College rejection letters, how colleges boost their rankings, and funny math.


Via; outdated since Stanford charged $90 in 2012.

Only a few more days and college admission departments will send a boat load of letters (or push email “send” buttons) to reject millions of applicants.

Colleges will accept a few, too, but the real news to be trumpeted across the land in early April will be how many students they rejected.

From last year see, Ivy League colleges post record low acceptance rates, via

Your odds of getting into some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges are shrinking.

The country’s eight Ivy League institutions finished sending out their admission decisions to applicants late Thursday. And many of the elite schools — including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Cornell — are reporting that they accepted record low percentages of applicants for the upcoming school year.

As colleges send out more rejections they can also reduce their selectivity rates — the percentage of applications accepted out of those received — and help boost their rankings in US News & World Report and other popular  lists.

The story that doesn’t often make the front pages in admission season, though, is what goes into the calculations of the acceptance rates. The Common App has made it much easier to apply to more colleges, as long as Mom and Dad are willing to pay the application fees (up to $90 or more, each). Just because an elite school — say, Harvard with 34,302 applicants in 2012 or UC-Berkeley with 61,702 — receives more and more applicants each year, does that mean they receive proportionately more that are qualified?

Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post last year, in Some 2012 college admissions rates hit new lows:

More kids who don’t have a prayer of getting into some of these schools apply anyway, but schools still get to brag that they have a record number of applications. As a result, some admissions counselors note that the percentage of kids who have a real shot at getting into some of these schools doesn’t go up much — if at all — from year to year.

Yet the reduction in acceptance rates remains the juicier story — and the story that helps support the narrative that students (and their parents) need to do anything to get into college, no matter the cost, retention rates, graduation rates, resulting debt load, or the job outlook.

Here are a couple more perspectives on the acceptance rate math. I’m quoting a paragraph or two, but the essays aren’t that long and — if you like this sort of thing — interesting.

Kevin Carey, in Stalking the True College Acceptance Rate for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about the fifteen minutes it might take to screen applications into piles for Yes, No, and Maybe.

There are inevitably a lot of easy “No” decisions, because a substantial number of students treat elite college applications like a $90 lottery ticket. Such unqualified applicants don’t change the odds of qualified students being accepted. There could be 10,000 “No’s”, 100,000, it doesn’t matter. It only matters how many “Yes” and “Maybe” applicants apply (and how many legacies, athletes, Hollywood ingenues, and senator’s sons…).

. . .

From the student’s perspective, there’s no difference between applying to five elite colleges and being accepted at one and applying to 10 elite colleges and being accepted at one. You can only go to one. But the student who applies to 10 colleges drives institutional acceptance rates down, even though he or she doesn’t change the number that actually matters: the total ratio of high-quality applicants (not applications) to high-quality spots.

In another piece, from 2010, Carey cited Chad Aldeman, who suggests in The Quick and The Ed that we Switch College Admissions to a Single Lottery:

Now consider for a second that you are a high school junior and you see these rates. It’s becoming easier than ever to apply for multiple schools, so what is your rational course of action?

You’re going to apply for tons of schools, thinking that at least one will let you in. And the next year, when the acceptance rates go even lower (they’ve been falling for years), students will apply to even more schools. The chances of any one student getting into any one school will become smaller and smaller, even as the number of spaces at those schools keeps pace with demographic changes. The spaces themselves are not becoming more scarce; it’s the admissions craze that’s making them look that way.

Back to the 2010 article by Kevin Carey, for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He outlined the math in Real College-Acceptance Rates are Higher Than You Think, then put the acceptance rates into perspective with his last paragraph:

And of course it’s always worth noting that the vast majority of college students don’t go to a selective college at all and they’re the ones we should be worrying about.

More on that — in this week’s news — to come.

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Filed under Getting In

5 responses to “College rejection letters, how colleges boost their rankings, and funny math.

  1. Pingback: Who’s Applying, Anyway? – permission slips

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