Once again, it was a wild year in college admissions. Assessing the likelihood of acceptance to highly selective private and public universities was as unpredictable as ever, and while some applicants were lucky enough to receive early admission to their top choice, many students were dealt an uncertain hand of deferrals and spots on waitlists.
As a follow-up to our previous blog on Early Admissions Trends for the Class of 2020, here’s an in-depth comparison of this year’s regular decision statistics to recent college admissions cycles. To assist applicants who will be applying this fall, our analysis will conclude with a helpful list of tips for crafting your “best-fit” college list.
This year, regular decision acceptance tended to either hold steady or drop slightly. As in past years, highly sought-after private and public universities continue to receive more applications, offer lower admit rates, and fill more of their freshman class through early admissions.
Many schools had a record-breaking year of applications, including Bowdoin, Brown, Cornell, Princeton, NYU, Northwestern, Tufts, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. Princeton’s applicant pool has doubled over the past decade.
Many of the country’s most selective institutions, with overall admit rates under 15%, became even more competitive over the past two years. For example, Johns Hopkins dropped from 15% to 11.5%, Northwestern fell from 12.9% to 10.7%, and Swarthmore declined from 16.8% to 12.5%. Stanford has the lowest admit rate at just 4.7%. This year, Barnard, Bowdoin, Duke, Harvard, Northwestern, Tufts, UC-Berkeley, and USC all reported record-low admit rates.
According to Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford University, these ultra-low admit rates are the product of several factors: top students applying to many more schools, higher demand across many demographics (including international applicants), and college advising that encourages students to apply to their dream schools, as opposed to schools that are a good fit and offer a better chance of admission. According to U.S. News, higher applicant numbers are the result of the Common Application and other online admissions processes, which most schools have adopted. Universities also use innovative ways to market themselves to prospective applicants, especially through social media.
Notre Dame has seen a 34% increase in applications over the past six years, and their overall acceptance rate has dropped from 24.3% to 18.3% over the past five years. According to Don Bishop, Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Enrollment at Notre Dame, as competitive as the Class of 2020 is, these numbers would be even more selective if the University practiced admissions strategies used by other schools seeking to improve their rankings.
“There are colleges being criticized for going out there and getting a large number of applicants that they’re going to reject. A group of schools that seemingly are recruiting students they’re going to turn down. Notre Dame has not engaged in that practice.”
Acceptance Rates for the Class of 2018 through 2020
(Note Early Admissions Plan:
ED vs EA)
|Regular Acceptance Rate for Class of 2020*||Early Acceptance Rate for Class of 2020||Regular Acceptance Rate for Class of 2019*||Early Acceptance Rate for Class of 2019||Overall Acceptance Rate for Class of 2020||Overall Acceptance Rate for Class of 2019||Overall Acceptance Rate for Class of 2018|
|Amherst College (ED)||12.2%||39.6%||12.4%||35.6%||13.7%||13.7%||13%|
|Bowdoin College (ED I)||11.6%||33.7%||n/a||31%||14.3%||14.9%||14.9%|
|Brown University (ED)||7.6%||22%||7.2%||20.3%||9%||8.5%||8.6%|
|California Institute of Technology (EA)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||7.9%||9%||9%|
|Claremont McKenna College (ED)||n/a||n/a||9%||27%||9.4%||11%||10%|
|Columbia University (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||6%||6.1%||6.94%|
|Cornell University (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||14%||14.9%||14%|
|Dartmouth College (ED)||8.9%||26%||8.8%||26%||10.5%||10.3%||11.5%|
|Duke University (ED)||8.7%||23.5%||9.4%||26%||10.4%||11%||11%|
|Georgetown University (REA)||n/a||13%||n/a||13%||16.4%||16.4%||16.6%|
|Harvard University (SCEA)||3.4%||14.8%||3.2%||16.5%||5.2%||5.3%||5.9%|
|Johns Hopkins University (ED)||10.1%||30.3%||11%||28.9%||11.5%||12.4%||15%|
|Lehigh University (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||44%||n/a||30%||34%|
|Middlebury College (ED I)||12.7%||53.1%||14.7%||45.3%||16%||17%||17.3%|
|Northwestern University (ED)||8.4%||35%||10.8%||36.2%||10.7%||13.1%||12.9%|
|Pomona College (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||19%||9.1%||10.3%||12.2%|
|Princeton University (SCEA)||4.4%||18.5%||4.9%||19.9%||6.46%||6.99%||7.28%|
|Stanford University (SCEA)||3.6%||9.5%||3.9%||10.2%||4.7%||5.05%||5.07%|
|Swarthmore College (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||12.5%||12.2%||16.8%|
UC – Berkeley
|University of Chicago (EA)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||7.6%||7.8%||8.4%|
|University of Notre Dame (REA)||13.8%||30.3%||16.2%||29.8%||18.3%||19.7%||20.8%|
|University of Pennsylvania (ED)||7%||23.2%||7.5%||24%||9.4%||9.9%||9.9%|
|University of Virginia (EA)||28.8%||28.9%||26.6%||30.2%||28.8%||28.5%||28.9%|
(No early program)
|Vanderbilt University (ED)||8.8%||23.6%||9.5%||22.5%||10.5%||n/a||12%|
|Washington Univ. in St. Louis (ED)||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a||16.2%||16.7%||17.1%|
|Williams College (ED)||15%||42%||14.5%||41%||17.3%||16.8%||18.2%|
|Yale University (SCEA)||4.4%||17%||4.7%||16%||6.3%||6.5%||6.3%|
*Regular admission acceptance rate calculations do not include early admission deferral numbers.
