For many college-bound families, the December 31st isn’t just a celebration of a new year, but a key milestone in the college admissions process.
An article by the New York Times Upshot that for Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems. The article highlights a race to the bottom – with Harvard announcing that it had accepted 5.9 percent of the nearly 35,000 students who applied for admission to the class of 2018 and Stanford announced an even more exacting 5.07 percent admission rate. Statistics like these have come to dominate the national narrative of elite college admissions, with each new batch of ever-more-minuscule success rates fueling a collective sense that getting into a good college has become more difficult.
Upshot reminds us the common narrative is wrong. “For well-qualified students, getting into a good college isn’t difficult. It probably isn’t that much harder than it was generations ago. The fact that everyone believes otherwise shows how reliance on a single set of data — in this case, institutional admission rates — can create a false sense of what’s really going on. To start, it’s worth noting that the headline-inducing single-digit rates reported by Harvard and Stanford are unusual even for elite institutions. Washington University in St. Louis, ranked 14th nationally by U.S. News & World Report, admitted 17 percent of applicants this year. Notre Dame admitted 21 percent, Wellesley 28 percent, and the University of Michigan 32 percent. Still, those numbers are low and have been declining in each case.”
They don’t, however, represent the true odds of a well-qualified student’s being admitted to a top school. It is vital to recall three points:
- Some schools encourage students to apply to increase their apparent selectivity. As Dr. Michael Crow of Arizona State University describes it, these elite schools define their reputation by the students they exclude not the students they seek to include.
- Students may over-apply enabled by the Common Application and similar technologies. – some students apply to 20 ormore schools to increase their odds of making a single match. Enabled by technology that makes it easier to copy and send electronic documents and driven by the competitive anxiety that plummeting admission rates produce, top students have been sending out more applications.
- Growth in allication for international students. Schools are admitting more international students than ever before. In most cases, schools have grown the class sizes to accommodate the demand by international students for a U.S. college education.
But while the best students are sending out more applications for the same number of slots at elite colleges, the slots themselves aren’t becoming more scarce and the number of students competing with one another isn’t growing. In essence, the growth in applications per student creates a vicious cycle, causing admission rates at the best schools to artificially decline, students to become more anxious, and the number of applications per student to grow even more.
We agree with Upshot, “The most important elite college admissions statistic, then, is not the percentage of applications top schools accept. It’s the percentage of top students who are admitted to at least one top school. And that number isn’t 5 percent or 20 percent or even 50 percent. It’s 80 percent. It turns out that four out of five well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one.”
These numbers come courtesy of Parchment.com, a website that helps students submit college transcripts electronically and navigate the admissions world. Services like Parchment and the Common Application are among the reasons it has become easier for students to submit more applications and drive down institutional admission rates.
And the real odds of success were even higher than 51 percent.
The top students in the Parchment database applied to 2.6 elite colleges, on average. Flip a coin twice and, according to probability theory, you’ll get heads at least once 75 percent of the time. Sure enough, 80 percent of top students were accepted to at least one elite school. But this is mostly a matter of optimizing odds that are very good to begin with.
College Parents of America – reminds all college families – not to panic: We agree with the statement “If you work hard and get good grades and test scores, there is very likely a place in the best schools for you.”