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Articles / Applying to College / 5.1% Acceptance Rate: How High The Climb?

April 7, 2014

5.1% Acceptance Rate: How High The Climb?

Did you apply to Stanford University this year? Were you accepted? If so, overall, you were more fortunate than 95 other applicants in any group of 100 Stanford applicants. Three years ago I wrote about the emergence of the single-digit acceptance rate in my article Ivy League: The Year of Single-Digit Acceptance Rates. This year, six of the eight Ivies were in single digits. As Peter Jacobs notes:

Princeton admitted 7.28% of applicants, down slightly from 7.29% in 2013, and accepted 1,939 students out of 26,641 applicants

The University of Pennsylvania admitted 9.9% of applicants to the Class of 2018, down from 12.1% last year. The Philadelphia-based university accepted 3,551 of their 35,788 applicants.


Cornell University, which has the highest admissions rate in the Ivy League, dropped over a percentage point this year, with a 14% acceptance rate, taking 6,025 students from 43,041 applications. Cornell accepted 15.2% of applicants last year.

Brown University accepted 2,619 of 30,291 applicants, or an 8.6% acceptance rate. Last year, the university had a 9.2% acceptance rate.

Yale University was the last to release their admissions data, but also posted a lower acceptance rate than last year's 6.72%. Yale admitted 1,935 of 30,932 applicants for a 6.26% acceptance rate.

Other Ivies saw their acceptance rate rise from last year.

Dartmouth College took 11.5% of applicants to the Class of 2018, up from a 10% admissions rate last year. Dartmouth recieved 19,235 applications this year, and accepted 2,220 students.

Harvard University admitted 5.9% of applicants, up slightly from last year's 5.8% admissions rate. Harvard accepted 2,023 of their 34,295 applications.

Columbia University admitted 6.94% of applicants, up from a record low 6.89% acceptance rate for the Class of 2017. Columbia accepted 2,291 of their 32,967 applicants.

And Stanford tops all the Ivies with their staggering 5.1%. MIT came in at 7.7%, rounding out the famous HYPSM abbreviation string.

What can we make of this? On the surface, it appears that applying to The Ivies, Stanford, and MIT is apparently practically futile. If you were waitlisted at an Ivy this year, Nick Anderson at The Washington Posthas some further sobering news:

For the thousands who didn't get in but were placed on waiting lists, here are a couple of statistics: Last year, 168 students made it into Cornell via the waiting list, out of more than 3,100 offered positions on the list. Dartmouth admitted 87, out of about 1,700 initial wait-list offers, and Princeton admitted 33 out of an initial 1,400.

Are you thinking about getting in off an Ivy waitlist? Well, it's not impossible, just nearly impossible, percentage-wise.

For all you high school juniors, sophomores, and other (even younger) up-and-comers, let me ask you a question: Do you want to go to the Ivy League? If so, here are some of my thoughts for you:

As Pink Floyd once said, “Welcome to the machine."

Every year, legions of highly qualified and not-so-qualified applicants knock at the admission doors of these eight great schools. There is much information about Ivy League admissions, but the best place to start is with the Web sites of these elite institutions. Visit these sites and carefully review them. There's a ton of pertinent facts, figures, and photos to be had, so take note. Here are the links:

Princeton Harvard Yale Columbia Dartmouth Brown Penn Cornell

The history of the Ivy League (it started as an athletic conference) can be found by searching for “Ivy League history" on Google or any other of your favorite search engines. Also, be sure to check out College Confidential's Ivy League College Discussion area for a wealth of Ivy-related insights, including:

Ivy Admissions: Can It Really Be That Hard? – comparing elite admissions to recruitment of musical virtuosos.

I'm sure that you're aware of how exceedingly competitive schools like these are. Never forget that you must constantly be aware of the sometimes-arbitrary nature of college admissions. You already may have read the posts in College Confidential's discussion forums about the students who are rejected year after year from their first-choice schools for no apparent reason. I mention this only to underscore the point that, in most cases with the top schools, and especially the Ivy League, there is no such thing as a “sure thing" when it comes to getting in. You simply have to keep a reasonable perspective.

This past year was, without doubt, the toughest year ever for elite college admissions, as my text above testifies. Many seniors with near-perfect SAT Is, Subject Tests, ACTs, etc. were either denied or waitlisted. I find this situation difficult to rationalize. I mention these things not to discourage you but, rather, to prepare you for what lies ahead: a significantly challenging admissions process. The coming years will be increasingly tougher, if you can possibly imagine that, mainly among the Top-25 colleges and the Ivies.

