Despite colleges constantly claiming that they do not care about college rankings or comparisons with other “famous schools”, the truth is, they do. In this competitive world, not only does the reputation of a college dictate the quality of talent they may recruit from their applicant pool and the types of families they can attract (and who would in turn give donations), but it also impacts the sources of funding the school may receive from both the government and the private sectors. Hence, colleges have developed strategies to make sure they stay competitive and look good on various ranking charts, whether they are created by the US News & World Report, Bloomberg, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, QS, or other academic organizations.
Here, I want to share some of the common strategies the US universities and colleges use to ensure their competitiveness. And, I assure you, no one inside the admissions office wants these secrets out.
1. Lowering the acceptance rate by inflating the size of their applicant population
The most prominent factor people use to determine the prestige of a school is its acceptance rate. Imagine parents bragging to other parents at a cocktail party, “Yes, my dear daughter got into Stanford, did you know they admit fewer than 5% of applicants?” Think of the internal scowls as envious attendees listen on. Meanwhile, in another corner of the party, people grimace when a brilliant young writer announces the news that he had been admitted to the University of Iowa, the school with the most prestigious Creative Writing program in the country. Just because the school’s overall acceptance rate is 86%. To most people, what determines how good a school is is by how selective it is, regardless of the actual quality of the academics.
In reality, all schools are aware of this mentality. So, many of them have decided to make their applications as accessible as possible to all students in order to increase the number of applications, thus lowering the acceptance rate.
A good example to illustrate how a university’s acceptance rate can change overnight is what the University of Chicago did more than a decade ago. Up until 2007, the University of Chicago had always accepted applications through their own unique “Uncommon Application” system. And for years, the university’s acceptance rate hovered between 30 to 40%1Galioto, K., 2019. Getting accepted to Chicago’s top colleges is harder than ever, new report says. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-met-northwestern-u-chicago-competitive-colleges-list-20181113-story.html [Accessed August 19, 2020].. Though the academic reputation of the university has always been one of the strongest in the world, its acceptance rate simply did not reflect its rigor, especially when compared with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which all had acceptance rates of lower than 10%.
In 2008, the University of Chicago became a member of the Common Application system, making its application accessible to hundreds of thousands of students around the world. As a result, the acceptance rate of the university immediately plummeted to a mere 26.8%2Gaspari, A., 2020. Acceptance Rate Falls With Common Application. [online] Chicagomaroon.com. Available at: <https://www.chicagomaroon.com/2009/4/7/acceptance-rate-falls-with-common-application/> [Accessed 18 August 2020].. Without changing anything in its curriculum, the University of Chicago made itself appear to be much more selective overnight by simply receiving more applications through adapting the most popular college application system. Last year, U Chicago’s acceptance rate was 6.2%3Smith, J., 2020. Acceptance Rate For Class Of 2024 Remains Constant At 6.2 Percent. [online] Chicagomaroon.com. Available at: <https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2020/4/4/acceptance-rate-class-2024-remains-constant-6-2/> [Accessed 18 August 2020]., with an applicant pool three times the size it had in 2008.
2. Going Test Optional
Referencing the article we published on our website on May 29, 2020, “Test Optional universities: What you need to know”, one major advantage a school gets when it goes test optional is the immediate increase of diversity among the applicants because the new policy allows bright young people living in disadvantaged households without any test prep resources to apply to prestigious schools.
Simultaneously, this policy allows universities to raise the average SAT/ACT score of the accepted students because by being test optional, only the applicants with very high scores would choose to report their results as part of their application, which, in turn, helps boost the university’s ranking.
For a more in-depth look at the impact of schools going Test Optional, click here to check out our article.
3. Increase financial resources by making it “easier” for fully paid international students to enroll
A major factor often ignored by people who go after university and college rankings is the financial resources of the school, a.k.a. size of the endowment. This is because regardless of how noble the school’s mission might be, in order for a college to simultaneously produce ground-breaking research, Nobel Laureates, and Olympic athletes, while being able to boast of its student diversity and amazing social life, this college must have money. Sport coaches, top-notch teaching staff, research funding, technologically-advanced equipment, maintenance of its world-class facilities and beautiful campus, and financial aid packages for its underprivileged students require incredibly large sums of money. In short, money is the foundation of all great institutions. So, you should not be surprised to find out that in 2020, Harvard University has an endowment of over $40 billion USD4En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Harvard University. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_University> [Accessed 18 August 2020]..
