Stop paying attention to acceptance rates!

If I could have one wish, at least as far as college is concerned, it would be this: we would all stop talking about acceptance rates and selectivity. It's really got us doing a lot of things the wrong way.

First, let's think about it from the colleges' point of view. Ideally, they would all have really high acceptance rates. Imagine you're a university with 3,000 openings for the freshmen class. Do you want to sift through 30,000 applications (giving you a 10% acceptance rate), many of the applications from people who are not a good fit for your school, and many who have no idea what your school is even like? Or would you rather get about 3,500 applications (giving you an 86% acceptance rate), all of them from people who you would love to have at your school? Obviously you'd rather have fewer and better applications, and then you can spend the time and money on other things, like hiring more professors or upgrading the dorms or lowering tuition. (The only way to make something good out of too many applications is to charge a high enough application fee that you can make up for all the extra staff and infrastructure you need to process all those useless applications, but that's not good for students.) It's not in the college's best interest to have a low acceptance rate. The smart thing for them to do--and what most of them are trying to do--is to use better data and marketing to find the perfect high school students for their school and recruit them. The rest is waste. 

From the applicants' point of view, the current system is also against your best interest. Which is better, applying to 20 schools, getting accepted to five, and then doing a lot of stressful visiting and researching to find the best one...all between early March and May 1? Or carefully choosing five schools that are all a good fit, getting accepted to only one of them, and being done with it? Since you're only going to one school, getting accepted to one is ideal--so long as you've chosen your applications carefully. Like the schools, you can spend that extra time and energy on better things.

The wasted time, energy, and money is distributed over thousands of colleges and millions of students and seems smaller, but when you look at the big picture it's heartbreaking. Take the super-selective schools we always read about in the news. Think about Stanford, for example. Each year the acceptance rate goes down. In 2000 it was 13%, and now it's under 5%. Is Stanford accepting fewer students? Not really. They still send out between 2,000 and 2,500 fat envelopes a year. Are academics and student life at Stanford almost three times as good as they were 17 years ago? Nope. The lower acceptance rate is only about more people applying for the same number of spots; nothing else has significantly changed. All the thousands of extra applications, the application fees, the time spent on supplemental essays, the anxiety--all of that is just waste added on to the same number of openings. Now multiply those thousands of wasted applications by 100 for the "top 100" schools, and you see just how much of our collective time and energy is wasted. 

Why does this happen? Blame capitalism--we're trained to believe that high demand + small supply = value. Blame the media--the primary thing a lot of them write about and celebrate is selectivity. Blame vanity--we like the markers of success, even when they're useless to us personally. Blame the weird mix of financial aid and status branding--of all the elite brands, colleges are pretty much the only ones that might offer a discount if you're not able to afford them. BMWs don't get cheaper the less you're able to afford them. Armani suits don't get cheaper the less you're able to afford them. But Harvard does.

For whatever reason or mix of reasons, though, it's becomes a self-perpetuating trend. As a good school gets more applications and the acceptance rate goes down, it gets celebrated even more for being a good school because of the low rate. So even more people apply, and the rate goes down even further, and it gets even more celebrated for being an elite school. So more people apply, and.... This is known as a "death spiral," or "bubble," or "Birkin Bag." It's easy to mock, but less easy to avoid.

How do you avoid getting caught up in the death spiral?

Start early, and look for what's best for you. The sooner and more thoroughly you understand what it is you really want, really need, and really have to offer in return, then the less susceptible you are to making choices based on marketing and hype. Treat it like a relationship.

Or don't. Treat it like shopping. Here's an exercise I sometimes do with students. Which is going to give you a more effective and efficient trip to the mall? "Go find a fabulous dress" might lead you to spend lots of time looking at things you can't afford and wouldn't necessarily look good in. "Go find a well-made dress that's a good fit for you" is more specific and will have you spending less time looking at the wrong things, but is still kind of vague. "Go find a dress that you can wear at least five times, including a holiday party and a job interview. You have a budget of $200" is going to make the search seem a little more daunting at first, but is going to get you what you need faster. In all three situations, the dress supply, your body and tastes, and your bank account are all the same. The difference is how well you understand what you're looking for ahead of time. College applications are no different; the more you understand your parameters ahead of time, the more efficient they'r going to be.

In my six-week coaching course, looking though college profiles and making a "long list" is the last thing we do, in week six. We don't begin that until we've already spent a lot of time thinking about the student's strengths and limitations, the student's conscious and unconscious expectations, the student's financial situation, and a number of revised writing samples. Only then do we start to think about where the student might want to go to college. This works really well in the 10th and 11th grade. Not as much for seniors facing November deadlines.

Pay attention to the schools that try to recruit you. By the beginning of my senior year of high school, I had at least two file boxes full of materials that colleges sent me. And I ignored most of it, because they were mostly from schools I hadn't heard of. From talking to my high school students and clients, I understand that nothing's changed. While people also get lots of email marketing, they still get boxes of stuff...and they ignore most of it. Don't ignore it! Those materials are sent to you because those schools think they want you. Every year they spend more time and money trying to find students to recruit, and every year their tools get more sophisticated. Sure, you're not going to apply to most of them, and lots of them are in places where you don't want to be or have a population that isn't the right size for you. But by looking for trends and commonalities in the unsolicited material, you can get a clearer picture of what kinds of places might be good for you--and all you have to do is pay attention to stuff that literally shows up for free on your doorstep!

Apply to fewer schools. Less is more. Quality over quantity. Proper planning prevents poor performance. They're all cliches, but they all work here. You only go to one college at a time, so your final result has to be a single school. Despite popular belief, getting accepted to 10 is better than getting accepted to 20. Five is better than 10. Two is better than five. And, if you plan ahead and apply well, one is perfect. Remember the imaginary dress in the exercise about shopping? You can actually afford a real-life great dress (or suit or shoes or whatever) with the money you save by not applying to so many schools.

Understand if you really should be applying to the top schools. There's another type of inefficiency that plays into the selectivity problem. While thousands of students without the grades or experience to get accepted to the top schools still apply, a lot of students who should apply don't. High achieving students with low incomes--especially ones at underperforming high schools--apply to selective colleges at much lower rates than students with higher incomes. While most people reading this should apply to fewer or less-selective schools, you may need to do the opposite. 

I've spent most my life, first as a student and then as a teacher, involved in gifted and talented education. In G/T groups, there's a common conversation: "how old were you when you realized you weren't the smartest person in the room?" Lots of people, even bright people, understand this pretty early on, in elementary school (this is more likely to happen if you're in a elementary program for smart students). For me, it was literally the first day of high school I understood completely how utterly not-so-smart I am. For some people it's college, and for a rare few it's even later than that.

I know this isn't very objective or scientific, but let this test be a general guide. If you don't still have that "smartest one in the room" feeling every now and then--no matter how good your grades or how many honor societies you're in--then don't feel too sure you're going to a historic and well-funded university. But if you do still suspect you're exceptional--no matter your income, background, or high school support--then have a more ambitious reach than your classmates.

For objective comparisons, use better stats than acceptance rate. One reason we like to look at selectivity and admissions rates is because we think it gives us a sense of how good a school is. After all, it's universally acclaimed schools like Yale and Brown who have really low admission rates. But as we've already seen, a lot of that low admission rate simply reflects that people want to apply to schools with low admissions rates. If you're looking for stats to compare colleges and see which ones are better, there are much more useful stats. Look at a school's graduation rate. Look at the percentage of first-year students who come back for their second year. Look at their overall teacher/student ratio. None of these number is a perfect indicator, but they're all going to tell you more about whether a school is desirable.

Try to figure out your chances last, not first. The other reason we look at selectivity rates is to deduce our chances of getting accepted to a particular school. When we're putting together our final list of schools to apply to, we want to make sure that we're not only applying to schools likely to reject us. Nor do we want to apply only to schools with high admission rates and feel like we sold ourself short. This is fine, and I encourage everyone to do this. But do it last. Make it one of your final "did I miss anything" checks, not the fist step. 

Spend more time thinking about safety schools. You're a lot more likely to go to a "safety school" than you initially think. There's a few reasons for this, but one of the major reasons has to do with our current system that rewards colleges for having low admission rates and encourages students to set their sights on places that are less likely to accept them. With this in mind, it's important to choose your safety schools--schools where the overall admission rate and the admission rate for students with profiles similar to yours--with at least as much care and enthusiasm as the other schools you try out for.

If you're getting caught in the bubble, understand why and be comfortable with it. Lastly, let's go ahead and acknowledge that there are plenty of reasons and ways to get caught up in the death spiral. Perhaps you can't get a real sense of what a school is like until you visit, but you can't visit until the spring, or at all. So you apply to more schools than you maybe should to give yourself time in the spring to do more visiting and exploring. Maybe you're so unsure of how the financial aid process is going to go for you that you literally can't afford to limit your applications to four or five. Maybe you're feeling pressure from friends or family to apply to schools that aren't necessarily the best fit. That's all fine. As long as the system is so messed up as a whole, you can't feel too guilty about participating in it as an individual. But you owe it to yourself to be honest about why you're playing this crazy game.


Thank you for reading! Please share this with someone who would like to read it, and please put a link to this post into the comments section of any news article about low admission rates for elite schools. You can follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook and Twitter.