Question: Are the admission statistics noted in the college guidebooks really accurate, or do they sometimes elevate the numbers so that schools appear more selective than they really are?
The statistics will get you in the ballpark, but there are a couple considerations that may make colleges appear at least a tad more selective than they really are. For instance, some lists or guides provide mid-range SAT scores for students who actually matriculated; some supply data on all accepted students and some on all who applied. These numbers can be fairly different, depending on the institution.
At the more selective colleges and universities, admitted student and matriculated student scores will, of course, be higher than all applicant scores, since many candidates with lower scores were turned away. At less selective schools, however, you may find that the mid-range scores of applicants are actually higher than those of students who enrolled, if this college was a “Safety School” for many who didn’t ultimately land there.
Moreover, some colleges do a bit of fancy footwork when it comes to how they report test scores. For instance, they may not include students taken off the wait list in their “Admitted Student” figures. Likewise, wait-listed students who eventually get in may not be counted in the “Admitted Student” percentages. And, if a student submitted both SAT and ACT scores, and the college officially used the higher ones, then the lower results may not be computed in the averages that the college reports.
Finally, some colleges have a more “self-selected” applicant pool than others. For instance, I’ve worked with students who don’t have a prayer at an Ivy League college but who apply anyway with reasons along the lines of “My dad said, ‘What the heck, it’s Harvard–give it a shot!'” But I’m less likely encounter that sort of “Nothing to lose” attitude when it comes to lesser known “elite” schools like Swarthmore or Pomona. So those who apply to those places are probably well in the running to begin with. I’m not saying that Swarthmore is really more competitive than Harvard, only that the numbers rarely tell the whole story.
So, the bottom line is this: Take those guidebook stats with a few grains of salt, but also be realistic. If a student’s test scores, grades, etc. are below the range reported, don’t hold up high hopes of admission without other factors that will compensate for the deficiencies. However, there are many such factors out there (unusual background or talents, geographic diversity, minority status, legacy status, etc.) so also don’t shy away from a top-choice college based on the numbers alone.