Using Current Results to Create a Sensible College List

January is an interesting time in the college application cycle. Students graduating from high school in June have already sent off their applications and sit waiting for results. At the same time, the process is just beginning for students who will graduate in 2018.

The first step for any “rising senior” is to begin researching colleges. Certainly, part of the research process involves trying to find that perfect “match, ” a college where a student’s intellectual interests find a home. After all, how could a student passionate about computer science not get excited by the prospect of exploring one of Georgia Tech’s Threads; which empower students to create their own computing degree? How could a future accountant not be thrilled to discover Bentley’s accounting program that includes access to the most robust course load in the country?

But, the research process must go beyond finding a good academic match. In order to develop a college list that is both sensible and functional I firmly believe that the applicant must pay attention to admission histories when making college application plans. Specifically, it pays for students to look at admission results over the last two or three cycles to gain insight into trends impacting decisions. What happened then can affect what happens next winter. And, no matter how strong the applicant’s grades or essays are, it may not be enough to overcome this aspect of the admission process.

A perfect case in point is American University’s 26% decrease in the percentage of applicants it admitted for the Class of 2020. That’s a significant change that can put an applicant who might have been accepted last year out of the running this year. Was there a reason for this drop? Most definitely. American University had a higher than expected yield (the number of students accepting their acceptance) from the year before. Meaning: the campus is too crowded! Therefore, American had to correct for the “overage” of the last class. With increased application numbers and too many students showing up the year before, American had to trim its sails, making admission into the Class of 2020 much more difficult.

Conversely, at the University of Michigan, last year the admit rate rose 11%. Although applications also rose 7% (which might indicate a need to take fewer applicants), the University’s admission rate actually rose because of “higher targeted enrollment growth.” In other words, the university opted to make the incoming class larger. The result – many applicants to Michigan were surprised by their admission offer!

So, let’s take this knowledge and apply it to information gleaned from this year’s early application cycle.

First, it remains clear that applying early decision dramatically increases odds of admission. For example, Middlebury College offered early admission to 343 students from a pool of 673 applicants. That is an admit rate of nearly 50%! More importantly, 51% of the class was filled in the ED cycle. I feel sorry for those students hoping for a regular decision admission offer from Middlebury. As the Dean of Admission Greg Buckles wrote, “(to be part of the class of 2021) a student will need to be exceptionally strong.” While Middlebury’s early numbers clearly reinforce the point, they are not the only school who will use early decision to fill a huge portion of the class. This fact will hold true for Northwestern, Penn, Duke, George Washington, Dartmouth and nearly all of the universities offering an ED program.

Next, a restrictive application to Yale, Stanford, Princeton or Harvard does not help. For example, Harvard received 6, 473 early applicants this year. They offered admission to 938 students. This early admission rate of `14% is a bit deceptive. Keep in mind that many athletes and legacy applicants are encouraged to apply early, artificially inflating admission rates. Harvard’s Dean Fitzsimmons has made it quite clear that he does not want to put too much of an emphasis on early applications.

Another interesting trend from the fall has nothing to do with early applications and everything to do with application volume. Last month UCLA announced that they had received over 100, 000 applications. They are the first university to pass this particular benchmark. Combine this bit of information with the fact that the UC system is projected to increase the number of instate admission offers by roughly 15% and it is clear that It is time for international students to stop looking at the UC system as a safety net.

There are other trends that I am seeing, but do not yet have the data to fully support. Still, it may be worth mentioning a few things:

Admission into a computer science program remains highly competitive.
Gender gaps are impacting Cal Tech’s decisions
Liberal Arts Applicants (History, Latin, English) are getting close looks at even the most selective universities
The University of Chicago’s new ED program is a game changer
It’s true that in college admission, as with stocks, “past performance does not equal future earnings, ” but it is possible to get a sense of this year’s admission contest by looking at an institution’s recent past. It may take a little digging, but it’s information that can help as you try to gauge possible application results. Make it part of your college research.

About Author Martin Walsh

Passionate about history and culture, I spent twelve years living and teaching in a variety of countries, including Cambodia, Russia and Venezuela.

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