Want more insights? Check out Many Paths Lead to Ivy: Wise Advice from the Pros and Ivy Success Diary: From Nowhere to New Haven.

So what's your point, Dave? Well, my point is that at the top, it's muchharder than you may think. You need to adjust your thinking. You probably also need a more substantive plan than just “My [parents, school counselor, friends, etc.] and I think I have a good shot."

Take a look at this brief timeline of what you should be doing to prepare yourself for your Ivy (and other “elite" school) quest. Where are you on the chronology?

In a nutshell: Start early. When it comes to money for college, you can never start saving too early. However, we're not going to talk about money for college.

Here's a thought that bears repeating about getting into Ivy League and so-called Top-25 schools: It's harder than you think and it takes long-range planning. There is an incredible crush of applicants for the top schools. They're the ones with the lowest acceptance rates. Although there are many quality colleges and universities in the United States, every year a disproportionate number of high school seniors try to get into a very small group of schools. You'll need several essential tools for success at the top: a strong strategic admissions plan, an outstanding student profile, and good advice along the way.

A good, general, long-range college admissions plan might look something like this (suggestions for both students and parents):

The elementary years: Encourage reading and broad-range interests. Look for signs of special talents. Get involved with your school's guidance program. Start developing computer skills.

Middle-School Years: Continue reading at all levels. Begin to emphasize writing and general communication skills. Watch for emerging leadership traits. Increase involvement with teachers and administrators. Consider taking the SAT I to qualify for advanced programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

Ninth Grade: GPA and class rank begin to accumulate. Schedule only the most challenging courses. Consider APs if they are available. Take an SAT I in January to get some testing experience. Excel in academics and extracurricular pursuits. Don't waste summer.

Sophomore Year: Schedule APs where possible. Continue to develop extracurricular interests. Volunteerism and general community service now become important. What academic strengths are developing? Pursue them. Take another SAT in the spring. SAT Is in June? Writing skills and vocabulary should be sharpening. Plan a meaningful summer. Read books from college reading lists.

Junior Year: More AP courses. Prepare for the PSAT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in October. Parents' assets need to be positioned for maximum protection from financial aid assessment by December 31. Start looking at college candidates. Have six by summer (Reach, Ballpark, and Safeties). Visit the campuses. Prepare for SAT Is in January and May and Subject Tests in June. Start thinking about college application essays. Volunteer work and extracurriculars should be well developed by now. Begin college counseling. Summer should include something that relates to higher education.

Senior Year: The big year. Still more APs. Send for college applications. Pick teachers for recommendations. Consider Early Decision or Early Action for your clear, first-choice pick. Need an October SAT I? It's essay time. Explore electronic applications. Learn to love your counselor. Get quality advice about the process. Keep meticulous details about your applications. Mark your calendar with important deadlines. Early Decision/Action letters arrive early-to-mid December. Regular decision letters arrive mid-March through mid-April. Learn how to negotiate financial aid offers. Enroll, be happy, and prosper. Work the summer for much-needed college dollars.

And what about essays?

Here's the weak link in many college applications. It's unfortunate because the essay can tip the scales when a college is trying to decide between two otherwise equally qualified applicants. Some students don't put much thought into their essays. This is a big mistake. Essays are crucial.

Most applications for competitive colleges ask the applicant to write a reasonably significant essay (in the 500-750 words range) about what is usually a broad topic. What colleges are looking for in the essay is an insight into how well the student thinks and how well s/he can articulate a point of view. The ultimate book on understanding application essays is Harry Bauld's little masterpiece, On Writing The College Application Essay. It should be required reading for all seniors applying to competitive colleges.

The main requirement for writing a convincing essay, aside from a command of the English language is to be who you really are. Find your “voice." Your voice is that writing style that lets your readers “hear" who you are. The key to finding your voice is to forget trying to write what you think the admissions people want to hear. Write what you want to say. Relax and make your essay approachable. Some application essays are so stilted they are painful and embarrassing to read.

Bauld's book will caution you on “dangerous" topics, those areas that can be hazardous to your admissions health. He discusses the importance of a strong lead, how to adapt one strong essay to suit a number of different essay questions, and the “voice" thing mentioned above. Don't underestimate the power of a well-written essay.

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Where can you get the information you need for this new way of thinking and planning? Answer: College Confidential. Best wishes for your college quest!

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Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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