In order to increase the school’s financial resources, one strategy commonly employed by many up-and-coming schools is to “make it easier” for international students to enroll. This is because in almost all cases, international students are well-to-do and intend to pay in full without financial aid. Furthermore, accepting international students usually comes with benefits to the local economy through their spending on local travel, shopping, and even real estate purchases.
Colleges using this strategy often allow their international applicants to apply test blind (no test scores will be reviewed or assessed even when they are submitted) and without supplementary essay requirements, making it possible for these students to submit their applications last minute without much additional effort.
Despite the relative ease of the application and the higher acceptance rates for international students, many of these colleges are actually the “most selective” schools in the US domestically.
4. Increase YIELD by asking you to commit to the school
However, a ridiculously low acceptance rate doesn’t mean much unless it is coupled with an incredibly high yield. After all, if no one wants to come to your school after being selected, you’re not very prestigious after all then. Yield is the percentage of students enrolled after being admitted, and has a huge impact on the acceptance rate.
Harvard has a yield rate of 80%5Fu, B. and Kim, D., 2020. 81 Percent Of Class Of 2024 Admits Accept Spots In The College Amid Pandemic Uncertainty | News | The Harvard Crimson. [online] Thecrimson.com. Available at: <https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/6/26/harvard-class-of-2024-yield/> [Accessed 18 August 2020]., which means it only has to accept a population of students slightly greater than its intended class size to fill in all the seats. Hence, Harvard is able to maintain its low acceptance rate at less than 5%. On the other hand, Johns Hopkins University, a top school consistently ranked in the top 10, has a yield rate of ~40%6Edmonds, W., 2020. Hopkins Admits 1,922 Applicants To The Class Of 2024. [online] The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Available at: <https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2020/03/hopkins-admits-1922-applicants-to-the-class-of-2024#:~:text=Hopkins%20released%20its%20admissions%20decisions,RD%20admissions%20was%207.7%20percent.> [Accessed 18 August 2020].. Therefore, it must accept over twice the size of its intended first-year class in order to ensure that all seats will be filled, making it extremely difficult to further lower its acceptance rate. Unsurprisingly, Johns Hopkins acceptance rate was 10%, twice that of Harvard’s in 2019.
In order to secure a high yield rate, universities and colleges in the US need to identify and accept students who are most likely to enroll if admitted. For this reason, most US colleges and universities have moved away from only offering applications via Early Action and Regular Decision. Instead, many schools emphasize Early Decision, which is binding and allows the schools to worry less about yield rates. The purpose of having Early Decision is to secure determined students who will provide 100% yield when admitted. So, if you have a school you really want to enroll in, we highly encourage you to apply via Early Decision to that school in order to give yourself a higher chance for admissions.
The following are some quick and simple definitions of the major types of application options students may use when they apply to US schools:
Regular Decision – Not binding. The deadline is usually in January, and sometimes in February for many liberal arts colleges. This application option is available for almost all US schools. Students may apply to multiple schools with Regular Decision at the same time, and they receive their notification by April 1st.
Early Action – Not binding. The deadline is usually on November 1st. Students using this option may apply to multiple Early Action schools, as well as schools that offer Rolling Admissions, Regular Decision, and even Early Decision options, all at the same time. Students applying via Early Action would normally receive decision notifications in mid-December, though some state universities notify their students as late as in January. However, this application option has been adopted by fewer and fewer schools in recent years.
Early Decision – Binding. For most schools, the deadline for Early Decision is on November 1st and the notification date is usually in mid-December. In recent years, an increasing number of schools have added Early Decision II as an additional option to their Early Decision application process to capture students who have been rejected or deferred in the Early Decision I round in mid-December, as well as students who simply need more time to prepare their applications. The deadline of Early Decision II is usually the same as the school’s Regular Decision deadline, which is in January. A student may apply to only one Early Decision school at a time and if the student is accepted by his/her Early Decision school, the student must withdraw from all other universities they have applied to in any country and enroll in the Early Decision school.
