Current high school students have probably heard the news: more and more students are applying to the nation’s top colleges and universities, which means the admissions rates keep getting lower and lower. According to the Harvard Admissions Office, 39,041 students applied to the class of 2020, the largest number ever. Of these, just over 5% were admitted. The University of California also saw its largest application numbers ever, with over 206,000 students applying to its schools. Added to the stress of homework, extracurricular activities, and admissions testing, this is enough to make some students throw up their hands and declare it impossible to get into a “good” school.
Don’t panic! The higher application rates are part of a more complicated story, a story that ends with every top student getting into a top school. While you’re chances of getting into that one particular dream school might be lower, your chances of getting into an excellent college are arguably still as high as ever.
Here’s what’s really going on:
1) Each student is applying to more schools
Online applications and increased acceptance of the common application have made it easier than ever to apply to college. With nearly 700 colleges now accepting the Common App, all students have to do for most schools is click a button and pay an extra fee. Combine this with the perception that school admission is more competitive than ever, and many students choose to apply to five, six, or seven or more schools instead of the previous trend of three or four applications per student. The total number of high school seniors, however, has gone down slightly over the past several years. This means that, as stated in Time Magazine’s article “College Admissions: The Myth of Higher Selectivity,” “it has arguably become easier to get into a selective school, though it may be harder to get into a particular selective school.”
2) Schools want to appear more selective by encouraging more and more applications
Though the usefulness of school rankings is always up for debate, schools, along with many students and parents, really care about them. One piece of a school’s rank is its selectivity; the more applications it accepts (and rejects), the more “selective” the school. Therefore, it can boost a school’s ranking to encourage as many students to apply as possible. Once the applications are in, however, schools are also judged on their graduation rates and matriculation rates (how many students who are accepted choose to enroll). So while it is in a school’s interest to encourage everyone to apply, it is also in its interest to reject students who are not ready for the rigor of its program and/or students whom the school judges unlikely to enroll.
3) Top schools have made affordability a priority
Some top-tier schools, such as Harvard, have made it a priority to make their schools and the application process affordable for lower-income students. According to the Harvard Gazette, 25% of last year’s applicants qualified to have their application fees waived. This is great news for lower-income students, but it also raises the “Why not?” factor that encourages students to apply to their dream school(s), even if they have a low chance of admission.
So what does this mean for current high school students?
First, try not to fixate on just one school. Since the chances of getting into one specific school are lower, make sure to apply to more than one school, especially if you know that your top choice is a “reach” school.
Second, focus on schools that are a good match. While you should apply to more than one school, you don’t have to apply to twenty. Schools want to select students who will enroll and thrive at their institution, so do your homework and apply to the schools where you will fit in well.
Third, take time and care with any supplemental application requirements. With online applications being so easy, some schools assign an additional essay or other application supplements as a way to make sure that applicants are serious about their school, and not just checking off one more “Why not?” box on the Common App. If your dream school asks for this and you’re using the Common App, make sure to put the same amount of effort into the supplemental materials that you put into your general application.
Fourth, make your application as competitive as possible. Of course, the best way to get into your dream school is to have an awesome application and student profile. For most schools, this includes test scores. Starting your SAT or ACT preparation early can help ensure you have time to make your application as competitive as possible and get you “through the gate” at the admissions office.
Lastly, keep in mind that there are many good schools and paths to educational excellence. If you don’t get into your top choice school, your “back up” schools can also offer an excellent education and a fun college experience. So work hard, but don’t stress—even with record numbers of applications, you can still find the school that’s right for you!