The downward trend in college acceptance rates at the most selective universities may not be a revelation or newsworthy, but it does beg the question: how much lower can admission rates realistically go? Getting into many highly selective colleges has indeed entered a new stage; admission to these lofty institutions is now more random than predictable. What was achievable for students even five years ago is essentially like playing the roulette wheel for applicants today.
The class of 2020 saw the lowest acceptance rates in history at the most selective colleges and there are no signs of this trend reversing soon. The most recent admission data show that 12 colleges, including six non-Ivies, had acceptance rates under 10%. Another 24 schools accepted fewer than 20% of the students who applied. Putting these numbers into context and paraphrasing the words of one Ivy League admissions officer, the average high achieving student in the applicant pool faces discouraging odds for admission. According to this admission officer, the typical applicant has high test scores and is taking AP calculus, and usually the more rigorous BC course, has at least three years of language and will complete the science triad of biology, chemistry and physics, with at least one and probably more at the AP level. Possessing these things makes a student average in that university’s and presumably its peers’ applicant pools; even with such impressive academic accomplishments, the majority of these candidates will not be accepted. To be competitive a student must have something truly special in order to stand out. In the realm of college admissions today that can take many forms: national recognition for science research, an exceptional talent, adding diversity that is highly sought and under-represented or something less tangible like an insatiable curiosity that manifests itself in unique and compelling ways (vague…I know). And even possessing those factors offers no guarantee. Being smart and gifted is no longer an admission ticket to the most selective colleges.
My reason for sharing this sobering news is not to instill panic. Rather, I hope it will help parents and students reorient their expectations, acknowledge the new reality of college admissions and re-evaluate their notion of value. Adjusting our thinking can actually be liberating. If we know the deck is stacked against us, recalibrating expectations might even reduce the anxiety that accompanies the long wait for potentially disappointing news. The reality of college admissions hopefully motivates us to redefine success so that it is no longer measured by acceptance rates that are akin to winning at the blackjack table. The truth is that the selectivity of a college is not a reliable measure of quality; it says nothing about what happens over the next four years. Getting in should not be the endgame; at best it puts one on the launch pad. What a student is able to accomplish, wherever he or she enrolls, will have far more bearing on future success than the institution’s name embossed on the diploma.
If you don’t believe me, look at the undergraduate colleges and universities of the entering class at Harvard Business School. You’re probably surprised to see so many colleges you’ve never heard of or perhaps some you might have assumed were of lesser quality. Apparently HBS did not think so. I also highly recommend Frank Bruni's best-selling book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. It’s not hype that students who excel, wherever they go, will have equally if not more promising futures than those who do not distinguish themselves at a more selective college.
So if increasingly more students are turned away from the most selective colleges each year, where do they end up going? The shifting landscape of college admission means that many institutions further down the selectivity chain have become more competitive too. That school you once assumed was a safety may no longer be. Take a look at it with fresh eyes and an open mind, and see it for what it is: an opportunity awaiting rather than a consolation prize. It has most likely raised its own bar, as those students who formerly saw it as a back-up college are now prominently represented among the student population.
Acknowledging and accepting the new reality of college admissions will hopefully shift the focus so that the process feels less like buying a lottery ticket and becomes more about finding a great fit. I’m not suggesting it’s easy to alter expectations, but I will guarantee that doing so will reduce anxiety and make the process less stressful, perhaps even fun. Once we can truly embrace the notion that success in life is not determined by the college name on the diploma, it’s easier to celebrate our children’s success should they end up at a college which accepts more than 20% of its students. Who knows. That student who finds the fit and stands out at the less selective college may be headed to Harvard Business School.