Admissions

Elite Admissions: Yesterday Vs. Today

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I’ve joked in the past that eventually one of the so-called “elite” colleges in America will achieve its sought-after nirvana: A zero percent acceptance rate. Nobody gets in!

Obviously, that won’t happen. That’s why I joke about it. However, with elite acceptance rates now down to the five percent neighborhood, one has to wonder, just like in limbo dance contests, how low can they go?


Single-digit acceptance rates aren’t the only shocking sign of college admissions these days. Schools that once had rates in the 35-50 percent range are now in the high teens to low twenties. As I like to tell my counseling clients and their parents, “Yesterday’s safety schools are today’s competitive colleges.”

That caution all too frequently goes ignored. The power of a “dream school” can often separate a high school senior from reality. A couple years ago, I advised a young woman from a small all-girls school. She had a strong profile and appeared to have a sensible approach to her college process. But Yale was her dream school and she persisted in ignoring my cautions about her chances.

She applied Early Action (EA) in November and waited almost breathlessly for her mid-December decision. She was denied outright, which I thought was a much better verdict than a deferral to late March, which could have then led to the purgatory of the waitlist. She was crushed and I found it difficult to console her and make her see the great potential she had at all the other schools to which she eventually applied in January. She ultimately enrolled in a terrific small liberal arts college and is prospering. It was a happy ending for all concerned.

This little anecdote points out the folly of so many high schoolers today who don’t realize the degree of the slope they must scale to enter the elite college realm. I found a quite enlightening article that puts elite admissions into perspective by explaining how it ever got to this almost impossible Everest-like climb.

How Did Elite Admissions Get Here?

The title of Analyzing the Grim Reality of College Acceptance Rates Over Time pretty much tells the tale. The article comes from Priceonomics, which touts itself as a place for “data nerds.” If you are a data nerd, you’ll be pleased at what you see here. There are lots of charts, graphs and lists. I encourage you to dazzle your eyes with their message, which will also, unfortunately, depress your hopes of elite admission.

The introduction prepares us for the current state of difficulty with a few teasing questions:

Every year, it seems it’s harder to get in to the top colleges in the United States. Perfect grades and SATs were barely enough a decade ago to get admission into the Ivy League and now competition is even more fierce.

But just how hard is it to get into a top college today and how does that compare to the past? If you got into a top school a decade ago, would you have a chance today? Are some schools even more difficult to get into than others?

As my story from above shows, many of today’s high school seniors (and parents) are blinded by The Dream School aspect of elite higher education. The Ivy League, especially the Big Three (Princeton, Harvard and Yale), wield so much prestige and mythical ambience that respect for the difficulty level of getting in is often just an afterthought.

How did they create this analysis? Here’s their methodology:

We analyzed data from Priceonomics customer BusinessStudent.com who assembled admissions rates from top schools in 2006 and compare them to twelve years later in 2018. We restricted our analysis to just the top schools in the United States a decade ago (the top 51 according to U.S. News back then) to see how their admissions rates changed.

They go back a decade. Being the packrat that I am, I still have old copies of the U.S. News rankings that go back into the mid-1980s. If you want a real jolt, take a look at some of the acceptance rates from that era. For example, check this out from a cool Forbes article:

Two of the most prestigious U.S. universities -- Stanford and Harvard -- are making headlines again as their ultra-tough admissions decisions become public. Harvard this year got 37,307 undergraduate applicants and admitted just 5.3 percent. Stanford was even stingier, offering places to a mere 5.05 percent of its 42,487 applicants. Has the journey to college always been this crazy?

No it hasn't.

Back in 1973-74, when I applied to Stanford, not only were the applications rituals more primitive -- the odds of getting in were vastly better. A mere 8,025 of us applied, and 31 percent were offered spots in what became the Class of 1978. With those relatively gentle odds, there was room back then for candidates like me, who didn't have perfect grades. Stanford's files no longer include reviewers' notes or even my long-ago personal essay, which is probably just as well. But the few remaining pages provide intriguing clues about what made the admissions cycle work so differently back then.

I highlighted the contrast in Stanford’s acceptance rates in bold font. Let’s see … 31 percent in 1974 vs. (let’s round it to) 5 percent in 2018. That’s a 0.6 percent drop per year across those 44 years.

