If you look at graphs of the number of applicants at top tier colleges the trend has pretty much been upward for 20 consecutive years, even during economic downturns.

The release of the online Common Application in 1998 (some schools joined in the years following) caused a huge spike in applicants as suddenly it became easier to “throw in” an application to a bunch of schools with little extra effort. At the same time, international students started applying in higher numbers to study in the U.S. and more students from more high schools within the U.S. started to apply to more colleges. This year, for instance, a record-breaking 67,232 students applied to NYU, 27% of whom were international students.

teenage girls celebrating college acceptance A Quick Look at Admissions Standards

All these trends converged to cause a rise in applications. With a few exceptions, the number of spaces in the freshman class has NOT risen (though this year Yale expanded their freshman class from about 2,000 to 2,272 thanks to new dorms) so admissions rates have plummeted to ridiculous numbers: Stanford 4.65%, Harvard 5.2%, Columbia 5.8%, MIT 7.1%, Brown 8.32%. Even Cornell, a much bigger school, only admitted 12.5% of applicants. To put that in perspective, 8 years ago, Cornell’s acceptance rate was close to 20%. In the early 2000 Northwestern’s admission rates hovered around 30%. No longer. Those days are over as Northwestern is now as tough as the Ivies with a 10.7% last year and a 9% admission rate for the Class of 2021.

But really, we shouldn’t bandy about the term “Ivies” as those refer to only the 8 New England colleges that started as a sports league more than an academic designation. The real surprise in this year’s numbers is some of the other NON Ivy schools that have super low acceptance rates. Stanford of course is not an Ivy and was the most selective school in the country with a 4.65% acceptance rate. But look at Duke (9%) and Pomona with a selective 8.2% acceptance rate this year – super low. And Vanderbilt with a 10.2% acceptance rate, Johns Hopkins 11.7%, Tufts 14.8%, Swarthmore 10%, Wesleyan 15.4%.

Some schools like Boston University are HOT – BU received a record number of applicants (almost 61,000!) accepting only 25%. In contrast, Boston College, which historically has been much tougher to get into, got half the number of applicants and accepted 32.2%. BU typically takes more international applicants than does BC so this year their international apps were up “just 3 percent, although at more than 13,000, they represent more than one-fifth of the applicant pool”.

A few other sleepers to note for tough admissions – USC admitted 16.4%, Swarthmore 10.2%, Barnard 14.8%, Bowdoin 13.4%, Colorado College 14.7% – these admissions rates reflect what the Ivies were a few years ago.

Despite what colleges want you to believe, applying early DECISION (and for the most part, avoiding the Single Choice Early Action schools unless you are off the charts or have a true “hook”) dramatically raises the odds. Elite colleges have moved towards upping their yield by taking close to 50% of their freshman class through early decision. Sure, recruited athletes and legacies also apply early decision, but that means a STRONG applicant stands out even more in the ED round. We encourage our students to pick an ED school along with several non-binding/nonrestrictive EA colleges to balance out risk.

By: Michele Hernandez

Top Tier Admissions