Not Your Mother’s College Process… Or Even Your Sister’s!
Before we get into the blog, it’s important to give credit to Alexandra Beaumont, who “inspired” our thoughts on the college admissions process as a whole.
The past few years have been tough—emotionally, personally, and professionally. At Admit U, we are always our students' biggest cheerleaders, but we also have to be realistic and demonstrate our expertise within the ever-changing college admissions landscape.
Prior to students finalizing their lists, we often find ourselves having challenging conversations about the selectivity of their list—it is usually too top-heavy with “Reach” schools.
We want our students to know that this reality, most times, is not them. They have done a lot of “things” right during their high school career, but even when a student is “perfect” on paper, a college doesn’t have to accept a class full of perfect candidates. Along with being excited about beginning another admissions cycle, we have also had to spend some time managing expectations and picking some egos up off the ground. But we would rather do it now when you’ve still got time to apply rather than next spring when deadlines have long passed.
Some days, our job puts us in a position to be “dream makers,” helping students find best-fit colleges and earn that important post-secondary step. But some days, we feel like “dream crushers,” communicating hard realities about students’ positions in the admissions landscape. We try to remain positive as we deliver the honest details, but as application volumes have gone up significantly in the past two years (while incoming class sizes have stayed the same), acceptance rates have plummeted.
One of our colleagues, Kate Sonnenberg, gave some examples of plummeting acceptance rates in her recent blog; in fact, the rates are so low that some colleges, among them Princeton and Stanford, have decided not to disclose the number. Three universities—Harvard, Columbia, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—had admit rates under 4 percent. Sixteen colleges and universities had admit rates under 10 percent (Tulane University is one of them). Just as notable, some universities saw significant drops in their admit rate from only one year earlier—New York University, for example, went from a 21 percent acceptance rate in 2021 to a 12.2 percent admit rate in 2022, and saw a complementary increase in their Early Decision admit rate.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that acceptance rate is not a proxy for quality of education or fit. The more important rate to consider? Retention rate, of the number of students returning for a second year. This statistic is an indicator of academic, social-emotional, and financial health on campus.
What do some of those shifting acceptance rates look like? Below is just a sampling of admissions data and the changes that have happened in a short amount of time.
Here is a sampling of college application trends over the past few years, the root cause of these plummeting acceptance rates:
Why are applications surging? The move to test-optional admissions is the most significant factor causing this increase as students around the world found themselves with a chance for acceptance based on other strengths in their profile, like the rigor of their academic curriculum, grade performance, community engagement and leadership, and personal stories. Students from unique demographic markets and backgrounds, some even without access to test centers and most without test prep, began applying in unprecedented numbers.
However, test-optional also gave other students false hope that it’s easier to get into said college without test scores, which artificially inflates the applicant pool. Furthermore, virtual technologies allowed campus programming to tap into markets never visited before. Colleges were able to expand their recruitment by allowing applicants to access their resources from any device. Students didn’t need to get to campus or have an admissions officer visit their remote high school just to learn more about the college; virtual tours and info sessions allowed colleges to be “visited” from anywhere in the world. This reach encouraged students to start applying from new and diverse markets.
Such new diversity in the applicant pool coupled with efforts to increase equity and access in education came at a time when colleges were rethinking the demographic of their incoming class, with plans to make it look more like the real world. Currently, there is a larger emphasis on the recruitment of underrepresented groups, such as low-income students, first-generation college students, students of color, rural students, etc. While incoming class sizes are staying the same, seats for the traditional applicant are a bit more limited.
This increase in applications has also led to many colleges’ overt reliance on Early Decision (ED), or the process by which a student enters into a binding agreement with a college that states that if accepted, they will attend that school. This practice allows colleges to protect their admit rate (the number of students they accept) and yield rate (the number of students who deposit) by prioritizing admission for those who commit to them. It allows colleges to better predict who in that field of thousands of applications is truly interested in them. When deciding if ED is right for you, it’s important to compare ED versus Regular Decision admit rates and see how much of the incoming class is filled with ED candidates.
We often work with parents/guardians who may have attended highly selective institutions themselves and who remember when it was a lot more likely that a student with all As, good character, and modest extracurricular engagement had a fair shake at a top-tier acceptance. Today, that profile is par for the course, or more likely, below profile for the most selective institutions. The landscape is so different from just three years ago, let alone 30. Sorry, Mom.
Another colleague, Bari Norman, compared admissions rates at all eight of the Ivy Leagues in 1992 to today’s admissions rates and the equivalent colleges.
We share all of this information to help give context to the tough conversations. It is our job to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. We hope that you are encouraged to know that of the over 3,000 four-year colleges in this country, more than half have acceptance rates over 50 percent.
So it is imperative to keep an open mind when building your list and manage your expectations away from purported prestige to focus on fit and the potential to thrive. There are multiple best-fit colleges for you, ones that will be excited to admit you and who will meet, and often exceed, everything you aspire to in a college experience.
Alison Grill and Melanie Talesnick, Admit U Consulting