A school's selectivity is often talked about as if it's the best indicator of prestige. To get into a highly selective school must mean you are receiving the best education available to you, right? Let's not get ahead of ourselves! There's more to determining a school's ability to offer a great education than a selectivity rating. But selectivity ratings can still play an important role when determining where to apply, so here's a breakdown of what that number means.
In a technical sense, a selectivity rating is found by dividing the number of students admitted to a school by the total number of applicants. Generally, those schools that accept 75 percent or fewer of their applicants are considered “selective," while those that accept 20 percent or fewer are deemed “highly selective." While this is great information to have to gauge your chances of being admitted, there's more behind that highly discussed acceptance rate than what might first appear.
Here's an example: During the 2018-2019 admissions cycle, DePauw University, a selective school according to the above criteria, received 5,173 applicants and admitted 3,465, giving a selectivity rating of about 74 percent. By contrast, Harvard College's acceptance rate was about 5 percent. One might assume that Harvard has admitted significantly fewer students to their freshman class. In truth, Harvard, 2018's most selective college, received about 43,000 applications and admitted 1,962 students. Harvard only admitted 1,503 fewer students than DePauw, but the selectivity calculation makes it seem, to the casual observer, that Harvard must have accepted far fewer students. Therefore, selectivity directly measures how many students apply to a college compared to how many students are admitted and nothing more.
I always recommend having variety on your list of potential schools— a combination of “dream schools," “target schools," and “safety schools"— but it's important to ensure that you're not overloading your list with one type. The area where this could happen would be in the “dream" category. This is where selectivity can help!
Dream schools are those for which your academic credentials fall at or below the school's lowest scores for the cohort of students accepted the previous year. And since a college's selectivity affects the caliber of students accepted at an institution, you can get a better sense of your chances of still getting in if your test scores or GPA aren't quite up to par. This doesn't mean you shouldn't still apply to a school just because you think it might be slightly out of reach. Every applicant is unique, and you might be just the student they're looking for that year. But you should be wary of applying only to the most selective schools — regardless of your scores! — as that could lead to heartbreak.
Even if you fall right where Harvard wants you to be when it comes to previous academic record, because it has a highly selective rating, you'd still be facing an uphill battle to get a seat in the freshman class. That doesn't mean you weren't perfectly suited to attend Harvard; it just means there were many other perfectly well-suited students competing for the available seats, and Harvard just ran out of room. So if you end up getting a rejection letter, don't be discouraged or think it means you were anything less than qualified — it's not a reflection of your ability as a student! Some of the most popular schools among incoming freshmen receive a higher number of applicants for many reasons other than just academic prestige. Schools like Texas A&M and Notre Dame also draw applicants on account of their sporting programs, for instance. Therefore, selectivity is not the best indication of the academic prowess of an institution; rather, all the factors that make a school attractive (both inside and outside the classroom) will affect the selectivity rate.
Selectivity only goes so far; it's great to be accepted to a college, but less so if you don't really want to go there. Really think about financial fit, population and location, and academic fit first. Once you've compiled a list based on those factors, you can assess your chances of being admitted based on selectivity ratings. If you notice a majority of the schools you've chosen are highly selective, look for some that meet your criteria that might be a little more likely to have a spot open on their roster come admissions season. Remember that highly selective schools only hold that status because they received many more applications than available seats, which means there are more important factors to take into account. And be sure to utilize tools like our The Complete Book of Colleges, which holds information important to all aspects of finding the best-fit school for you.
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