frustrated student
frustrated student

Why Does it STILL Seem so Hard to Get into College?

This blog post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated. You can see the original version here: Why Does it Seem so Hard to Get into College? 

Every year around this time, I start to get inundated with videos on social media of students opening their acceptance letters. The teen is sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by family, wearing the sweatshirt of their (hopeful) future alma mater, as they navigate to the website, anxiously click on the decision, and end up screaming and celebrating after their acceptance. While these videos are fun and often bring a smile to my face, they also give me a lot of anxiety. I know that for every video posted of a student getting good news, there are dozens of videos that were filmed but not posted of students getting bad news. We rarely see these videos, obviously, but the reality is that for the highly selective (or “highly rejective,” depending on the language you prefer) institutions, more students than ever before are hearing “no” instead of “yes.” 

The number of college applicants has risen sharply in the last 20 years, and the number of applications each applicant submits has gone up, too.  In March of 2023, over 1.2 million applicants submitted over 7 million applications. Total application volume was up 30% from where it was in 2019-2020, according to the Common App.  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 2023:

admit rates over time

The precipitous drop in admit rates–and the resulting intensification of competition among applicants–can manifest in predictable and measurable ways. In the post-covid, test-optional world, selective colleges have seen a huge increase in applicants. The applicants most likely to submit test scores are the ones who performed the highest on the exam, making the average admitted-student SAT and ACT scores sky high. This can leave a student with a score below, or even toward the bottom, of an institution’s mid-ranges questioning whether or not to submit or apply without them. Couple this with a brand new digital SAT coming this month and an already stressful process suddenly feels all the more arduous. (Arduous is a good SAT reading comprehension word, by the way!) 

These days, students also have to contend with the admit rates for certain majors or schools within the institutions to which they apply. Popular programs, like computer science, business, engineering, and nursing, are often drastically more competitive than less popular programs, often in the humanities or education. For example, the admit rate at the University of Illinois varies wildly by major, and although the overall admit rate is 43% at the time of this post, the admit rate for someone who selects Computer Science as their intended major is only 7.5%. There can be some surprisingly competitive majors, as well. The Psychology major at Bucknell University has a 19% admit rate (Neuroscience, interestingly, has a 27% admit rate, and a similar curriculum). 

Meanwhile, diversity initiatives have fundamentally altered the college application process for all applicants, regardless of their identity. After the US Supreme Court ruled that colleges could no longer consider race when reviewing a student’s application, colleges have needed to change their processes in order to continue enrolling a diverse class. Many institutions started requiring a supplemental essay asking students to reflect on their identity in some way, and the personal statement became a place for many students to share more about their identity and background.  However, race isn’t the only form of diversity institutions are looking for. A huge number of other enrollment priorities also make their way onto colleges’ checklists, including but not limited to: socioeconomic status, geographic location, sexual preference, religion, gender, special talents, development potential, and a whole host of other factors. 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.

It’s also 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 questions surrounding test scores, the lack of clarity around each school’s enrollment priorities–have 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. You can read more about the various deadline options in our blog posts, “Decoding College Admissions” and “Understanding Non-Traditional Application Rounds”) 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. These early applicants are almost certainly going to yield, which in turn raises the college’s overall yield rate (and thus their rankings). 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 Middlebury College, for example, last year’s Early Decision acceptance rate was 42%, compared with a 10% Regular Decision rate, and they filled 69% of their incoming class with Early applicants. 

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. 

Are you feeling stressed about your own college admissions process? We’re here to help. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to learn how we can help you manage the intricacies of the process.