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Being Smart About Admissions Means Managing Uncertainty

May 1 used to be hailed in the US as College Decision Day, since that was the deadline by which students had to accept or decline their school offers. Things are no longer so simple. In the US, the traditional admissions cycle has been disrupted by supersized waitlists that extend deep into summer and alternative freshman entry dates and locations. In the UK, oversubscribed first-year cohorts have caused record-high student deferrals. International students, who have had to navigate all of this, have also had to contend with delays in visa processing. The current university admissions process is unpredictable. And while this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harder to get into university, it does mean that students need to be strategic about applying.

Not Necessarily Harder

Here are some numbers from the "not necessarily harder" side of the ledger. At many top UK universities, the acceptance rate for the 2021 admissions cycle was around 50% or higher, an indication that they are doing their job to provide sizeable access to higher education. Durham’s overall offer rate, for example, was 64%, King’s was 55%, and Edinburgh’s was 47%.

Similarly, in the US, while a small group of brand-name universities with acceptance rates in the single digits make the headlines, the reality is that the majority of schools admit most students who apply. The average four-year college in the US accepts nearly 60% of applicants. The Common App reports that 75% of the 900 schools using its platform accept more than half their applicants.

So, we can rejoice. There is good reason to stop stressing about admissions. There are a lot of slots out there at hundreds of colleges and universities that provide an excellent education. But students must be smart about preparing and applying. They should strive to achieve the best grades possible in the most rigorous high school courses available. SAT or ACT scores are required at many US schools for a range of purposes, and students pursuing STEM majors, in particular, should strongly consider choosing one of the tests and submitting their scores even to test-optional schools. Applicants to the US should invest in developing the extra-curricular interests that the "holistic" review process favors, while applicants to the UK should focus more on super-curriculars that demonstrate engagement in their chosen subject area. In all cases essays, which are different animals in the US and UK, must be effective.

But even a strong application is of limited value without a smart university list. Students must do the research needed to produce a balanced list that includes “likely,” “target,” and “reach” schools. This is essential admissions strategy always, and an admissions hedge in uncertain times.

The "Highly Rejectives"

For students considering applying to "highly rejective" schools (h/t to’s Akil Bello for this clever word-play) the calculations are different. Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Brown, and MIT had overall acceptance rates this year between 3% and 7% – that’s a rejection rate of 97% - 93%! – with Duke and Vanderbilt closing in, and Tulane and Tufts not far behind. For Duke, this means a 20% increase in its selectivity since 2020; over the same period, Harvard’s selectivity increased by 35%, and MIT’s by 46%. A number of public universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and Georgia Tech reported historically low acceptance rates this year of less than 20% for out-of-state students, which affects international students, too.

These figures are the result of longstanding distortions in American higher ed, but they also reflect the influence of several recent developments, among them the test-optional policies widely adopted during the COVID pandemic that induced an unprecedented number of applicants to try their luck at the most competitive schools. This is one of several factors, according to Common App, that produced an 18% increase in the volume of college applications filed on its platform over the last two years. (More applications for a static number of spots produces a lower, more selective, admit rate.)

The US admissions process has also been upended by schools’ radically increased use of early decision acceptances to manage enrollments that became singularly unpredictable during the pandemic. Dartmouth, Middlebury, Barnard, Bates, Johns Hopkins, Tulane, and Wesleyan locked in well over 50% of their freshman classes by mid-December, before the regular application season even began.

An obsession with rankings, epitomised by US World & News report’s annual survey, has also driven schools to increase their selectivity, which factors into their placement in the tables. In this regard, Northeastern’s reporting of an astonishing 6.7% acceptance rate this year, compared to 18% in 2021, has raised some eyebrows.

Neither Oxford nor Cambridge belong in this distinctly American category, but still, they are harder to get into than before. Oxford reportedly had an overall 14% admit rate in 2021, compared to 20% in 2011, with offer rates significantly lower (in PPE, Maths) and even in the single digits (in Economics and Management) for the most popular courses. Cambridge’s offer rate was 18% in 2021, down three points from a 21% offer rate a decade earlier. (The offer rate for its Computer Science course was under 10%.) In Ireland, the point-based thresholds for entry to some universities’ most competitive courses have risen sharply over the past two years.

For students applying to these schools, caution is in order, as well as deep reflection over the value of prestige. The "highly rejectives" are not "target schools," nor are they “reach schools," they are wild cards. You will need a rigorous admissions strategy, the wind at your back, and a Plan B.

Figures cited in this post were taken from information published by the UK consultancy Uni Admissions, the US consultancy MatchPoint College & Career Services, and Jeff Seligo, author of Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.


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