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Articles / Applying to College / The Ever More Slippery Slope

The Ever More Slippery Slope

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Dec. 14, 2017

The Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) verdicts began coming out yesterday. The news was even more grim than expected, as some of the news headlines testified:

- College Admits 14.5 Percent of Early Applicants to Class of 2022 (Harvard)

The College notified 964 students of their acceptance into the Class of 2022 Tuesday, representing 14.5 percent of the 6,630 applicants for early admission.

This year's acceptance rate for early applicants is roughly equal to last year's rate—the lowest since the return of the early admission program in 2011. The overall early applicant pool was the largest since the program's reinstatement.

“The one thing we can say with certainty is that the numbers rose this year," William R. Fitzsimmons '67, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, said in an interview Tuesday. “In general terms, it appears that more institutions had increases than the reverse… Early admission, in one form or another, is the new normal." ...

- [Princeton] U. admits 799 students in early action program [14.7%]

The University admitted 799 students out of a record 5,402 applicants under the single-choice early action program to the Class of 2022. The admission rate of 14.7 percent was the lowest yet under the SCEA program, following a 15.4 percent early admission rate in 2016 and a 18.6 percent early admission rate in 2015.

The pool of applicants under this year's SCEA plan was the largest in the program's seven-year history, representing a growth of 8 percent over last year's early applicant group and a 57 percent increase from 2011, the first year of the University's early action program. The University's first early action pool had 3,443 applicants.

Accepted students hail from 44 U.S. states, along with 48 countries. Eleven percent of the early admitted students are international. Forty-four percent of domestic students come from diverse backgrounds, according to the University's statement. Seventeen percent of admitted students are legacy students.

Fourteen percent will be the first in their families to attend a college or university. This percentage is in line with last year's. Fifty-six percent of the early admits will graduate in the spring from public or charter high schools.

Twenty-one percent of the early admitted students indicated their intention to pursue a B.S.E. degree at the University, 44 percent of whom are women. ...

- Penn admitted 18.5 percent of Early Decision applicants — a record-breaking low

Penn admitted 18.5 percent of its early decision applicants for the Class of 2022, a dramatic drop from last year's 22 percent ED rate and the previous year's 23.2 percent rate.

Penn also received a record-breaking 7,074 early decision applications this year, a 15 percent increase from last year's 6,147 applicants. Since the Class of 2018 applied, the early decision application pool has grown 38 percent, according to a press release from Penn Admissions.

Of those accepted this year, 25 percent had a parent or grandparent who had attended Penn, as opposed to the 16 percent of legacy applications received in November. Eleven percent of accepted students are first-generation college students, which is consistent with the percentage of first-generation applications received this year.

From this year's applicant pool, 1,312 were admitted, which is similar to the 1,354 applications admitted last year. Penn typically admits around half of its total class in the Early Decision round. Last year, approximately 55 percent of the total 2,445 spots available were filled by Early Decision applicants.

The drop in the ED rate this year largely results from the increase in applications received, rather than a decrease in the number of applications accepted, based on the data provided. ...

- Number of early applicants to Barnard rises by 6 percent

Barnard saw a six percent increase in early decision applications for the class of 2022.

The Barnard College Office of Admissions received a total of 993 early applications, in comparison to 934 last year. For the class of 2021, Barnard received 19 percent more early decision applicants than the year before. Early decision results were released to prospective students on Tuesday evening.

Last year marked Barnard's lowest acceptance rate to date, as only 15.4 percent of 7,716 applicants were admitted over the course of the admissions cycle.

The college's acceptance rate has continued to drop over the last few years, with 24 percent of applicants admitted for the class of 2018, 20 percent for the class of 2019, and 16 percent for the class of 2020.

And so on, and on, and on ...

If you have been on the receiving end of a deferral or denial (a.k.a. "rejection") from a college this month (or are about to receive one), then you possibly can see why that happened. The surge of high-quality applicants continues to grow.

