Why Does it Seem so Hard to Get into College?

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling


There’s a scene in the 2017 Greta Gerwig film Ladybird in which the title character receives her college admissions results on her clunky 2000s-era desktop. The University of California system page informs her that she was admitted to only one school: UC Davis. She curses and slaps the computer. When her older brother tries to comfort her, she accuses him of not understanding her situation. The scene is funny because it’s so relatable; it taps into the painful reality of skyrocketing application numbers and plummeting college admission rates, a situation that has only gotten more intense since the time in which the film is set. That reality must be confronted by prospective applicants, as they grapple with their chances for admission to schools that are determined to climb the rankings. Why is it so much tougher to get into college now? What shifts occurred, both within colleges and within the college applicant pool, to create this hyper-competitive environment? How can students today deal with the increased pressure of college admissions? Are Early Decision (ED) options good ways to navigate the daunting barriers that some universities construct? What is going on?

The first thing to acknowledge is that the hype and anxiety are not unfounded: it is, in fact, much more difficult to get into college than it was a generation ago. The number of college applicants has risen sharply, especially over the past ten years, and this trend does not appear to be letting up any time soon. Numerous studies have shown that application numbers have skyrocketed over the past decade–often by more than 50%! Given this explosion, the selectivity of universities has increased dramatically across the board. It’s simple math: when admit rates go down, it means that more applicants are rejected, and a more competitive application pool is inevitably created. The drastic increase in selectivity impacts virtually every aspect of college admissions, from heightened pressure on test scores to diversity and inclusion factors.

Here is a graph we’ve created, comparing admission rates at a selection of schools, between 2005 and 2019:

And here is a chart showing the real data behind the above graph:

The precipitous drop in admit rates–and the resulting intensification of competition among applicants–can manifest in predictable and measurable ways. Average admitted-student SAT and ACT scores, for example, have risen along with selectivity, making an already stressful process feel all the more arduous. (Arduous is a good SAT reading comprehension word, by the way!) And just recently, the SAT announced its controversial “adversity score,” which will account for the socioeconomic context of each test-taker, but whose actual rating and significance will not be made public. Meanwhile, diversity initiatives have fundamentally altered the college application process for all applicants, regardless of their identity. Enrollment priorities for universities consist of more widely recognized markers of diversity, like racial minorities and socioeconomic status. However, a huge number of other enrollment priorities also make their way onto colleges’ checklists, including but not limited to: geographic location, sexual preference, religion, gender, special talents, development potential, and a whole host of other factors. Of course, it’s necessary and important that colleges and universities strive for an authentically diverse student body, looking beyond numbers and test scores to see the true measure of an applicant. Yet, applicants are often left feeling unsure of how exactly they are being judged and whether they fit the set of criteria upon which admission decisions are based.

Although the relationship between a college’s increase in applicants and its increase in selectivity can appear to be natural and logical from an outside perspective, it is important to remember that in today’s culture, colleges are incentivised to actively cultivate a reputation for selectivity. An increase in a school’s applicant pool reduces their admit rate, which then boosts their rankings and enhances the public perception of how “good” that school is. And the greater the selectivity of a college, the more applicants that school attracts, depressing its admit rate even further. Together, these factors–the increases in selectivity, the focus on rankings, the intensified stress on test scores, the lack of clarity around each school’s enrollment priorities–has made the college admissions landscape feel treacherous, littered with obstacles to potentially thwart applicants’ aspirations.

Amidst all this, options like Early Decision and Early Action have emerged as tempting ways for college applicants to get a leg up. (Early Decision is a binding application to a university; Early Action is a non-binding application. There are also other variations of “Early Action” applications.) And the Early trend is well founded: elite schools increasingly focus on Early applicants, often relying on them to make up between 30 and 50 percent of their student bodies. The admit rates for Early applicants are higher–sometimes shockingly so–as colleges realize that there are myriad advantages to locking in desirable applicants. At Northwestern University, for example, last year’s Early Decision acceptance rate was 27%, compared with a 7% Regular Decision rate, and they filled 54% of their incoming class with Early applicants.
Such numbers are consistent with other highly selective colleges and reflect an overall trend across the full range of schools. For this reason, Early options are very appealing to students dead-set on one dream school (and willing to forego potential financial aid negotiations if admitted). However, this kind of application process comes with its own host of societal issues, most notably the fact that it often poses additional challenges for lower-income students. After analyzing rates of Early Decision versus Regular Decision applications in 2016, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that there was a stark class divide in applicants: “29 percent of high-achieving students from families making more than $250,000 a year applied early decision, compared with only 16 percent of high-achieving students from families with incomes less than $50,000. In short, low-income students are half as likely to apply early, even though doing so would dramatically increase their likelihood of admission.” This division among applicants is due to the loss of financial aid “matching” or negotiating when a student is bound by an Early application, which most often necessitates an unconditional commitment to enroll in the university in question.

All of these factors are interrelated, complicating the college admissions process, amplifying its competitiveness, and increasing overall stress and anxiety. If it all seems like a vicious cycle, that’s because it really is. But the reality is that no one party is to blame; all are caught in that cycle, with colleges needing to keep up with their peers and the times, and students feeling the need to push themselves harder–both of which only compound the situation. In my twenty years as a college counselor, I’ve seen a marked change, as students and families feel more and more confused and overwhelmed when attempting to figure out the right way to apply to colleges. (And, by the way, there is no one “right” way to do it. Each student and family is unique, and each must find the approach that best matches their own goals and situation.) What is abundantly clear is that the process has become simultaneously more highly pressurized and more ambiguous. Though I always advise all students to make sure they have a balanced list so as to avoid Ladybird’s predicament, I cannot promise that the process won’t occasionally make you want to slap your computer in frustration.