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Ultracompetitive Colleges

Updated 5/29/2024

For great students aspiring to attend an elite college, there is a both good news and bad news.

The Bad News

Simply stated, it’s never been harder to get into one of America’s top colleges. According to a Forbes article, Harvard, Yale and Columbia had acceptances rates in spring 2024 of under 4%, while Brown and Dartmouth's rates were just over 5%. Acceptance rates of the other Ivies had yet to be announced. Outside the Ivies, schools like Duke and Vanderbilt also reported acceptance rates of around 5% in the 2024 admissions cycle. Closer to home, UVA's acceptance rate fell to a record low of 16.3%.

These low rates were fueled in part by an increased number of applications due to Covid-related test optional policies, but the trend of ever-decreasing acceptance rates predates the pandemic. Colleges that once had fairly healthy acceptance rates have also become tremendously more difficult to get into. Case in point - The University of Chicago. According to the 1999 edition of U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges, the 1997 acceptance rate for University of Chicago was a healthy 62%, but just 20 years later, the 2017 acceptance rate had plummeted to 8.7 and in fall 2022 was reported by U.S. News to be 5%.

What’s Going On?

The reason that these top schools have such low acceptance rates is simply that they have far more applicants than places in the class. Their applicant pools have swollen for a number of reasons, including a relatively large number of graduating seniors over the past few years, higher percentages of students going on to college, a rise in international applications and the availability of great financial aid making these schools accessible to a much wider spectrum of students.

For all these reasons, admissions committees at top colleges find themselves with far more qualified applicants than there are places in the freshman class. Indeed, if you attend an information session at one of these colleges, you are likely to hear that most applicants – perhaps as many as 50 or 60% - are considered qualified , i.e. likely to succeed if admitted. How then does the admissions committee decide which ones to accept?

You might think the answer is obvious – accept those with the highest scholastic metrics. But you would be wrong. If admissions officers can accept 2500 students, they do not set out to identify the 2500 with the best combination of grades and SAT scores. Indeed, in today's environment - when a majority of schools are test optional, test scores may not be available for all applicants. The committee’s objective is not to reward the hardest working or smartest students, but rather to assemble a diverse, vibrant community of great students. To do so, they look beyond academic factors to predict what each applicant will contribute in the dining hall, the classroom, and the campus at large.

The preceding article, What Colleges Are Looking For, identified six factors that colleges consider as they evaluate applicants- 1) courses, 2) achievement; grades, GPA, and class rank; 3) standardized testing, if submitted; 4) recommendations; 5) extracurricular activities; and 6) the application essay. Large colleges with lots of applicants and a high acceptance rate tend to focus on the first three academic factors. In fact, their applications may ask for no more than a high school transcript and test scores. As a general rule, however, highly competitive colleges utilize a much more thorough and holistic process.

What Does a Successful Applicant Look Like?

The ideal applicant to a top college has taken the hardest courses available to him and excelled. He may have taken several college level courses that weren’t even offered at his high school, through distance learning or attending a local college part-time. He’s coaching a soccer team for underprivileged children in the off-season of his Olympic Development squad. As a senior, he’s petitioning Congress to protect the bald-headed tree sloth after having researched its migration patterns over the past three years. He’s dazzled teachers with his brilliance and won the heart of his counselor with his self-effacing charm.

I’ve exaggerated a bit, but not by as much as you might think. Successful applicants to the most elite colleges today are an unbelievably accomplished group of young men and women. It’s no longer good enough to be Big Man on Campus at Hometown High School.

What Can a Parent Do to Help?

My suggestions for parents of students aspiring to ultracompetitive colleges fall into four general categories.

Educate yourself.
One of the most important things you can do is what you’re doing right now. Learn about the landscape of competitive college admissions today. It’s vastly different than it was when you were in high school. Back then, a high school girl with excellent grades and high SAT scores was reasonably assured of gaining admission to at least one of the most competitive colleges. I doubt that anyone in my high school class agonized about her class rank, and I’m certain none of us published a volume of literary essays or a scientific paper. Our counselors advised us to join lots of activities in order to appear well-rounded, and their advice was sound – then. Today well-roundedness has gone the way of go-go boots. The new fashion is the student who is passionately committed to a few activities.

