How to Beat Low College Acceptance Rates

College acceptance rates are lower than ever.

Earlier this month, the New York Times featured the front-page article, Best, Brightest, and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%, in which several admissions officers called the college admissions process a “crapshoot.” Admittedly, the situation does seem bleak. Single-digit college acceptance rates for top schools across the board with Stanford leading the charge at 5%.

There are many reasons why college acceptance rates continue to fall – increase in overseas applicants, higher demand, limited spots. But here’s another one – college rankings. In a letter to the New York Times, Patricia J. Lang, former Dean of Admissions at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, laments how society’s obsession with magazine rankings, like U.S. News and World Report, has driven up applications submitted to top-ranked schools.

Ms. Lang writes that rather than rely on college rankings when choosing target programs, it is more advisable to take the old-fashioned approach of researching and visiting campuses, and finding your best fit before you apply. While we agree with the spirit of this recommendation, we take a different approach.

At Admissionado, we say the college admissions process isn’t a “crapshoot”… it’s strategic. The best way to get into a top school is to be smart about your admissions strategy, starting with your list of target schools.

“How do I make the perfect list of target schools?”

This is a question we get asked a lot, and we always begin putting college into perspective. The value of college is to set you up for a successful future, and to get the best value, we need to consider two realities.

First, like it or not, brand names matter. We can have a separate debate on whether they should matter, but it won’t change the fact having “Harvard” or “Columbia” or “University of Chicago” on your resume makes a powerful statement. So to the extent that rankings affect an employer’s assumptions about a job applicant’s potential, then they should continue to be an important determinant for your target school list.

Second, the college experience is more profoundly influenced by the caliber of his peers than by any other factor (student-to-faculty ratio, class size, urban/rural). More than ever, college is about building a network for the future. Better to be surrounded by curious, diverse, ambitious peers who will be successful in the future than to spend time and money on a campus “near a bustling city.”

Go to the best school you can get into. Aim to attend the school that attracts the best and brightest that the world has to offer. But, as we all know, getting into top tier schools is harder than ever. Don’t let the stats scare you. Use them in your strategy.

A Two-Step Strategy to Increase Your Chances

Keep Calm and Be Competitive

Step 1: Organize schools into competitive tiers, which will allow you to strategize and spread out the risk. Approximate your “level.” This is where rankings become quite useful. You can use their data on mean SAT scores, GPAs, and similar stats to determine how competitive you are based on the best version of your profile. So if your SAT score is around 2300, you can safely decide that you are competitive at top tier schools. If your SAT score is 1900, while you may be able to compensate in other areas (strong extracurriculars, strong essays, other achievements, etc.) to earn an admit from a top tier school, but your “level” is likely to correspond to a different bracket of schools, where the mean SAT score is close to 1900. Focus on three or four schools from the tier where you are most likely to get in (match schools).

Step 2: Stretch your potential, but also hedge your bets. Pick a few schools “above” your level (reach schools), along with a few below that are almost guaranteed to offer you admission (safety schools). An example of a nicely diversified list might look like this: four reach schools, four match schools, and two safety schools.

The goal here is to increase your chances by being smart about school selection. Make sure you get accepted to at least ONE school on your list. Put yourself in the position to have that choice.

“Wouldn’t my chances of getting into an Ivy League school improve if I apply to all eight?” Short answer, no. If you have diversified your list wisely and more importantly, you have the time to devote to these extra applications, then yes, it won’t hurt to add more competitive schools to your reach schools. But sending in more applications does not increase your chances.

“But… but that one kid from Long Island got into all the Ivies,” you say. And he certainly deserves our congrats, but his story is rare. Unicorn rare. In fact, admissions officers say it is shocking that anyone would apply to all eight.

Now, should you receive more than one acceptance letter (and if you’ve chosen target schools wisely, you will have that choice), the next decision should also be easy, and not agonizing: Go to the best school you get into. Period.

The truth is … we can’t ignore the rankings of a school, which means those scary college acceptance rates are as real as ever. But you can’t get intimidated. So long as you take smart, calculated risks, you will be able to carve out a path that leads to your best possible chance at success.

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