The Ivy League Squeeze Rocks On

Just when you thought things couldn't get any tighter in elite admissions, all but one Ivy League school managed to squeeze its applicant pool a little more this year. The onslaught of applicants from around the world continues unabated as high school seniors everywhere dream of Ivy. Unfortunately, for most of those applicants, their quest remains a dream, if not a nightmare.

Last Thursday afternoon at 5 o'clock, I was sitting at my computer watching the various Ivy threads on the College Confidential discussion forum. As usual, server response time slowed a bit as I began checking the “Class of 2021" acceptance results.

I started with Harvard, last year's Ivy champ for lowest admit rate. As the news began to pour in, I became confident that Harvard would retain its hardest-to-get-into crown.

Brief comments such as, “Rejected," followed by any one of a number of sad emoji faces, kept flooding the thread. The rare “I got in!!!!!!!!!" responses appeared, well, rarely. After reading through several 15-post pages from Harvard, finding only perhaps three exclamation-pointed outbursts, I moved on to Yale, Princeton, and the remaining Ivies. The story was the same … much more anguish than jubilation.

Getting into the Ivies has always been a challenge, to say the least. An Ivy League degree has always been a cultural phenomenon. “Oh, s/he's and Ivy League grad" is a common comment that adds a touch of “class" (or perhaps perceived elitism) to one's profile.

As someone who has worked with high school seniors on their Ivy dreams for decades, I find myself asking the same question year after year: Just what are these schools looking for in the way of applicants? I ask this question every time I see a young man or woman who has done more in their relatively brief lives than I have accomplished across the long arc of my time on earth. Frankly, I am stumped for an answer.

In trying to rationalize unsuccessful Ivy admission outcomes, I first come to accept the fact that there just isn't room for all the qualified candidates. That's a matter of simple math and makes me sympathize with the admission committees who have to deal with such delicate decision making.

Then I have to consider the impact of what is known as “institutional priorities." These are the illusive needs that emerge from year to year at these top schools. Of course, most other colleges also have their own institutional priorities for admission. We can usually figure out what the ongoing priorities are, but knowing which ones are actively being applied from year to year requires a soothsayer with a high-powered crystal ball.

Diversity appears to be the big priority. There are various kinds of diversity, of course. To throw a blanket phrase over the most common type of diversity that I've seen, I would use the phrase “socio-economic ethnic diversity." This would cover applicants who have and meet a minimum standard of academic requirements, are in the so-called “URM" (Under-Represented Minority) category, may be their family's first college applicant, and come from a low-income background. These candidates appear to have an inside track, at least from what I have seen from year to year.

Naturally, there are also the athletes, legacies, development cases (kids with rich parents), celebrities (movie stars and politicians' kids), and no doubt a few other categories that veer applications to the inside track. So, for all the “Rejected :-(" respondents on the CC Ivy threads, the reality of advantaged-applicant admissions weighs heavily.

Okay, then. Let's take a look at the actual numbers that prove just how much harder it was this year to “Go Ivy." To save time and keystrokes, below please find an excerpt from the Business Insider summary of Ivy acceptance rates for the Class of 2021. I chose to note this source because it goes to the trouble of also noting last year's acceptance rate, thus showing this year's drop, except in the case of –amazingly — Yale University, where their acceptance rate eased a bit. Go figure.


  • Brown University accepted 2,722 from 32,724 applicants, according to a school representative. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 8.3%. Last year, Brown accepted 2,919of 32,390 applicants, a 9% acceptance rate.
  • Columbia University accepted 2,185 from 37,389 applicants, according to a representative. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 5.8%. Last year, Columbia accepted 2,193from 36,292 applications, a 6.04% acceptance rate.
  • Cornell University accepted 5,889 from 47,038 applicants, according to its website. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 12.5%. Last year, Cornell accepted 6,277 students from 44,966 applications, a 13.96% acceptance rate.
  • Dartmouth College accepted 2,092 students from 20,034 applicants, according to its website. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 10.4%. Last year, Dartmouth accepted 2,176 students from 20,675 applications, a 10.52% acceptance rate.
  • Harvard University accepted 2,056 students from 39,506 applicants, according to a representative. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 is 5.2%. Last year, Harvard accepted 2,037 students from 39,041 applications, a 5.2% acceptance rate.
  • The University of Pennsylvania accepted 3,699 from 40,413 applicants, according to a university press release. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 9.2%. Last year, UPenn accepted 3,661 from 38,918 applicants, a 9.4% acceptance rate.
  • Princeton University accepted 1,890 from 31,056 applicants, according to a representitive. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 6.1%. Last year, Princeton accepted 1,894 students from 29,303 applications, a 6.46% acceptance rate.
  • Yale University accepted 2,272 from 32,900 applicants, according to its website. The admissions rate for the class of 2021 was 6.9%. Last year, Yale admitted 1,972 of 31,455 applicants, a 6.27% acceptance rate.


Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote this about the non-Ivy, all-time low-admit-rate champion, Stanford University:

“… Four. Point. Seven. Percent. I'm not sure if we should be impressed or frightened. Certainly, any aspiring, rising-juniors out there targeting Stanford this fall should be frightened and stand warned.

“A while back here, I posited that eventually acceptance rates at some top colleges would reach their ultimate goal: zero. Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, must have seen my prophesy and wrote, College Admissions Shocker! where, among other satirical statements, he stated:

“Cementing its standing as the most selective institution of higher education in the country, Stanford University announced this week that it had once again received a record-setting number of applications and that its acceptance rate — which had dropped to a previously uncharted low of 5 percent last year— plummeted all the way to its inevitable conclusion of 0 percent.

“With no one admitted to the class of 2020, Stanford is assured that no other school can match its desirability in the near future …" …

It's time for an update: Four. Point. Six. Five. Percent. Yes, you read that right: 4,65%. It appears as though Stanford's march to zero continues.

Try to imagine that ideal world where no one is admitted to these top schools. The administration can just kick back, put their feet up, fold their hands behind their heads, and gaze out across the quad, secure in the knowledge that they have achieved admissions nirvana, where everyone wants in but no one is admitted. What a day that will be!

In the meantime, though, for all of you high schoolers aspiring to “Go Ivy," I have one piece of wisdom: Adjust your thinking and Plans B, C, and D, accordingly.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.