Every week, I read a new headline about the newly cutthroat world of college admissions. In April, major news outlets across the country reported that Stanford outdid itself by admitting only 5 percent of its applicants last year (news that it will gradually increase its class size offers only a scintilla of additional hope). The New York Times’ Anna Bahr lamented recently that the college admissions battle begins at age 3, writing that among educated families, “there’s the implicit belief that a premier prekindergarten program guarantees an early leg up in a nearly 14-year battle to gain admission to the country’s most competitive colleges.”
There are a lot of reasons that prestigious colleges and the publications that write about them (the U.S. News ranking came out this week) continue to focus on the percentage of applicants admitted — and, by that measure, the picture is indeed dispiriting for many students. But here’s the thing: Getting into these and other colleges has actually gotten significantly easier over the past 30 years. If you want to continue your education after high school, there’s never been a better time.
It’s true that admission rates at the 100 or so most selective colleges have indeed declined significantly over the past 30 years, from 54 percent in 1984 to 32 percent in 2012. Numbers at the Ivies are almost comically daunting: 6 percent at Harvard, 6 percent at Yale, 7 percent at Columbia and so on.
Students may worry about low admission rates, but colleges love them, because it helps their rankings. U.S. News & World Report, for no good reason the most respected guide, weighs selectivity heavily in its calculations. It also considers other factors — academic reputation, graduation rates and alumni giving — but schools need years to make significant progress in these areas. The easiest and quickest way for a school to improve its ranking is to decrease its acceptance rate. And since better rankings generate qualified applicants and alumni giving, schools understandably take them seriously.
They use two tactics to drive down admission rates. The first is early decision: the candidates who apply in October and get their answers in December. Since students who apply later aren’t obligated to enroll, colleges must accept about three of them to get one who will ultimately come in the fall. Early decision is more straightforward because most colleges that use it require students who apply early to enroll if accepted; a college that accepts 10 early decision students will likely see all 10 enroll. By devoting a greater portion of its acceptances to these surefire early admission applicants, colleges can accept fewer students overall and still get the yield they need. The second is the widespread adoption of electronic applications, the most popular option being the Common Application. Online applications make applying to college a much faster and easier process. Students who used to apply to two or three schools now routinely apply to ten or fifteen (the national average is 7, but many students shooting for selective schools apply to 20).
These two factors mean that, all things being equal, a college accepting 30 percent of its applications 25 years ago would accept just 8 percent now.
Thankfully, a larger trend pushes in the other direction: Top colleges have gotten a lot bigger. Many of the universities you traditionally think of as selective have added seats (like Michigan, Berkeley and Boston University), while some huge schools have joined the ranks of the elite (think NYU, USC and UCLA). Today, there are 55 percent more seats available at top colleges than there were when this class’s parents applied 30 years ago. Even considering the increase in international applicants, there are 44 percent more seats for every American student than in the early 1980s. For a student preparing to apply to a selective college, this means that while it’s more difficult to get into any one top college, getting into one of the top colleges is much easier.
The longstanding advice from guidance counselors has been to choose a few target, reach, and safety schools when applying, but changes in the admissions landscape have made this a risky strategy. Students today need a modern approach if they want to take advantage of the new reality in college admissions.
First, make a portfolio. List at least 10 to 14 schools that would make you ecstatic and apply to them all; use early options where possible. The old advice will leave you at a disadvantage.
Second, don’t obsess. Don’t focus on just one dream school. You might not get in, but you will very likely get into one of your top choices. Remember that you can only go to one school.
Third, be yourself. Every school wants a diverse student body, and admissions officers are often looking for specific qualities. Sometimes a college just wants a lacrosse player from the South; if that’s not you, don’t waste your time pretending it is. Instead, go all in on your passion. You can’t be a perfect match for 14 different schools, but you can be your best you.
These recommendations are just as relevant for the huge number of students who apply to less selective universities and community colleges, many of which have lower tuition, offer more remedial support, or are closer to home. Just because the New York Times wrote more about Harvard last year more than about all community colleges combined doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of institutions that offer the right experience for the right students. Two-thirds of college freshmen drop out or transfer from their school, in part because the quest for the highest-ranked school often crowds out the quest for the best fit.