This year Stanford University, the most selective college in the nation, made history by having its lowest acceptance rate in its 125 years of existence: 4.7%. Following closely behind were Harvard University and Columbia University, with acceptance rates of 5.2% and 6%, respectively.

 

These numbers don’t seem terribly out of place in an era where top colleges are known for and even pride themselves on acceptance rates in the single digits. However, when compared with admissions rates from 20, 15, or even 10 years ago, a shocking pattern emerges. In 1998, Stanford had an acceptance rate of 13%, almost 3 times the current figure. In 1988, Columbia accepted a whopping 65% of students that applied. What changed?

 

More Students are Applying

 

When we hear that acceptance rates are falling every year, the natural assumption is that colleges are admitting fewer students. In reality, the number of students colleges have accepted has either remained the same or grown over recent decades.

 

In fact, the factor driving plummeting acceptance rates is the number of applicants, a figure which has swelled enormously in recent decades. 10 years ago, less than 20,000 students applied to Harvard. In 2016, that figure basically doubled to 39,041 students. As the number admitted remains the same, but the number who apply continues to multiply, acceptance rates shrink.

 

We’ve established the “what” behind dropping admissions rates: increasing numbers of applicants. But what about the “why”? Why has the number of applicants to Harvard and its peer institutions doubled in the last 10 years alone?

 

Lower Acceptance Rates = Better Rankings

 

There are several answers to this question. For one answer, we look to one of the most popular publications in higher education: The US News and World Report National University Rankings. Every year, US News releases a ranking of all major research universities in the country. Many factors are considered when determining ranking, but one of the most influential (and controversial) is selectivity, a large part of which is gleaned from a college’s acceptance rate.

 

From a college administrator’s perspective, a favorable US News and World Report ranking confers status, prestige, money, and the most talented applicants upon a university, so it’s no secret that colleges are eager to earn the highest rank possible. To boost their rank, colleges encourage as many students as possible to apply through email and advertising campaigns. The more students apply, the lower the acceptance rate. By ensuring their admissions rates are low, colleges earn a high score in selectivity that translates to a higher rank overall. This isn’t to say colleges advertise or encourage students to apply purely with the goal of lowering their acceptance rate, but it is a force driving many colleges’ outreach efforts in recent years.

 

A College Degree is Increasingly Being Viewed as a Necessity

 

However, outreach on behalf of the colleges is not the only responsible factor. The current economic climate has led to a widespread belief that job prospects are bleak for those without a college degree. Every year, more and more students apply to and attend college primarily for the edge a degree brings in their job search. Given that there has been a significant increase in applicants overall, it’s no surprise that the number of applicants to top universities has grown too.

 

An additional consequence of the competitive job market is a growing belief that only degrees from the highest ranked colleges will lead to success. The idea that an Ivy degree is an immediate path to financial security and a fulfilling career has become prevalent as employers set higher and higher standards for new hires, especially in lucrative industries like tech and finance. Accordingly, the number of applicants to competitive universities has grown at a faster rate than their less competitive peers. Media coverage reinforces these notions and fuels the applications frenzy.*

 

*Note: as a company, we do not agree with the notion that only degrees from the most prestigious undergrad colleges will lead to success in life. There exist many educational options that can lead to a wildly successful career — check out our Zen blog!    

 

Top Colleges are More Accessible than Ever Before

 

A final factor behind the increasing number of applicants to competitive universities is the increased accessibility of top tier universities. Not so long ago, the Ivy Leagues were considered a bastion for the wealthy and privileged, and admission and attendance was reserved only for those who fell into those groups. Today, the Ivies and their peer institutions have instituted minority recruitment programs, financial aid packages that are unmatched in their generosity, and myriad resources available to disabled, LGBT, first-generation, and other marginalized groups.

 

Top colleges are today seen as accessible to even the most disadvantaged student in a way they have never been before. This has opened up the possibility of attending a top school to groups who previously would have considered it impossible. Thus, the number of applicants has expanded even further.

 

So What Does That Mean for Me?

 

In summary, rising numbers of applicants, combined with the increasingly frantic climate of the job market, have driven acceptance rates, especially at top colleges and universities, down to record-low levels. Colleges themselves are responsible to some extent, as they push for more applicants in an effort to lower their acceptance rates and in turn their US News and World Report ranking.

 

So, if your goal is to get accepted to a top university (and keep in mind that’s not the only option!), then ultimately the recommendation is clear. With so many applicants, the key to acceptance is standing out. A totally unique extracurricular pursuit, a striking personal essay – these and more will set you apart from thousands of other applicants and show admissions committees the invaluable perspective and experience you can bring to campus. Avoiding cliches in your essays and participating in creative extracurriculars will allow admissions committees to better understand you as an individual rather than one in a sea of applicants. If you can achieve this, you’ll be on your way to success in the college applications process, regardless of acceptance rates!

 

No matter what path you choose to take in the college admissions process, we at Admissions Hero will always be  here to guide you through the process. With our mentorship and applications advice, we’ll help you and your family retake control of the college applications process.

Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez