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Three Trends Driving the Drop in Acceptances at Top Universities

It’s no secret that getting into an elite university is tougher than ever, but few of us are aware of just how rapidly the admissions landscape has shifted in recent years. Universities across the U.S. have not only seen dramatic shifts in who applies, but also in when students apply and where students apply. Knowing more about these trends can help us make sense of this convoluted system, understand why applying to college is so different than just a few years ago and better predict how students will fare in the future.

Trend #1: Top U.S. Colleges are Going Global

Colleges across the country are attracting a greater number of international students than ever, with foreign students at around five percent of the more than 20 million students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions from community colleges to top universities.

This trend is especially prevalent within the Ivy League. While the eight elite Ivy League schools made efforts to increase the size of their admitted freshman classes by 5 percent from 2004 to 2014, the number of freshman seats going to international students also grew 46 percent over this same period.

International students are also increasingly choosing competitive Californian schools like UCLA and USC. At UC Berkeley around 13% of the freshman student body were international students in 2014, a figure four times higher than in 2004. In the one-year period from 2014 to 2015, the number of international students admitted across California’s colleges increased by 10.5%.

While the increase in applicants from abroad does mean getting admitted has gotten somewhat more difficult, it also means that American students are increasingly able to learn from international peers. A Duke study found that as international students become a greater part of U.S. university life, their American classmates not only learn more about foreign cultures, but also are more likely to learn a foreign language and think critically about their own political or religious viewpoints, and eventually use these cosmopolitan experiences as the next generation business and government leaders.

Trend #2: Students Applying to More Schools than Ever

While nationally rising seniors apply to only a few schools each, for students seeking admittance to top schools, the numbers of applications can rise rapidly. Admissions officers and school counselors are increasingly seeing an arms-race in college applications, with students falsely believing that if applying to eight schools is beneficial, then applying to 16 schools will give them double the benefit.

More than one-third of students are applying to at least seven schools and according to Naviance, an online platform that many high school students and counselors use to organize applications, 16.5 percent of seniors using the system said they intended to apply to 11 to 20 colleges. A spokesperson for Naviance reported the record number of colleges listed by a student as 86 colleges last year.

This means that while most universities are still accessible for students, top schools are seeing higher and higher applicant volumes for a fixed number of seats. This is forcing schools to be more selective, and also causing some to take steps to protect their yield, or the percent of admitted students who accept their offers.

Yield is not only seen as a measure of prestige among colleges (which college wouldn’t want to have an 80% yield rate like Harvard?) but also allows universities increased financial security and certainty for the year ahead. Because of this, some universities are placing more importance on applicants that indicate a high likelihood to attend or those that demonstrate interest, whether through factors such as having toured the school or signed up for the newsletter. This desire for certainty in which students will accept an admission’s offer is also driving the next major trend in college admissions: the rise in Early Decision.

Trend #3: More Early Acceptances

Rather than wait to submit applications in December and January, more and more students are submitting applications early to gain an edge on getting in. Although early admissions have existed for many years, in recent decades these programs have become widespread. Now over two-thirds of elite colleges have some kind of early admissions and many accept a large portion of their class from the early pool.

Applying early happens one of two ways: Early Decision and Early Action. Early Decision, is when a student submits an application early and enters into a binding agreement that if admitted, they will attend. This is not to be confused with applying Early Action, which allows a student to find out if they have been accepted by roughly mid-December (rather than March or April), but provides students with a significantly smaller advantage in admissions rates.

Nationwide, US News reported that in 2015 from the top 245 colleges and universities providing data, the average early acceptance rate was 63 percent versus just 50 percent of regular applicants, or a difference of 13 percent. However, at some elite schools, this difference between early and regular can be even more stark.

Duke and Northwestern historically take just under half their class from early applicants. Many universities give an admissions boost to students who apply early, since this allows them greater financial stability and since historically students who apply early are more likely to attend. According to experts, students who apply early gain a 20 to 30 percent bump to their odds of getting in, or roughly the same as scoring an extra 100 points on the SAT.

However, applying Early Decision is not for everyone. Those who apply early and are accepted will not find out their admissions decisions for other schools, will not be able to compare differing financial aid offers, and many will receive less aid than if they had applied Regular Decision. So while families who chose to apply E.D. often increase their chances at one school, they also lose the flexibility of different offers.

Shrinking acceptance rates are no doubt discouraging, however understanding these push and pull factors lets applicants better understand what it takes to get admitted. As the global middle class rises, American colleges will become more international, just as students will keep hedging their bets for acceptance by applying to a wide range of schools and doing so early. This landscape underscores the importance of applying strategically as admission to top schools becomes highly unpredictable. This means applying early if able, repeatedly demonstrating their interest, building a balanced college list with backup options, and crafting compelling applications that show exactly how the university will meet their needs. And of course, your Insight Education Counselor and team are here to walk with you side by side through the whole journey. 

All the best,

The Insight Team 

Admit Rate Graph for Select Universities

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