The admission rate at elite institutions (Ivy League, plus MIT and Stanford) has gone from an average of 15.09% in 2005 to 8.13% in 2015, reflecting the reality that a student’s chances of admittance dropped by almost half in only a decade.
With admissions decisions’ season in full swing, there are seemingly-endless headline about plummeting admissions rates. Stanford set a new record admitting less than 5% of applicants in 2016, and the trend of single-digit acceptance rates spreads throughout the Ivy League and other elite-caliber institutions. High school students and their parents are left scratching their heads and wondering what sort of genie they need to summon to avoid being in the 95% receiving disappointing news. The old assumption was that any student with a sterling academic record would be admitted, but with over 36,000 high schools in the United States alone, that means over 36,000 valedictorians. Being an academic standout is simply not enough. What's a student to do? Simply put, be an outlier. Look at the press releases that colleges publish each spring. They don't discuss the students that got straight A's and were involved in a number of activities but a master of none; they highlight the student who has already hiked Kilimanjaro or is on the short list for the Olympics. It's better to excel at something unusual than to participate in something standard. Of course there will always be students admitted primarily on the basis of literally flawless grades and test scores, but what will excite any admissions officer is a profile unlike any they've ever seen before. They’ll remember the internationally-renowned underwater basket-weaver before they remember the varsity athlete. Not an athlete? There’s plenty of room to differentiate yourself in the wide world of academia. Discover not only what you’re good at but what you’re passionate about and become a guru. It’s never too early to reach out to people doing research you admire to ask how you might participate. If you find yourself geeking out about hypometabolism in the gray mouse lemur, make sure it’s easily apparent to anyone reading your resume.
Your chances of admittance are far higher during early admission/early decision periods. As noted above, overall admission rates at elite institutions in 2015 were 8.13%; during early admission/early decision plans, an average of 17.99% students were admitted. This means your odd of admissions by applying early more than double.
No matter how well-staffed a university may be, with the ever-increasing number of applicants, admissions officers are still human and are going suffer from burnout. Besides having a compelling personal story, what’s an applicant do to ensure they receive the maximum amount of attention and care from their application reader? Elle Woods would tell you to make sure your resume is pink (and scented), but the actual answer is much more straightforward - apply through an early decision program. Typical schools are receiving about 15-25% of their applications through an early acceptance period and admitting well over a third of their freshman class in this time. Clearly these numbers reflect much higher admission rates than overall rates, meaning the percentage of applicants accepted during regular decision is even lower than the overall rate. Looking across Ivy League admission rates, candidates are 2-3 times more likely to be accepted during early decision as compared to regular decision. For example, in 2015 Harvard admitted only 5.5% of total applicants but an astounding 16.5% from the early action program. It doesn’t take MIT-level math to tell you the odds are much better if you apply early.
In summary, how do you increase your chances of being admitted to your dream school? You become an expert at something (almost anything), and you let the school know of your interest as early as possible.
In some well-known lyrics of Jack Johnson, he tells us that “it seems like maybe, it pretty much always means ‘no,’” and that certainly holds true in regards to the wait lists of elite institutions. An institution’s yield rate refers to the percentage of admitted students who enroll there. Over the last six years, yield rates have held incredibly steady, varying by 0-2% a year at most of the top schools. This means the admissions office knows almost exactly how many students they can admit to fill their freshman class, rendering the wait list almost unnecessary. Many schools are now using the wait list as a way to defer a decision about a borderline student who applied through an early admission/early decision process, in case the regular decision candidate pool is weaker than anticipated. If you’re on a wait list, make sure you have a solid Plan B in place.