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Articles / Applying to College / Ivy League Wars, Ivy League Woes

Ivy League Wars, Ivy League Woes

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 10, 2018

My readers may get tired of me telling them how hard it is to get into the Ivy League and other elite schools in this country. It seems like the same old story every year.

Well, a new chapter in this same old story was just published and the story remains the same, but the plot has thickened. Things have gotten a lot tougher. In fact, they're now the toughest ever.

Therefore, I thought I would share the terrible tidings with you today as a continuing cautionary tale to all soon-to-be rising high school seniors who are aspiring Ivy Leaguers and other top-school applicants. Be warned … and prepare to adjust your thinking.

About Those Wars And Woes

The “Wars" part of my title speaks to the incredible level of competition applicants face. You may think that the “Woes" come when the denials roll in. Yes, being “rejected" (I dislike that term's negativity) hurts, but it may not be the worst woe. More about that later.

Since I'm a big believer in objective quantification, let's take a numerical look at how hard it was to get into the Ivies and other top schools this year. Saying it was “the toughest year yet" doesn't quite cover it.

The best summary I've seen appeared in the Harvard Crimson's article, Admissions Rates at Record Low Across Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, which tells a shocking story. Here are some key excerpts:

  • MIT, Stanford, and every member of the Ivy League, with the exception of Yale, set record-low rates for admission to the Class of 2022.
  • Out of the group of 10 schools, Stanford was the most selective, with an admissions rate of 4.3 percent. For the fifth year in a row, Stanford had a lower rate than Harvard, which accepted 4.59 percent of students who applied —marking the first time the college has ever dipped below 5 percent.
  • College consultant Steven R. Goodman attributed these highly selective colleges' plummeting admissions rates to a recent focus on recruiting a broader pool of students, as well as to applicants' decisions to apply to a greater number of schools.
  • “I think the key is recruiting, recruiting and recruiting. And the more students who are recruited to be in the applicant pool, the lower the acceptance percentages are going to be," Goodman said.
  • Goodman added that “the numbers rule everything" in light of this shift and said he doesn't expect the admissions rates to hit a floor.
  • Phil Trout, the former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he advises students to apply early to Harvard and similar schools only if they are at the top of the students' lists. He noted the considerable difference in these colleges' early and regular admissions rates.
  • “The statistics are pretty stark if you are on my side of the desk, as a high school counselor, we tell students, or we ask students, 'Is Harvard on your list, or is Harvard at the top of your list?'" Trout said. “Because a student who applies early action has more than a 15 percent chance of being accepted, a student who applies regular this year and others — 2 percent? 2.5 percent?"

The ongoing push for these schools to pursue diversity in their incoming classes is revealed in these statistics:

  • Six of 10 provided data about the ethnic and racial make-up of their admitted classes; at least 50 percent of admitted students identify as minorities. Cornell had the greatest proportion of minority admits, coming in at 54 percent. Approximately 52 percent of Harvard's admits to the Class of 2022 are minorities. Columbia, MIT, Stanford and Yale did not publicize racial demographics data for their admitted classes.
  • First-generation students made up between 13 and 18.3 percent of admitted classes at the seven schools which provided that statistic. Stanford attracted the greatest proportion of first-generation students. Columbia, MIT and Yale did not provide data on first-generation admits.
  • International student admit rates were comparable among the universities which provided that data. International students ranged from the 9 percent of the admit pool at Cornell to 12 percent of the pools at Harvard and Princeton.

To provide impressive visual evidence of these surprising numbers, the Crimson displays a series of accompanying graphs that show the impact of these admission outcomes.

The message here is clear. These schools are looking to completely obliterate the accusations that they are havens for the wealthy and privileged. I think that's terrific. Of course, the wealthy seem to always have at least some influence when it comes to so-called “development appeal." Assuming that your academic record is not an embarrassment and you're free of felonies and related offences, if your family is willing to fund a new building, library wing or even some fancy tennis courts, your chances to beat the admission odds at these schools go up. It's not a guarantee, but your parents might look forward to a visit (or even a delicious lunch) with a development director.

Welcome to the Waitlist?

Things at the top look rather grim for your admission chances, don't they? However, it could get even more negatively complicated, if that's possible. Being denied may not be the worst thing that can happen. There's always … drumroll ... the waitlist.

After spending quite a bit of time a couple weeks ago perusing the admission results postings on the College Confidential discussion forum, I was shocked to see how many applicants -- not only to Ivy/elite schools but also to other broadly “first-tier" institutions -- were neither accepted nor denied, but wait-listed.