Rolling Admissions – this is an application option most used by public universities. It essentially operates on a first-come-first-served basis. Schools that adopt the rolling admissions mode of operation generally begin accepting applications as early as September 1st, and the notification date depends on the individual school.
As mentioned before, most US universities and colleges have added Early Decision options in recent years.
5. Increase YIELD by having a longer waitlist and then admit more students from it
Sometimes, rather than simply rejecting or accepting a student, colleges may opt to “waitlist” a student. Depending on their yield rate and certain other circumstances, students on the waitlist may be picked to be given an offer to attend the college.
Some schools like to keep a long waitlist. The math is simple: the number of students admitted from the waitlist do not get included in the acceptance rate calculations. And so, schools can accept students without increasing their acceptance figures. Furthermore, students who ask to stay in the waitlist (we usually suggest our students write to the school they really want to go to after getting waitlisted) are students who most likely have been rejected by their dream schools. As a result, these waitlist students are much more likely to enroll into your school if admitted. However, admitting students from the waitlist is not a “safe” strategy for colleges. This is because colleges have to wait until after May 1st , the deadline for paying enrollment deposits, before they can determine how many more students they still need to accept in order to fill in their first-year classes. And once a student has paid the enrollment deposit for one school, it is less likely that the student will give up that deposit for schools that have waitlisted them. Therefore, while it has been increasingly popular in recent years for US colleges to waitlist students, most schools must also rely on the other methods to ensure they have all the students they need while maintaining a low acceptance rate.
6. Having a large transfer student population or simply giving students guaranteed transfers
After enrolling and attending a college for a while, there is a certain small chunk of students that decides to transfer to a different college. An interesting thing to note is that transfer students are also not included in the acceptance rate calculation either.
For years, I was convinced that the purpose of transfer programs is to allow “late boomers”, students who did not succeed in their early years in high school but excelled later in college, and students from low-income families who went to local community colleges for college credits because they could not afford four years of full-time college tuition, a chance to get accepted into their dream schools.
This year, during my research on US college admissions practices and trends, I learned some schools might be using their transfer programs to keep an artificially low acceptance rate. As I searched for various universities’ admissions statistics, I found out that the Class of 2023’s acceptance rate at USC was only 11%7Oganesyan, N. (2019). USC fall acceptance rate drops to 11 percent, record low. [online] Daily Trojan. Available at: https://dailytrojan.com/2019/03/28/usc-fall-acceptance-rate-drops-to-11-percent-record-low/#:~:text=USC%20received%20a%20record%20number [Accessed 18 Aug. 2020]., while its transfer acceptance rate was 23%8Anon, Transfer Student Profile and Admission Information 2019 ‐ 2020. Available at: https://admission.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/Transfer-profile.pdf [Accessed August 18, 2020].! While I frankly do not know for sure what the real intention of USC might be, by having a transfer acceptance so high together with a first-year class acceptance rate so low, I could only logically deduce that having a large transfer program could help a school recruit students to fill up their year groups without raising the school’s acceptance rate.
Last but not least, under the umbrella of the transfer program, my colleagues and I have observed an increasing number of students being offered an admissions decision of a “guaranteed transfer” in recent years. A guaranteed transfer is like a conditional offer. Basically, a student is guaranteed a place at a college on the condition that the student has achieved a specific GPA during their 1st and/or 2nd year at another college. For the student, this type of offer pretty much secures his/her space at the dream college, provided he/she is able to maintain the grades. For the college, this can be yet another way to keep acceptance rates low while being able to secure high-quality students.
All in all, we have to understand that colleges operate like businesses. They have to compete for good clients. They must manage their cost and revenue, deliver the best academic and life experience to their students while trying to fulfill their roles and responsibilities in society. Perhaps some readers may find what I say here to be cynical, but having worked in this industry for well over a decade, I personally and sincerely admire how much heart the individual admissions officers put into reviewing the applications and trying hard to find the few students who may inspire their peers and change the world, while attempting to fulfill the needs of the college or the university they work for.
Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Submit your information for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward.
By Ally Ip, Director of Research