College acceptance rates – the phrase dominates google searches, admission office pamphlets, and conversations between high school students and (especially) their parents. But what does a college’s “acceptance rate” actually mean?
What Are College Acceptance Rates?
In simple terms, it is the rate at which a given school accepts applicants. It’s the percentage of students that a school admits to their incoming class, based on the total number of students that applied. This means that schools who get more students to apply will be able to reject more students. And thus have lower (and more impressive) acceptance rates. (More on that later.)
A quick example can help us clarify even more: Let’s take School X vs School Y, and say they both accepted 2,000 students for a certain incoming class. But, School X had 10,000 students apply, whereas School Y only had 4,000 applications. So, School X boasts a 20% acceptance rate while school Y’s acceptance rate is 50%, even though they accepted the same number of students into their incoming class.
Before we talk more about acceptance rates and their implications, there are some important distinctions to make. Acceptance rate, no matter how high or low, does not inherently give any information about the students’ grades or test scores.
Additionally, acceptance rate only refers to the percentage of students the school has accepted. This is different than the school’s yield rate, which refers to the percentage of accepted students who choose to attend that school.
Now that we have a clearer understanding of what acceptance rates are, let’s look into why you should care about them.
Why Do Acceptance Rates Matter to Colleges & Universities?
Colleges with low acceptance rates are generally viewed as desirable by prospective students, their parents, and the academia community at large. The question remains: why?
For colleges themselves, a low acceptance rate signals to the general public that it is a highly sought-after institution. In other words, they have more applicants than they can accept, meaning (theoretically) they’re accepting only the top students.
Colleges also care about their acceptance rate because it is a factor in their ranking by third parties such as the US News College Rankings. Middle tier colleges (those that are only moderately selective) will often game the system to get more applicants and subsequently lower their acceptance rate. For example, they might drop their application fee, so it’s free for all students to apply to the school, hopefully attracting a larger number of applications.
Why Forbes College Rankings Do Not Factor Acceptance Rate
Unlike some of its ranking competitors, the Forbes Top Colleges ranking methodology leaves out acceptance rate, meaning that a low acceptance rate does not give a school any advantage in the rankings. According to Forbes, numbers like acceptance rate, SAT score, or endowment “say far more about a school’s ‘prestige’ than its actual effectiveness.” And when looking for a school that’s the right fit for you, wouldn’t you rather take a look at student satisfaction or the influence of alcohol on campus?
Why Do Acceptance Rates Matter to Students?
So, clearly the colleges have a stake in their acceptance rate, but why should you? Why does this number matter to high school student and their parents?
The answer to these questions is a little more complicated than you might think.
Should we care about acceptance rates as much as we do now? No, probably not. And here’s why: that number only refers to the selectivity of a school, which won’t matter one bit once you’re attending. Rather, prospective students should be looking at factors such as sense of community at the college, or how safe students feel on campus.
Then, what are acceptance rates useful for?
The percentage might be a way to generally gauge your chances for getting into a particular school. However, that average percentage could also be way off for a student in a unique situation.
Though it might be a nice bragging point for a parent of a high school senior to say their kid got into Williams College, which accepts less than 18% of applicants, what does that really mean?
For example, Pomona College’s acceptance rate is around 10%. How do they manage to get to this small of a number?
Highly selective schools use their resources (financial and social capital) to get as many people to apply as possible, including those students who never really had a chance in the first place. Elite schools are happy to increase their number of applicants as much as possible, because then they get to reject more students thus lowering their acceptance rate. (Do you see how the game is played?)
Let’s take a closer look at some of the other factors that go into acceptance rates.
Where Things Get Complicated in the Real World
One thing that’s often discussed is the difficulty of getting into college now vs. a generation ago. Has it become harder to be admitted to college over time? Acceptance rates have certainly dropped, but does this necessarily mean it’s harder to get into college?
A few things have changed over time that do greatly affect college acceptance rates. For one, the Common Application, whose widespread adoption over the past two decades made it much easier for students to apply to many colleges at once. This caused an increase in the number of students applying to various schools, which affected acceptance rates.
Here’s what happened: The number of students applying to a large number of colleges increased, but the colleges aren’t accepting any more students than they were before, since most aren’t looking to expand their student body. So as more students apply, the acceptance rate percentage continues to decrease, making the schools appear more selective.
Other changes include revisions to standardized testing (the SAT and ACT), as well as changes in the requirements for college applications themselves – some schools have stopped asking for those test scores altogether.
All that being said, the competition to get into selective schools today is certainly stiff. Schools will look for not only grades, but also involvement in extracurricular activities, leadership qualities, and well-written essays as part of a comprehensive college application.
Another factor that affects college admissions, and even more so lately, is that of diversity. And not just diversity of race, either. Think of all kinds of identities, including socioeconomic status, gender, and citizenship status, just to name a few. Colleges are looking to build diverse incoming classes, and want to admit students that will contribute to this goal.
So, if you happen to be a black woman, valedictorian of your high school, star volleyball player, with countless hours of volunteer community service and a dozen AP courses, then your chance of getting into a school like Stanford or Amherst would likely be much higher than their impressively low average acceptance rates.
Because the fact is, most students who apply do not have a background that is that impressive or diverse.
Though recent attention from the U.S. Department of Justice has called into question the legality of admission into colleges based on race, a variety of identities still affect your individual chances of getting into a college that would not be reflected in the average acceptance rate.
For example, maybe these questions apply to you:
- Were you homeschooled?
- What is your veteran status?
- How many AP classes did you take vs. how many your high school offered?
- Are you part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB) program?
- Did you participate in many extracurricular activities?
- Did you attend a public or private high school?
- Did you apply to this college in the early or regular decision process?
The point is, acceptance rate is an average number, and will never be able to tell you your exact chances of being admitted to a college. Moreover, a low acceptance rate doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is a good fit for you.
So, What Should You Do Next?
After reading all this information on college acceptance rates, you might be feeling overwhelmed. If the rate as an average might not even matter to me, where do I go from here?
Here’s our advice: While the acceptance rate could be a helpful starting point, don’t just look at that average percentage. You have to do research on individual colleges to really know what’s in a school, and if it would be a good match for you or your child.
Full List of College Acceptance Rates by Selectivity
Click on a college name below to get the details of each college’s acceptance rate, academic competitiveness and admissions requirements.