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What Do Acceptance Rates Really Mean?

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If you’re applying to college, you’ve probably seen some statistics about a school’s admissions process, whether they are advertised on a college website or printed in some college rankings list. Each year, colleges release some basic information about their recently accepted students, usually including test scores, demographics, total applicants, and acceptance rate.


For high school students currently looking at colleges, the acceptance rate can be a focal point among these statistics. Many students believe that the acceptance rate is the truest indicator of a college’s selectivity. Headlines plastered across newspapers and television tell the story of increasingly competitive college admissions, plummeting acceptance rates, and elite schools becoming even more selective. This year, nearly every Ivy League school set a record low acceptance rate, with Harvard setting the bar low at just 5.2%.


In this post, we’ll take a closer look at acceptance rates. We will break down how they are calculated, what a low acceptance rate really means, and why we hear so much about selective college admissions. If you’re getting ready to apply to college, and you’re wondering just what all the acceptance rate hype is really about, keep reading.


What is an acceptance rate?

Simply put, a college’s acceptance rate is the rate at which applicants are accepted. It is calculated by dividing the number of accepted students by the number of total applicants.


For example, if College A has 100,000 applicants and accepts 5,000 students, their acceptance rate is 5%. If College B has 10,000 applicants and also accepts 5,000 students, their acceptance rate is 50%. Although both schools ultimately accepted the same number of students, their acceptance rates are very different because College A received 10 times the applicants that College B did.


Are acceptance rates the ultimate measure of selectivity?

Most highly selective colleges now have acceptance rates in the single digits. This means that fewer than 10% of students who apply will ultimately be offered a place there. But in order to boast a low acceptance rate, a school must do more than attract top students. To achieve a low acceptance rate, a school must receive far more applicants than they can accept.


This is accomplished in different ways. Some schools, like Harvard or Princeton, will always attract elite students who view these institutions as the epitome of college admissions success. The college names alone are equated with achievement and recognition. Other colleges attract high numbers of applicants through reasonable price tags or hefty scholarship packages. Still other schools are known for their location, campus services, or lack of an application fee. Simply put, the more applicants a school can attract, the lower the acceptance rate it will ultimately have.


This is compounded when a school can attract a large number of applicants for only a small number of places. Small schools tend to boast some of the most competitive acceptance rates simply because they have relatively fewer spaces available to offer. Some schools with similar academic statistics will appear much less competitive because they have lots of spaces to offer.


What does a super low acceptance rate tell me about a college?

A super low acceptance rate actually does not tell you much about a college other than that it typically receives far more applicants than it can accept. While this might be an indicator of the types of students who want to attend, it is not an indicator of the types of students who graduate from such a school.


A recent article in Forbes, written by a former admissions officer at Amherst College, noted that a “low acceptance rate, along with high scores, grades and other characteristics, indicates inputs, not outputs.” Essentially, an acceptance rate alone doesn’t give you any meaningful information about an institution’s impact on its students. Instead, it only tells you about the students it accepts. This article proposes that acceptance rates are more a measure of status than of the quality of education you might receive.

Why are acceptance rates falling so quickly?

Most of the headlines that you read about plummeting acceptance rates refer to the most selective schools out there. And while it’s true that these schools are becoming more and more competitive, there are still plenty of great schools accepting lots of applicants.


In fact, while the headlines advertise quickly declining acceptance rates at top colleges, the overall acceptance rate nationwide is still well above 50% and is actually climbing slightly. The National Association for College Admission Counseling notes in its latest State of College Admission Report that the overall national acceptance rate for four-year colleges was 65.8% in 2015, compared to 64.7% the year before.


Another reason noted for the appearance of increasingly competitive admissions is that students are now more likely to send out many more applications than they were in prior years. In 1990, only 9% of students applied to seven or more colleges. In 2015, that number jumped to 36% of students. This means that the total number of applications is growing much more quickly than the number of students who apply.


What are some other meaningful admissions statistics I should watch for?

While acceptance rate alone isn’t a great indicator of a college’s ability to produce strong leaders or thinkers, there are many other statistics that you can use to help predict the type of education you’re likely to receive at a particular college.


One statistic to look for is a college’s typical yield. This is the percentage of students who ultimately enroll after being offered acceptance. At Harvard, this is close to 80%, since most students who apply there have typically put it towards the top of their college list. Yield is often a focus of admissions teams, since higher yield leads to higher tuition revenues and higher college rankings. Admissions committees want to accept students who are likely to attend. Yield is the reason it’s important to express interest in the schools you want to attend.


Another major consideration for you may be finances. While the sticker price of a college doesn’t tell you much, its average financial aid award and the percentage of students receiving aid is a good indicator of how much financial support you might be offered. You should also pay attention to whether admissions are need-blind and whether aid is need-based.


You should also consider the average standardized test scores of admitted students. An acceptance rate tells you nothing about your specific chances of getting into a school unless you place yourself within the greater pool of applicants. If your test scores fall well below the average of accepted students, it’s likely that the school will be difficult for you to get into, no matter what the acceptance rate is.


Some other meaningful statistics you should pay attention to include what percent of students graduate within four years, average class size, and percentage of classes with fewer than 30 students.


While an acceptance rate tells you something about how many students are vying for places at a particular college, on its own it tells you little about the quality of the education that you might receive once you’re there. Don’t be discouraged by the headlines about plummeting acceptance rates — they’re true for only a handful of highly selective colleges. There are many other high-quality colleges out there, and the overall national acceptance rate is actually climbing.


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.