The Prism: Every Side of the Story

College Unpacked

What does it mean to be going to a good college? For many, the answer to that question lies in the acceptance rate. Normally an acceptance rate that is lower is perceived as more selective and therefore better. However, that is not the full story.

Many people are familiar with Ivy League institutions that have crazy low acceptance rates such as Harvard and Yale with acceptance rates of 5.2% and 6.3% respectively (with each having enrollment of around 6,000 students in total). While the procedure for figuring out these statistics should be simple, divide the number of accepted students by the total number of applicants, the closer we look at what is actually going on,then the more we can see the full story. In order to have a super low acceptance rates colleges must get a very high number of applicants to apply to their institution. This college must also deny an insanely large amount of students.

What essentially is going on is a game. Schools like Harvard know they can only accept a few thousand students but they market themselves to hundreds of thousands of students who are all very smart with similar grades and test scores. Colleges do this knowing that they will deny 90-95% of their applicants, thereby making their acceptance rate extremely low. Where this becomes a problem is when people equate selectivity to being a good school. While it is true that colleges with low acceptance rates are often good or really good, their selectivity is not what makes them this way.

The students and faculty that make up the institution are what make a college good or bad. Take Harvard, for example. If Harvard accepted 20 or 30 percent more students ( if they could fit them in their facilities), they would not only have a much higher acceptance rate than currently, but it would also appear as if they were somehow a worse institution. In reality, they would still have some of the smartest students in America. It’s just that in this scenario, instead of accepting 5% of the smartest students in America, they would be accepting 25% of them.

Schools like the University of Michigan, with an enrollment of almost 30,000, have an acceptance rate that is 20% more than that of Harvard. Does that mean the students are less smart? Maybe in some cases; however, the average student at Harvard has an ACT score of around a 33 (out of 36) whereas the average student at University of Michigan has an ACT score of around a 31. You might say the Harvard’s average ACT score is better, and you would be right, but people get accepted to Harvard with a range of scores including a 31. In reality, they come pretty close in terms of student scores. While there are other aspects that go into the admissions process, it is still worth exploring the idea that Harvard’s acceptance rate isn’t just due to selectivity of the college. Many students who apply have similar scores, extracurricular activities and grades which make a lot of them indistinguishable from each other. It has more to do with the size of the college and how many people they can take in. More importantly, it has to do with how many people they can deny.

While exploring this topic it is worth understanding why a college might want a low acceptance rate. The answer is that the lower the acceptance rate, the more selective the college seems which in turn creates the idea that the college is better than higher acceptance rate colleges. It creates a vicious cycle of more kids wanting to apply. Even some of the best institutions like the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley and UCLA have acceptance rates that are 10-20% higher than Harvard’s. That is a lot of students, not because these institutions are better; it is simply a matter of size. It is a game that Harvard, Yale and Stanford can all play due to their small size. When you think about it, there is a reason these colleges don’t expand to fill the needs of the number of students who apply. It is certainly not because they don’t have the money. They want to keep this outrageously low number.

The fact of the matter is, colleges like Harvard and Yale get the same number of applicants that other top institutions get. They just simply cannot take in as many students; therefore, their acceptance rates are lower. This is not to say students shouldn’t apply to colleges with low acceptance rates. It just goes to say that it shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision. There are other schools of the same caliber that are out there; they just have higher acceptance rates because they have the space for more students.


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