When applying to college, you know as well as I do that acceptance rates tend to stand out - colleges often brag about their acceptance rates in an effort to show their prestige. The lower the rate, the more coveted their college experience is - apparently. But when it comes to acceptance rates, there are a few things to keep in mind that culminate in this shockingly low number you see.
Why are the Ivy League schools so selective in the first place? Does a rejection from the college with the lowest acceptance rate say something about you as an applicant? Here are my thoughts on acceptance rates, prestige, and the value of a college education:
1. Low acceptance rates require a college to receive far more applicants than they can accept. CollegeVine: “A low acceptance rate indicates inputs, not outputs.”
Upon first glance, this first phrase seems obvious - the acceptance rate is calculated by taking the total number of acceptances and dividing by the total number of applicants. Easy. But what does this applicant number really mean? Some schools put a ton of resources and money into achieving this rate in a variety of ways. A lower acceptance rate increases the public view of the college and makes people think there’s something extremely valuable to be coveted at that college, but it says nothing about the quality of education that students are graduating with. They may advertise more heavily than they have in years past, offer a free application, or set aside money for hefty scholarships that will attract more applicants. Even the arrival of the internet caused college applications to skyrocket, as it became much easier to send out multiple applications online without needing to print out and manually mail each one.
All in all, the Ivy League schools and colleges around that same size offer far fewer spots than most colleges, which means that they are more easily able to achieve a shockingly low acceptance rate (which is weirdly seen as a good thing). They can increase advertisement and publicity year after year, with their acceptance pool growing only marginally as needed for funding. This causes somewhat of an “inflation” in acceptance rates - only in the other direction. Rates continue to be smaller and smaller, as the demand grows larger and larger - this begs the question: how is our “elite” college system sustainable if it does not serve the majority of our society? This segues rather well into my next point:
2. Education has become selective:
Unfortunately, education has become a selective privilege - only the best of the best deserve their shot at graduating from a small prestigious college (according to the numbers). In reality, the majority of our society does not come from prestigious Ivy League schools, and the majority of life-changing innovations/successes do not stem from an “elite” education. In reality, college is what you make of it, and with the right initiative, you can find brilliant growth anywhere you go - so why the obsession with prestige?
Oftentimes, colleges rely on their brand to receive recognition - this is not to say that top universities like the Ivy League schools do not deliver a valuable education, but sometimes it turns into a cycle of apathy once one is accepted to the best of the best. Once they get into a college like this, they’ve done the work needed to earn them a degree with a prestigious name. No matter what they study or how hard they work, as long as they graduate from a coveted university, the idea is that the name will speak for itself. While this certainly does not apply to all students and many who go here do not take their education for granted, this kind of cycle incentivizes the wrong thing: prestige and reputation over actual personal growth and exploration. You could get admitted into an Ivy League school and ride out the next 4 years with the least work possible, or you could go to a cheaper, less selective option and utilize all resource around you to make the most out of your opportunity - prestige is, many times, just a mindset.
3. Affirmation or rejection from a selective college does not determine your self worth:
Since acceptance rates at these universities are so low, many students with perfect grades, impactful extracurriculars, and inspiring life stories end up getting denied. You could be completely qualified and have amazing grades, and still not get in! On paper, you may look exactly like someone who DID get accepted, yet you may have a different outcome. Don’t let college rejections (the opinion of ONE team at ONE university) determine your self worth - college applications are about finding the right FIT: this means finding a community that not only excites and challenges you, but WANTS you to be there and supports your growth. You should feel equally sought after by the college you apply to. Don’t get caught up in the idea that a prestigious opportunity is the only good opportunity - success in life comes in so many different forms, and affirmation from a selective college will not mean much 5-10 years down the line - your work ethic, curiosity, passion, and resourcefulness will mean more, and that’s something you can develop anywhere with the right attitude.
4. Smaller colleges may have less academic paths - is the university really RIGHT for you or are you attracted to the prestige?
When applying to college, always ask yourself why. Why do you want to go there? What stands out about that university in particular? Do they have the field of study you want to go into? Do they offer flexibility when it comes to changing your major? Is it financially feasible for you to pursue an education there, or will it ultimately set you back in the long run? It can be hard to stop yourself from getting caught up in wanting to be part of that 5% acceptance - but make an effort to really list out true pros and cons, and don’t be swayed by prestige alone. Prestige ultimately will not make your college experience more memorable - it will be your academic journey, support from the community, and opportunities for growth.
Sarah is a Consultant and Social Media Marketing Manager on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.