Why Acceptance Rates Don’t Really Mean Anything
In the admissions world, acceptance rates are everything. For the schools, they signal that they are exclusive, elite places for students that are really going places. For students, by defying a minuscule acceptance rate, they have proved themselves as elite. These are both very wrong conclusions (for very different reasons): for colleges, selectivity does not equal quality. And for students, so much of college is what you actually do while you are there.
Grades and test scores can only get you so far in trying to figure out what the acceptance rate of a particular college means for you. For example, in 2016, Brown rejected 81% of valedictorians last year and 72% of students with perfect ACT scores. Just having the raw numbers merely puts you in the ballpark at these institutions. So in the case of a school like Brown, it is safe to say that it is a reach for everyone. But even these numbers show you how difficult it is to get into Brown without stellar grades and test scores. Putting academics and tests scores aside, we can drill down into the numbers in other ways. By doing this, you can have a better sense of your “chances” at a particular school:
One of the biggest factors that influence admissions decisions is the “decision round.” Specifically, whether a student applies Early Decision or Regular Decision can make a huge, huge difference in the acceptance rate. Here is a list of the schools where ED students have the biggest edge. At many of these schools, the acceptance rate is 2-3x higher in ED versus RD. The moral of this story is simple: if your top choice school offers ED, you really should apply ED.
Gender balance is a big issue for many admissions officers. Most colleges are interested in maintaining a 50/50 gender split between males and females on campus, so understandably, this influences the admissions decisions. The Washington Post did a great article on this when they highlighted that colleges often favor either men or women in their admissions processes:
Of the top 30 U.S. News national universities, 10 had gender differences of 3 or more percentage points in admission rates.
Here are the gaps that favored men:
- Wake Forest: 32 percent admission rate for women, 38 percent for men, a 6-point gap.
- Tufts: 15 percent for women, 20 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
- Brown: 7 percent for women, 11 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
- Vanderbilt: 11 percent for women, 15 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
Here are the gaps that favored women:
- Caltech: 16 percent admission rate for women, 6 percent for men, a 10-point gap.
- MIT: 13 percent for women, 6 percent for men, a 7-point gap.
- Carnegie Mellon: 28 percent for women, 22 percent for men, a 6-point gap.
- U. of Michigan: 35 percent for women, 30 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
- Cornell: 16 percent for women, 12 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
- U. of Virginia: 30 percent for women, 27 percent for men, a 3-point gap
The Washington Post also highlighted a slew of liberal arts colleges that all favored men in their admissions process. As a rule of thumb, liberal arts colleges tend to have more female applicants, which makes it more competitive to apply as a woman. Colleges that emphasize engineering, however, tend to favor women in their admissions processes.
Not all colleges care what you choose as your perspective major, but some do quite a bit. While not all schools will officially report this information, some are very transparent. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is one of these schools, so we will use them as an example. Overall, CMU’s acceptance rate is roughly 16%, which is very selective.
However, if we take a look at the different colleges within CMU, we see a complete picture:
The School of Computer Science has a minuscule acceptance rate of 6%, which makes this program more selective than the average acceptance rate at every Ivy League college. If you look at the College of Fine Arts, you will see even more data which shows that the School of Drama has a microscopic 3% acceptance rate, which is pretty unreal. Meanwhile, the School of Architecture takes 55% of students who apply. When you are researching colleges and putting together your list, it is important to keep the major you choose in mind. Of course, this does become muddled if we also think about major and gender.
This is a bit of an ugly truth in the admissions process of many colleges–if you can afford full tuition, you have a much better shot of being admitted. The vast majority of schools are what is called “need aware” or “need sensitive.” This means that they DO consider demonstrated financial need when making admissions decisions. I worked in admissions at such an institution, and it was much, much more difficult to be admitted if you needed financial aid. So unless the college in question practices need-blind admissions, then it is likely that financial aid could play a factor in your admissions decision.
This is meant to give you a glimpse of how colleges make decisions and how a general “acceptance rate” isn’t really helpful for students. When I am working with students, these are some of the things that I think about when making recommendations for them or when balancing their list. So for example, it is safe to say that a female ED applicant who intends to be a business major at Carnegie Mellon will have a better shot than their male counterpart who applies RD and intends to study computer science. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to the college admissions decision process, so keep them in mind as you craft your list.