that, for the remainder of this decade, it will actually be easier to get into a highly selective school than it has been in the past. For once, there is good news for anxious parents and students.


The real issue is that in many high schools the valedictorian has an SAT below 2000 which isn't really competive at top schools. 


It is not simply a matter of the common app. In fact, it would be happening even if kids had to complete completely separate applications. Why? Because Bob Morse has a list that is supposed to have something to do with quality but really is loaded by bogus numbers. The most bogus are acceptance rates and yield. To get higher on the lists, colleges are spending incredible amounts of money and effort to recruit larger numbers of applicants. They could care less about whether they are appropriate applicants. The goal is to recruit to reject. They send glossy brochures, promise free applications and even a quick decision (but no free trip to Disney) to kids with good scores-to bolster their numbers and to reject more kids. Isn't that special? And then they are doing even more unethical things to get kids to commit to them and say yes to offers. The holding back slots and telling kids that they wont' be admitted until they say they will accept if they are admitted. Popularity of philosophy majors is not at an all time high-maybe the profs can spend some time educated their admissions officer about ethics and integrity. Most schools are showing little of either and our educational system is at risk. 


Colleges are much harder to get into than they have been in the past, at least relative to my parents' generation.  As a legacy from Duke (both parents, aunt and uncle) and Columbia (great grandfather taught, grandfather and uncle went) with a 2310 SAT score I expected to get into one of them... and didn't.  They have incredibly high standards and a 4.0 is a must.  You have to be the absolute best in your high school class at a public school and privates generally carry much more weight.  I was in the top 10 in my class and still got 5 rejections.  I applied to 9 schools.  Year-to-year changes are completely insignificant in the long run.


No comment on the number of internatinal applications?  At least at the graduate level foreign studends now make up a quarter to a third of many programs as admissions officers try to boost rankings through high test scores and GPAs (even if those scores and grades were earned in a language other than English).  I'm not claiming this is a good or bad thing, just that clearly there must be some impact on American applicants.



As I noted in my article, it is, in fact, harder to get into a particular selective school. It's not harder to get into a selective school. I'm probably a few years younger than your parents; I applied to 3 schools. You applied to 9. That's precisely the shift in application behavior I'm discussing. There's simply no way that anyone will get into 9 highly selective schools. But by your own admissions, you got into 4 of them. I got into all 3 I applied to. In some ways, we got functionally the same results. It's just that it's now harder (especially outside of Early Decision) to pick your favorite school and get it.

Legacy, incidentally, has only a marginal impact outside of Early Decision, and even a reduced impact within Early Decision compared to a couple of generations ago.