Actually, you can more than triple your chances, on a purely mathematical basis.
But First: Who should read this post–Anybody interested in applying to the Ivy League or to Stanford this year.
How to read this post: Below you will find a (long) preface that gives some context to the data and offers and analogy for applying to the most competitive colleges–things are not necessarily what they seem. After that is a comparison of early and regular app results for some of the Ivies and Stanford. If you hate prefaces and prefer to avoid context, then just scroll on down to the numbers. But I think you would be well advised to consider what I say in the preface before going on to the data.
Preface: Welcome to the Casino
Most people look at college admissions data as a probabilities thing.
This is not really a good way to look at the averages offered in the various data sets, because the average applies only to any group within a data set but not necessarily to any specific person in that group–Yes, I know that this is true of any average, but the idea that somehow there is a typical college applicant makes this even more problematic. Just try to quantify the “average” set of college essays, for example– a college application is highly specific to you–or it should be. And you are not just sitting there while somebody pulls numbers out of a hat–you are put in one of a series of hats based on data and other information, up front.
Added to that, the colleges adjust what they are looking for year-to-year and even within the same application cycle as they go.
And now add to that the fact that, with few exceptions, your application will be evaluated by a general purpose reader or committee of application officers, not by professors or people running specific majors and programs (a direct application to the U Michigan Business school would be one example of an exception to this rule, as are pretty much all graduate applications. Our focus here is on undergrads). Your app readers will be rating your stuff against your peers, and there is a sliding scale: Factors that are not known to you will shape the value of the elements of your application, on the margins for the most part, but this is a game of margins. This is less true but still applies to some extent to so-called objective application schools, like the Cal State system, which “only” look at data–I have discussed this at length multiple times elsewhere.
Of course, there are probabilities to be found in the data–if you have a 3.68 unweighted G.P.A. and are a nice person with wide interests but are not developing your grand theory to unit the physical laws of the universe and are not a heavily recruited athlete or prodigy cello player, you are not going to get into Harvard. Period.
Other than that, the data on the most competitive schools can only tell if you have a seat at the table, not what your results will be, and and let’s face it: when it comes to the Ivy League and Stanford, for most of the best students, the game is more like rolling dice at a craps table than it is like playing Blackjack.
Let me explain by developing my casino analogy further: if you are playing a card game like Blackjack, you have a pretty decent idea of what your cards mean. 21, for example, and you probably win. The cards are what they are, and their specific values never change. Not so in college admissions, where perfect data may be trumped by other factors.
A college admissions portfolio, with its data, its essays, its activities and descriptions, its personal and family history, is not some set of cards randomly dealt out to you, and the payoff does not come by simply having a an ace and a ten. It’s true that having an unweighted 4.0 G.P.A. and perfect SAT score should get you some kind of Ivy admit, and hopefully more than one, but it’s also possible that if you took perfect numbers and applied to, say, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, that you would bust–get no admissions at all. Yet if you get that ace and a ten in Blackjack, you have 21 and you win.
In college admissions, each of the top universities not only turn down hundreds of students with the equivalent of 21, they also accept quite a few students who have something like an 18, because there is something in the information that suggest some other value to the university. In the case of that athlete who will looks very promising, maybe a hand of 16 is good enough. Again, I have discussed this elsewhere, but in just keeping alumni involved and happy, sports is big money to many colleges, and the return on investment an athlete can be huge–as it can for a prodigy who goes on to wealth and fame and returns some of that to a school.
What colleges are looking for–the relative value of any information in your application, the cards you bring to the table, changes not just year to year, but week to week during the application process. Usually these changes are marginal, but if a school sees that their admitted students have been 70% female in the early applications, they will make an adjustment to get some kind of gender balance–not 50/50, but not 70/30 either. For a coed school, that would not be a healthy balance. So they stack the deck–in a way that, on average, is actually more fair than it might seem.
Colleges for the most part look to have some kind of balance in the community of scholars that they build with each application year. Continuing our casino analogy for the most elite schools, the players sitting at the Blackjack table of college admissions are not coming with the same advantages, and many people build up their cards through paying for services and having access to good schools, while others just get the cards dealt to them and start with a relatively weak hand on any deal they take.