Another factor has to do with diversity. If you're among one of the most common demographic groups applying to a particular college, your statistical chances of success go down, obviously, but not just because of sheer numbers. These days, colleges -- particularly elite colleges -- are putting more emphasis on bringing in students of color. Money is also a factor, as applicants who come from economically disadvantaged families have an edge in admissions at some schools, assuming that their credentials are in the ballpark.

In my work as an independent college admissions counselor over the years, I never see an application season go by without its usual group of applicants who come to me with a list of candidate schools that includes what I call "the usual suspects": Columbia, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and, lest we forget, The Big Three: Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. Of course I'm talking about the Ivy League, whose member schools shimmer in the distance like an oasis of cool water before legions of status-thirsty applicants and their families, who have been blinded to the offerings of myriad other (translation: "lesser") colleges and universities. Oh, the price of "prestige."

This mindset has caused lots of heartache at decision time, like right now here in mid-December. Probably the most frequently intoned question heard throughout the ED/EA college applicant land is, "Why?" -- "Why was I denied outright?" "Why was I deferred?" And, surprisingly, "Why did I get in when ____ didn't?" As Pink Floyd says, welcome to the machine ... of college admissions.

Okay. Lat's take a moment and probe a bit deeper into the "Why?" questions concerning early denials and deferrals. I hope my analogy can help to demystify things, at least a bit for you.

Finding the "Musicians"

One of my personal passions is classical piano music. Every four years, I look forward with great enthusiasm to the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place in Ft. Worth, Texas. The competition attracts the world's top young pianists who gather to compete for the piano world's top prizes. This prestigious event is very much like the elite college admissions process.

The sheer number of richly qualified entrants is staggering, much like the applicant pools of top colleges. In fact, so many wonderful and highly credentialed pianists desire to compete in the Cliburn that jurors have to travel to culture centers around the globe to audition and admit or deny competition applicants.

So why am I droning on about some esoteric and generally little known music contest in Texas? After all, we're talking about elite college admissions, right? Well, I've already hinted at one interesting parallel: the overwhelming number of superbly qualified applicants. Let's talk about an element called "intangibles" through the eyes of the Cliburn jury.

The bar is sharply (I almost want to write "absurdly") higher today than it has been in recent years for both elite admissions and music competitions because the talent pool has grown much larger. There are a number of complex reasons for that, but we won't discuss them right now. Getting back to our music analogy, I listened to one of the Cliburn jurors discussing his personal criteria for selecting a winning pianist. He noted that merely "playing all the notes correctly" wasn't enough. He was looking for the musicians, those players who could move him. The musicians are those who can project themselves beyond the printed notes on the page, who can reach out and touch the judges. They are the artists whose attention to detail and personalized playing are so successful that the juror wants to hear more from them.

In today's super-competitive elite applicant pools, just about everyone has virtuoso numbers. And therein lies the key. This new "credential benchmark" requires Ivy/elite applicants to reveal themselves beyond sheer quantitative dimensions. They must display their "musicianship," those personal aspects that add nuance and passion to the application's simple informational questions and essay prompts. In pianistic terms, they must perform the notes that lie between the keys.

What are your "between-the-keys" qualities? How can you identify them? When you do, how will you articulate them to the admissions committees?

These are crucial questions. Ponder them. It will be time well spent as you discover just how challenging the elite admissions process can be, as some of you are experiencing right now.

The Slippery Slope

I convey these thoughts and current admission results not to scare those of you who will be applying next fall or to diminish the hopes of those of you who have been deferred (or, perhaps worse, will be waitlisted this spring). My purpose is to once again post my frequently used Caution: Slippery Slope Ahead sign.

Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can easily beat the odds at this level of competition. You may be able to win the Silver or Gold Medal at the Cliburn but will you be able to get in at Dartmouth? Are you prepared to reveal those "notes between the keys" that can convince the "jurors" to let you in?

Think about it. The Brave New World of college admissions is rolling like a juggernaut.


Be sure to check out all my other articles on the College Confidential Web site.

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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