Large Percentage of Freshman Class Filled with Early Applicants
Some schools continue to admit large portions of the freshman class through early admissions, making regular admissions even more competitive. More students tend to apply through regular decision, so they are competing for fewer remaining positions in the class.
As a reminder, early decision is binding so universities are guaranteed the applicants’ attendance, as compared with early action, which is non-binding and allows students until May 1 to decide. As a result, colleges with early decision programs tend to admit a higher percentage of early applicants, who have demonstrated such strong interest, and their binding commitment helps in determining admissions yield for the incoming class.
This year, schools that admitted 40% to 50% of their incoming class through their early decision program include Brown, Duke, Northwestern, Penn, Williams, and Vanderbilt.
Some schools are accommodating increased applications with plans to expand enrollment. Princeton, Stanford, UVA, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale all have strategic plans to increase incoming class size over several years. Princeton’s plan to expand the class size by 11% was motivated by the desire to “enhance the quality of the overall educational experience at Princeton and make more effective use of the University’s extraordinary resources.” At the same time, University President John L. Hennessy says that Stanford has plans to grow but wants to be careful that size does not diminish experience, and the school will make future growth decisions dependent upon feedback from students and professors.
Many schools are struggling to predict yield, the number of admitted applicants who will decide to attend their institution, as universities increase in popularity and selectivity. This, in turn, can impact admissions rates. For example, Duke’s Dean of Admissions, Christoph Guttentag, said that one factor in this year’s low admissions rate was last year’s exceptionally high regular decision yield rate.
“Because the number of students we admitted last year resulted in over enrollment, we admitted fewer students this year on the assumption that the yield will be similar,” Guttentag said. “We have admitted 150 students fewer than last year.”
At Lehigh, the Class of 2018 hit overcapacity, and caused the university to accept fewer students in 2015. However, the Class of 2019 was still over capacity, forcing Lehigh to further recalculate yield predictions for the Class of 2020.
Similarly, MIT has also experienced increasing yield over the years, from 65% in 2011 to 73% in 2015. Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions, only expects it to keep going up as students continue to recognize “the value and excitement of MIT.”
Increasing the diversity of incoming classes has become a top priority for the admissions departments at many schools. This includes international applicants, students from varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and first-generation college students.
Schools are seeking top-quality students from diverse backgrounds through a variety of programs. Pomona College, for example, partners with A Better Chance, Chicago Scholars, the KIPP Foundation and the Sutton Trust, as well as numerous local and regional programs, to connect with applicants from under-resourced schools. The University of Pennsylvania and Williams have similar programs.
This year, Duke began the Washington Duke Scholars, which nationally seeks to find first-generation college students who demonstrate financial need. Georgetown has a comparable program, called the Georgetown Scholarship Program.
Many schools are committed to increasing diversity and the makeup of their admitted applicant pool demonstrates this goal. At Cornell University, a record 27% of the admitted applicants self-identify as underrepresented minority students and 49% are students of color, which includes Asian-Americans and underrepresented minorities. UC-Berkeley has increased admission of Chicano/Latino students by 28.8% and African American admissions by 32% since last year.
Harvard also set records in admitting a freshman class comprised of 14% African Americans and 22.1% Asian-Americans. Nearly 37% of Johns Hopkins regular decision admits self-identify as members of underrepresented minorities, a school record. Northwestern admitted a record number of international and Chicago Public Schools students through early decision, and a record number of Pell-eligible students through regular decision.
Tips for Future Applicants
In a competitive admissions climate that’s increasingly concerned with yield, demonstrating interest is more important than ever. Therefore, apply to 10-12 colleges (a manageable number) so that you can visit all of the schools in which you are interested. When you visit, register with the admissions reception desk. Schools track visits, and see this as the strongest possible way to demonstrate interest.
If you are applying early admissions, visit the college by November 15. If you are applying regular admissions visit in the fall of your senior year, or by February 15 at the latest.
Many universities have made increasing the diversity of incoming classes a top admissions priority. If you identify with an under-represented minority, participate in diversity days hosted by the college, if appropriate.
Highly selective schools are experiencing higher applicant pools, acceptance rates are low and dropping, and many students are told to dream big. When crafting your college list, make sure that you would be happy to attend any school on your list. Do not apply to a university that is not a good fit, or about which you have reservations. Be very realistic about your chances and have grounded expectations. Your college list should have a healthy distribution of reach, target, and safe schools. While early acceptance rates tend to be higher than regular acceptance rates, applying early has become harder to predict. Think carefully and strategically about your early admissions choice.
The college admissions process can be overwhelming, and it may feel difficult to know where to start. At Collegiate Gateway, we are happy to share our expertise and guide you on the path to your “best fit” college. Please feel free to contact us! As always, we’re happy to help!