A good college app reader can see that, and they evaluate with a range of factors in mind, including the resilience and drive of a person who overcame a lot to get to that application.
Continuing my analogy, the casino owners, in this case the colleges and their admissions officers, change the value of the hand of a person who is a first-generation high-achiever as opposed to that of a high-achiever going to a good high school on the Peninsula in the Bay Area or in the Tri-Valley area (sorry to be a regionalist here, but the same applies to, say, kids in Princeton-area schools vs. Newark, etc). This is not always a factor, but it often is.
But of the people I helped this year who got into Harvard, all had solid upper and middle-class backgrounds along with a range of accomplishments, some of which were clearly part of playing the game. On the other hand, two years ago, I had a number who were first-gen to college and came from relatively poor backgrounds and borderline schools. I see a lot of flux in my own clients every year, which is why you always want to tier your apps and be a bit zen about it, if you can.
This seems unfair and frustrating to many people when I explain it, but I don’t think it is, or it is at least more fair than it seems. What is unfair is the fact that this country has by and large stopped building new universities, thus creating an inelastic supply (Econ!) and making my casino analogy apt. And in this increasingly hyper-competitive college application game, social factors already rig college admissions long before any college application reader gets involved. What kind of money your family has and where they are from generally determines what kind of high school you go to and what kind of resources are available to you outside of school. This is why housing values are so high in suburbs with good schools.
There are, of course, reasons that being in one of these excellent school districts is a huge advantage, and being able to pay your way can help at times, as well, so don’t be sorry if you are in one of these places. But plan well, following some of the tips I offer in various posts in my blog. Even if you have a 4.0. and perfect S.A. T.
And if your data is on the low end of the range, you need to have something special for that doorman or bouncer or whatever image you prefer to open the door for you so you can even get a seat at the table. If you are a rising senior, that means it’s time to start considering your essays as well as possibly retaking an SAT or ACT.
Okay, sermon over.
But please keep these things in mind when you look at the data I provide below, and build a list of colleges in which you include at least three schools in which 75% or more of the people with your data are admitted.
And let’s take a historical look; first, click this link to see the data for the class entering this August and September (Fall of 2019):
Then take a look at data from the year before, below, to compare trends
Admissions Data for the Future Class of 2022
Princeton: Early Admissions–15.4%; Regular Admissions–5.5% (6.1% last year)
Harvard: Early Admissions–14.539%; Regular Admissions–4.59% (5.2% last year)
Yale: Early Admissions–14.68%; Regular Admissions–6.3% (6.9% last year)
Columbia–5.5% admit rate; not data supplied for early admissions admit rate.
UPenn–Early Admissions–18.5%; Regular Admissions–8.39% (9.15% last year)
Brown: Early Admissions–21.7%*; Regular Admissions–7.2%
Cornell: Early Admissions–24.3%; Regular Admissions–10.3%
Dartmouth–Early Admissions–24.9%; Regular Admissions–8.7%
Saving the toughest nut for last:
Stanford; Regular Admissions–4.3%; Stanford has not released early application information, or not released it until the following year, for some time, but about 33% of the new class was admitted early.
*Oh, and The Brown early admissions asterisk is due to this data being released indirectly via a presentation, rather than through a press release.
On the face of it, it looks like you can triple your chances of admissions by applying early. But look again at some more information–After you adjust for students already admitted in the early round, the actual admissions rate for regular-decision applications was 2.43%. Ouch.
So if two things are true, burn an early app on one of these schools:
- You know the school well and are totally committed to it. Even it they will let you look around after an early app admit, like Stanford, be committed.
- Your data is in the range that suggests success (middle third or higher)
And hopefully you have a wide range of activities and can write some good essays. I do have space for some new clients for editing, if you need help, so contact me if so:
It it’s your turn to make a run at college this year, try to enjoy the ride, and come back soon. I will be looking at some alternatives to the most competitive schools, starting with the unorthodox and moving to the more common. See you soon.