An 80% chance of attending an elite college? Sure, for the right applicants.

Applicant mismatch drives elite selectivity ratings

When measured correctly, the chances of getting into one of America's elite colleges are actually quite good, argues the New America Foundation's Kevin Carey in the New York Times.

The typical perception of elite college admissions imagines a yearly competition for coveted acceptance letters, and considering the admissions statistics routinely touted by the nation's top colleges, it is not a surprising perception. This year, Harvard University accepted only 5.9% of applicants, while Stanford University accepted a mere 5.07%.

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However, Carey argues, those numbers fail to tell the whole story. The acceptance rates at elite institutions are pushed lower by a great mismatch between prospective students' qualifications and those required by the colleges they apply to. Anyone can apply to a top school—but most are woefully underqualified. The real competition is among a small subset of well-qualified students.

For the right applicant, the chances of getting into one of America's top colleges are closer to 80%.

Even then, examining acceptance rates of well-qualified applicants at an institutional level distorts reality, Carey says. Most students are focused on getting into at least one elite institution, rather than one in particular. Looking at selectivity from the perspective of the applicant, rather than the institution, gives a more complete picture of how difficult it is to gain acceptance to a top school.


Carey examined data from the website, which helps students submit application materials to colleges. This year, over 800,000 applicants used Parchment.

First, Parchment singled out highly qualified applicants—defined as those with an SAT equivalent of at least 1300. Then, it identified which of those students had applied to one or more of America's 113 most selective schools (as determine by Barron's Profile of American Colleges).

Overall, the admissions rate for those schools was approximately 32%. However, when admissions data was examined for the well-qualified subset of students, the acceptance rate rose to 51%. Furthermore, those well-qualified students applied to an average of 2.6 elite colleges. Using this number, Carey notes that the true odds of well-qualified students getting into at least one top school were actually closer to 80%.

Why the mismatch?

Carey argues daunting raw admissions numbers are the result of both strategy on the part of applicants and external incentives driving colleges to increase their selectivity score.

Because applying to more schools improves an applicant's odds, they are encouraged to submit more applications. However, all these extra applications also make individual schools seem more competitive.  Critics have accused colleges of intentionally marketing to underqualified students, or at least doing little to dissuade them.

But other experts point out that schools are facing rising competition for prospective students. The extra prestige brought on by a low acceptance rate could bring a helpful edge in a tough market (Carey, "The Upshot," New York Times, 11/29).

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