This twilight zone outcome causes all kinds of misery. Mainly, it requires wait-listed applicants to play the safe percentages and enroll at a school where they have been officially admitted, in most cases sending an enrollment deposit by May 1. Then, keeping their fingers crossed for a trip into the admitted pile, wait-listed applicants hold their breath. They hope, ironically, that they lose their enrollment deposit at their admitted school when accepted off the waitlist, when they'll be required to send yet another enrollment deposit.

If this whole scenario seems ridiculous to you, not to mention unfair, you're not alone. Scott Jaschik, writing in Inside Higher Ed, asks, Are Waiting Lists Out of Control? His subtitle notes:

Should colleges have waiting lists with more names than makeup a class of new students? Open letter to colleges calls practice cruel and says "insanity needs to stop."

Then, happily, to provide a quantified anecdote to amplify the “insanity" comment, he opens with:

  • Brown University's freshman class in September had 1,719 students. For this fall, the university admitted 2,566 applicants and should have no problem matching last year's incoming class. Brown, after all, remains exceptionally popular with many talented high school students.
  • The university has also offered spots on its waiting list to 2,724 of its applicants. If every single admitted applicant rejected Brown's offer, it would have waitlist candidates to spare in building a class larger than the last one.
  • Brown didn't respond to a question about how many offers it typically makes off the waiting list. The university is hardly alone with a substantial waiting list.

Forum Members React

When I saw this article, I immediately wondered what the members of the College Confidential discussion forum community think about the waitlist situation. So, I posted a thread with a link to Jaschik's article. Let's sample a few reactions from that thread:

  • Agree, agree, agree. This whole process is becoming gargantuan and thus inefficient, to say the least.
  • Some may find it cruel, others regard it as a soft rejection which recognizes the applicant's accomplishments and abilities.
  • HYPSM [Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT] can probably assume that a high percentage of kids that they offer waitlist to will accept the offer and still be willing to ditch their second-choice college in May or June if chosen for admission. But go down half a tier and a kid who was waitlisted at, say, Brown probably got an offer for a college on an equal selectivity, or has been offered impressive merit at a very good school lower down on the USNWR rankings.
  • For some colleges, it's yield management -- if you wait-list someone who you like but think will go above you, you give them the option to tell you that you were wrong, and then have a very likely acceptance. For some, it's a consolation prize. Please feel appropriately consoled. For some, it's risk management. You don't know if it'll be a year like this one or last year, where it's unexpectedly tough all around, so yield will be high. Wait-listing some kids you'd normally admit keeps you from having to rush a bunch of cots to the gym.
  • Most of the people we know who've gotten off of the waitlist have been either athletes filling a spot or full-pay families with legacy or other institutional connections. Otherwise, waitlist seems to be a way to keep alumni and desirable high schools placated.
  • Carnegie Mellon had a waitlist of 2,700 last year and four students got in. This year they are trying to let more students in off the waitlist but if you need financial aid, your place on the waitlist is pushed back. Wait-listed applicants are no longer need-blind....very disappointing for students who can't afford the high cost, but are possibly more qualified than the next person who can pay full price. I guess it saves the school money though....the whole college application process is a big game.
  • I'm on six waitlists: UCSD, UCSB, UCD, NYU, Tufts and Cal-Poly SLO. Anyone know the chances of getting off these? I know Tufts is basically not going to happen since they haven't used waitlist in years, but what about the others?
  • I think that colleges use waitlists for many different reasons, and it's only fair that they disclose stats so we know what being wait-listed really means.

That's an interesting thread, with 61 posts so far. Read through it and get the pulse of students and parents out there. They're the ones directly affected by the waitlist.

How Low Can Admit Rates Go?

So, that's this year's edition of Ivy Wars and Ivy Woes. I joked in a previous post that I believe there's a secret competition among the deans of admission at the Ivies and other top schools. Each is trying to become the first to have an overall acceptance rate of 0.0 percent, thus becoming the proud leader of the school where (as headlined on the student newspaper) “No one gets in!" Now that's what I call prestigious.

To all of you who have been wait-listed, good luck getting off of it. But, whatever happens, don't forget to enroll somewhere by May 1. To those of you who have been denied at the Ivies and other elites, take heart. There's a good-news email or fat envelope in your possession just begging for your acceptance. Make your visits, talk to your parents, check your finances and then make your pick. You're in for the time of your life.

Trust me on this. You'll be glad you did.


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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