Attention ladies and gentlemen: Remember that you heard it here first. In just eight years, during the 2026-2027 admissions season, Stanford will achieve its nirvana of a 0 percent acceptance rate! So, parents of fourth graders, be warned: Your child’s chances that year will be much better at Princeton, Harvard and Yale!

Now that I’ve issued that ominous fantasy warning, let’s return to Priceonomics’ reality, with its version of my fictitious extrapolation:

Yes, it’s much harder to get into a top school today than it was in 2006 and admissions rates have plummeted across the board. The school that’s had the sharpest drop in acceptance rates is the University of Chicago, followed by Northwestern and Duke. Of the 51 schools we looked at, 49 schools were more difficult to get into, but two actually had higher admissions rates. ...

These data are truly amazing. For example, this statement boggles the mind:

A top ten school in 2006 had a 16 percent admissions rate. Today, that rate is just 6.4 percent, a decline of almost 60 percent. Each tranche of school is harder to get into, but “hypercompetition” is increasing the fastest at the most elite universities.

Thus, at that particular school, it’s more than twice as hard to get in today than it was a dozen years ago. Plus, the very top schools are getting increasingly hard to get into year by tear. That should be sobering information for the dream school crowd. 

So, which schools are seeing their acceptance rates fall the most over the last twelve years?

Over that dozen years from 2006 until now, the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate has fallen 81.1 percent! Following that are Northwestern at 73.8 percent, Duke at 72.2 percent and Georgia Tech at 68.1 percent.

By a large margin, the University of Chicago takes the number one spot in terms of declining admissions rates. Candidates saw rates drop from 38 percent in 2006 to just 7.2 percent in 2018. Northwestern and Duke also saw their admissions rates plummet by over 70 percent.

Surprisingly, on the list of the Top 20 schools where acceptance rates plunged, the only tippy-top schools to appear were Stanford (60.9 percent drop), Harvard (49.0 percent drop) and MIT (48.5 percent drop). Princeton and Yale failed to make the Top 20.

Did any schools get easier to get in during this time period? Just two: ...

William & Mary [12.5 percent] and Syracuse [2.0 percent] saw their admissions rates actually increase slightly during this time period. The rest of the schools that make the above list saw admissions rates drop, though not as fast as at other top schools.

Why Is This Happening?

Wondering what's causing these shifts? Here are a few suppositions from the Priceonomics article:

- First, there is some indication that the average applicant applies to more schools today than in the past. An article in The Atlantic relates that while a handful of school applications per student might have been the norm in the past, now 10 or 15 applications is more normal. More applications per person to the same number of slots at top schools means admissions rates go down.

You may recall that I’ve mentioned working with high school seniors who have applied to 20-24 colleges. Of course, the Common Application is perhaps the main reason why seniors are applying to so many school these days. The Common App allows for up to 20 schools to be listed for application. Maybe it’s a matter of seniors wanting to take advantage of all those openings on the CA or they’re just worried that it has become so tough to compete that they’re shotgunning their apps in hopes that some will result in good news.

- Next, there is increased global demand for spots at top American schools. With the rapid development of India and China, there are more parents in these countries who want to send their kids to the best schools in the world, most of which are located in the United States.

In my work as an independent admissions counselor, I can vouch for the Indian and Chinese aspect. This year, in fact, almost all of our clients have come from Indian and Chinese families. I recall the mother of one South Korean parent whose son was applying to The Big Three (HYP), among others, telling me that in Korea, they have never heard of Duke, Amherst, Penn or other top American schools. Thus, the foreign focus on the ultimate in elite American colleges.

- Lastly, the financial returns from attending to top schools in the country continue to increase, even while college on the whole may not be as good a deal as it once was. Put differently, in a highly competitive global economy, having a degree from Harvard is extremely valuable, even if it cost you a lot money. On the other hand, a degree from an equally expensive school without the prestige of Harvard may not be worth the mountain of debt. The result? More applications for schools like Harvard.

This is the sentiment I see in Indian and Chinese parents. They believe that getting a degree from an elite school is absolutely necessary for happiness and, particularly, success in life. This, of course, is not true, as you may have read in some of my past posts here. Nevertheless, the combination of this attitude, combined with the surge in international applications, provides a significant clue about the falling acceptance rates of the top schools.

In any event, I post this information for the enlightenment of any high school seniors and their parents who are targeting these top schools. Roll the dice in the crapshoot that is today’s elite admissions game.

Unfortunately, “snake eyes” seems to be the most frequent result. Good luck!