• Dr. Erin Avery

The Admissions Process for Highly Selective and Selective Colleges and Universities

Highly Selective Colleges and Universities

Of the 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the United States about 50, less than 2%, are “highly selective.” On average, this tier of most competitive schools each receive about 8,000 applications, about the same as the population of West Long Branch in Monmouth County, and admit less than 25% of those applicants. There is a popular misconception, especially among those residing in New Jersey or elsewhere on the east coast, that highly selective schools are limited to the prestigious northeast Ivy League schools. However, there are many non-Ivys like MIT and Stanford that are just as selective and enjoy a highly competitive applicant pool.

Among the highly selective colleges and universities, some have acceptance rates far less than 25%. For example, Stanford University and Harvard University have 5% and 6% acceptance rates, respectively. Needless to say, for the coveted slots in highly selective schools, the supply of open seats falls woefully short of demand, and earning admission, for even the most stellar of applicants, is not guaranteed.

Selective Colleges and Universities

Based on acceptance rates, the next tier of colleges is “selective.” There are a couple of hundred colleges and universities in this category. These institutions admit somewhere between 25% and 50% of applicants. The good news in the college admissions process is that these selective schools tend to utilize a more holistic admissions process. With highly selective schools, the applicant pool is so large that they need to cull those who are potentially qualified by using easy-to-apply quantifiable objective standards of grades and SAT or ACT scores. However, selective schools, with more seats available relative to the size of the applicant pool, can downplay the importance of “the numbers,” and instead evaluate students as a whole. To be sure, grades and test scores are still important. However, for example, students who underperform on standardized tests are not automatically out of the running. They have a good chance of being accepted provided that their background includes other non-quantifiable factors such as distinctive personal accomplishments or community involvement and service.

Applying to Highly Selective and Selective Colleges and Universities

Both highly selective and selective schools are inundated each year by applicants with strong grades and high test scores, especially since students are now applying to more schools. According to a recent report by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, 32% of college applicants apply to seven or more schools. A decade earlier only 16% of applicants felt it necessary to send out college applications en masse.

The question that I hear again and again from parents and students who are interested in the more competitive colleges is what is the tipping point in the admissions process for acceptance versus rejection? Put another way, when a school is tasked with choosing among a pool of applicants, many of whom seem equally well qualified, why are some admitted and some denied?

To answer this question, it is helpful to stand in the shoes of an admissions officer. His or her job is to assess whether a student would be a good fit for their particular school. And what is a good fit for one school is not necessarily a good fit for another. Each school seeks to admit those who are able to positively contribute to their campus both in and out of the classroom. These school have plenty of applicants with the threshold GPAs and test scores. They are looking for something more – those additional qualities that a student brings to the table that will make for a diverse and vibrant student body. Students who have clearly demonstrated leadership qualities, those with extracurricular accomplishments and interesting talents, and well-rounded students who have done more with themselves in their high school years than only “hitting the books” are the ones who stand out.

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