Competitive colleges are not a lock for anyone, not even the cream of the crop.
Valedictorians are rejected. Students with perfect scores on the SAT and ACT, rejected. This reality can be utterly unnerving. But is it even worse than we think? Is it getting even harder with each passing year?
Are A College Applicant’s Odds Really Getting Worse?
Anyone drawn to this question would agree that college admissions is, for a lack of better terms, hard. In regard to innovators in the EdTech space, thought leaders at the intersection of education and public policy, educational reformers, and those along a similar vein, we encourage you to investigate the implications of this question. If such investigation leads to innovation, improvements in access to opportunity, or a positive outcome of any kind, wonderful.
However, to parents and students who are drawn to this issue because it may affect your strategy for how to approach high school, or the college application itself, we have a different recommendation: ignore it altogether. More on this in a second.
Statistically Speaking, College Acceptances Rates Are Dropping
In a never-ending sea of data published around this time of year, one of the more eye-catching recent findings is that students are increasingly applying to a greater number of schools, driving down acceptance rates. Per NACAC’s annual State of College Admissions report, “According to the Higher Education Research Institute’s The American Freshmen report series, the proportion of enrolled first-time freshmen who had applied to seven or more colleges reached 36 percent in Fall 2015, up from 17 percent in 2005 and only 9 percent in 1990.” Statistically speaking, acceptance rates at many colleges are dropping as there are more applicants at each program and the same number of admits.
Another stat: the total number of students applying to college in recent years is on the rise (up 5.2 million since 2000 according to the U.S. Department of Education), but colleges have not increased class size proportionally. A logical and tempting conclusion is that college admissions is getting harder. But then a debate ensues.
Savvy statisticians, experienced guidance counselors, deans of admissions, too name a few, will quickly point out the flaw in arriving – too hastily – at that conclusion, or worse, that that conclusion itself is flawed. New factors enter the mix such as a rise in international applications, and the impact of budgets on admissions. The debate grows more complex and rages on. And on, and on.
So who’s right? What’s the answer?
For College Applicants And Their Families, The Debate Is Irrelevant
Again, to parents and students: the answer doesn’t matter. Accept the fact that the odds are long, regardless of degree, or as they compare to last year, or five years ago.
More significantly, consider that you are at your most anxious at this moment in time. Anxiety during the college application process is to parents and students as germs are to an immunocompromised individual. You are vulnerable. Increased anxiety is unwelcome. Right now students are stretched impossibly thin by school work and extracurricular activities. This is the time they need a reduction in anxiety, not more of it.
Because this issue of whether college admissions is getting harder year after year is so complex, and without a quick and clear answer, debating it tends to have an aggravating effect on anxiety, not the opposite. If there is such a thing as a healthy type of stress, or a puzzle whose solving has a beneficial impact, this isn’t it.
Focus On Your Future, Avoid The Noise
For the months of September through December, we strongly advise parents and students to shut out this particular discussion, and focus instead on the task ahead. Dig deep within yourself, find the most compelling case you can make to admissions committees, and spend 100% of your application energy transferring your inner fire to the pages of your applications.
Eliminate clutter from your overall profile and sharpen the way you come across to someone comparing your application to thousands of others. Work as hard as you can in the most challenging classes you can take.
Take calculated risks when approaching your application essays. Then, recognizing that the odds are long no matter who you are, apply to an incredibly smart mix of schools (two “safety,” three to four “match,” two to three “reach,” and then as many as you’d like afterward).
Start the process early, try not to get dragged into this debate, and then let the cards fall where they may. Debate it after the fact, when the dust settles, from the dorm room of the campus that reflects the highest end of your potential.