How Selective Are Top Colleges Really?

Application Strategies
August 4, 2020
With More Students Applying To College Every Year, Top Colleges Are Becoming More Selective…

But are they really?

Understanding the reasons why top colleges are becoming more competitive or not can help your student gain an edge in the admissions process. While it may be daunting when your student sets their heart on a dream school with a less than 10% admissions rate, it is a challenge that can be overcome once you understand why these schools are becoming more selective, and why some are becoming more accessible.

The World Of Competitive College Admissions

Long ago, it was thought that only Ivy League schools had extremely competitive admissions. While part of that still holds true with Ivies such as Brown and Princeton having acceptance rates in the 8% range, there are now non-Ivy League schools with extremely competitive admissions processes like Swarthmore and Duke.

Combined with the way that colleges are portrayed in popular media and in the news as bastions of education, many have a reputation for being selective and difficult for “average” students to break through admissions.

Because of this, many parents and students become stressed when faced with low admission rates and begin to go into panic mode. Parents will lament over lost opportunities during high school while students will second-guess the applications they pour their hard work and effort into. For many students, learning that their dream school has a low admissions rate can make it seem like it isn’t even worth applying.

However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth - there are many complex reasons behind acceptance rates and why college admissions have become so competitive. Understanding these factors and having a positive outlook can help you guide your student through the admissions process using their strengths to their advantage.

Why College Admissions Are So Competitive

For many students, it’s easy to assume that all the top colleges are extraordinarily competitive at first-glance, discouraging them from the very start. However, the admission rate only begins to tell the story of how competitive college admissions are, and it’s important that your student understands their chances. A large part of the reasons that many colleges are seeing such low acceptance rates is due to large increases in applicants.

More kids than ever are looking to college as their next step after high school. If 35,000 students are applying to only 3,500 spots, the admission rate is bound to be extremely low, regardless of the intensity of the school’s admissions criteria.

This overflow of applications, partially caused by advancements such as the Common Application making applying to college easier, means many schools are struggling to grow fast enough to meet the demand. Because the Common App allows students to use an easy and universal online application to apply to many colleges at once, many students are applying to longer lists of safety, target, and reach schools than in decades past.

Another reason that the demand for college is growing is the increasing pressure students feel to earn a degree in order to land a well-paying job. In an unstable job market or uncertain economic times, more students are drawn to attend college to better their chances of success and weather out the economic storm in the shelter of academia.

Despite these factors, students should take heart in the fact that almost 80% of ranked colleges accept over half of students who submit an application. While the “big name” schools and Ivies may be very competitive, many students will find themselves accepted to a college where they can thrive regardless of the competitiveness of the admissions process.

In reality, while many more students choose to focus on the big name colleges due to pressure and prestige, there are many mid-tier schools with spots to fill. For students deterred by low admission rates, focusing on the lesser-known private and public schools in their state or region will likely provide a variety of excellent options. However, that doesn’t mean that your student can’t also aim for top colleges as well - it just means they should expand their options!

So, How Selective Are Top Colleges Really?

Overall, the top colleges are selective when compared to lesser-known private and public schools. This is, in part, due to the influx of students from within the United States and around the world applying to college. Not only are there more students period, but it’s also easier than ever with the rise of the Common Application and Coalition Application.

So while the top colleges may seem competitive, students should focus more on what they can do to increase their chances than the optics of the admissions rate. Creating a sharper personal essay response can give a student the edge they need, and making sure they demonstrate interest can keep them their name relevant to the right people.

There is only so much under your control as a parent and under your student’s control. Focus on creating positive change in your child’s application process where you can, and while you should acknowledge and be aware of the admissions rate of each school, you shouldn’t let it solely determine whether or not your student has a chance.

Regardless of the admissions rate at your student’s dream college, the admissions process can feel competitive and complex. Our WeAdmit counselors would love to offer guidance and support through these crucial months. Throughout our time working with your student, we’ll teach them the strategies and give them the resources they need to succeed in a competitive admission process.



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