In short, times have changed. The admissions process at elite colleges today is both more complex and competitive than it was a generation ago. Read the in-depth articles in this section on each of the admission factors to learn how colleges evaluate them, and remember that the more competitive the college, the more emphasis will be placed on the non-academic qualities – the extracurricular activities, recommendations, and essay. Read the article on the interview as well, since many competitive colleges offer an alumnae interview that is evaluative.

Promote talent development.
In my view, the best way to help a student shine in the college admissions arena is to guide her to develop her talents; those academic and extracurricular abilities and interests that she is genuinely enthusiastic about. Help her discover those talents by exposing her to a wide variety of opportunities in middle school and early in high school, and then help her nurture the ones she enjoys. Look beyond the offerings in her high school to your community, the Internet, and residential summer programs. Keeping your focus on talent development rather than trying to impress a college will ensure that your efforts – and your daughter’s – will not be wasted, regardless of where she is accepted.

Choose colleges wisely.
First, while it’s natural – and healthy – to be proud of your son’s accomplishments, try to make an unbiased assessment of how he’ll compare to other top applicants across the country, based only on those assets that will be obvious from his college application. And no matter how strong he appears, keep in mind that when acceptance rates are in the single digits and teens, many of the students who end up being denied have academic qualifications indistinguishable from those who are accepted. In short, admission decisions at top colleges are somewhat unpredictable and may seem downright capricious.  For these reasons, read the Explore and Apply sections with an eye toward compiling a college list with a sufficient number and range of choices to ensure that your son will gain acceptance to at least one school he’s excited about. 

Protect your child's self-esteem.
For an applicant, the competitive college admissions process can feel like an assessment of her worth as a student and a person, and in this light a rejection can be interpreted as a judgment that she was found lacking. Remind yourself and her that this is a fallible and subjective process. The admissions committee is judging her on the basis of a very limited amount of information. Not only is this an extremely incomplete proxy for a complex person, but it contains several important elements over which she has no control, like the rigor of courses available in her high school and the quality of her counselor and teacher recommendations. Further, the final selection of admitted students is decidedly subjective. There’s nothing wrong with most of the students who do not win the golden ticket; they are for the most part students that the admissions committee would love to admit if they had enough space.

One final piece of advice for parents is to be sure to tell your son that your view of him is in no way dependent on the judgment of a group of people who have never met him, and that he does not have to worry about disappointing you, whatever the outcome. This message, if delivered sincerely, can go a long way toward cushioning a disappointment - but for the best effect say it early and often, rather than waiting until after he's been rejected.

The Good News

Happily, the good news for great students far outweighs the bad. If you and your daughter select colleges carefully, she will be accepted to at least one outstanding college that will afford her the opportunity to get a great education in the company of other high achieving students.

Better still, she is very likely to be successful in college and graduate in four years.

This is a key point. Remind her that getting in to college is not the end game. Many students feel that if they do not get in to the prestigious institution of their choice that the hard work they’ve done in high school will have been wasted. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Students who have taken rigorous courses and done well are not only likely to be successful at whatever college they attend, but will also have more time to spend on extracurricular activities and socializing than students who have to struggle to overcome weak academic preparation. Promote this positive focus from the very beginning of the college search process. Emphasize the positive features of all the schools on your teen's final college list and actively resist the "Ivy League or bust" mentality.

A second piece of good news is that it pays to be a good student – literally. Elite colleges often have the most generous need-based financial aid packages, so middle and even upper-middle income families may be eligible for aid along with families in the low-income bracket. In addition, colleges that rank below the most competitive tier frequently offer merit aid to attract students who are at the top of their applicant pool. And finally, there are many sources of other scholarship aid for outstanding students. For more information on finding money for college, be sure to read the Pay for College section when you get there.

In conclusion, it’s ironic that the best students often suffer the most angst in the admissions process, but once that’s over, rest assured that the rewards for their academic achievements are substantial and continuing.

Next article:  Less Competitive Colleges or Courses


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