The Usual Suspects: Admissions Resultsfor the Ivy League and West Coast Favorites

Who should read this article:  Anybody interested in applying to an Ivy League or U.C. school, oh yes, and Stanford.   I also include my opening discussion for the class of 2021 on brand, status and the Tesla test.

How many Teslas have you seen with college stickers on the back window?

Me neither, and I drive the highways  in the most Tesla-dense region in the country as I visit area clients.  I’ll get back to that after we get to some data, below.

So how bad was the application season?  Depends on where you applied.  Applications to the Ivies, Stanford, and some of their analogues and safety schools, which will be the topic of this post,  were very, very difficult.  Your leading example is Stanford, which dropped below a 5% admissions rate for the first time this year–and was the first university to do this. Applying to Stanford increasingly resembles playing the lottery for most applicants. Applications to hundreds of non-name brands and international options, not so much. Food for thought, and a topic I will discuss again soon.

Onward, to some of this year’s data:

University . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Number of Applicants / %Accepted*

Stanford University . . . . . . . .43,997/4.69

Harvard University . . . . . . . . .39,041/5.2%

Columbia University . . . . . . . .36,292/6.04%

Yale University . . . . . . . . . . . .31,455/6.27%

Princeton University . . . . . . . 29,303/6.46%

Duke University . . . . . . . . . . .28,600/8.7%

Brown University . . . . . . . . . . .32,380/9.0%

University of Pennsylvania  . . 39,918/9.4%

Dartmouth College . . . . . . . . . .20,675/10.525

Northwestern University . . . . .35,099/10.7%

Cornell University . . . . . . . . . .44,966/13.96%

U.C. Berkeley . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82,558 (frosh)/14.8%

U.C.L.A. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .97,064(frosh),119,326(ttl) No data on % yet.


Not a very friendly collection of numbers, is it?  The problem, as usual, is that classic  supply and demand equation in market theory.


Sure, there is a long-term structural problem in our economy, and yes, the elite universities offer superb educational opportunities, not to mention the prestige of an Ivy or Stanford sticker on the back windshield, and yes, your college friends can be part of a great network . . . . but the next Mark Zuckerberg is not going to come from a new social media platform at Harvard.   Sure, if you are admitted, go to Harvard (as long as the financials work).  But don’t go just to have the brand, especially if you know of a lesser place with a better deal for you, educationally and financially (is Harvard really the best place to go for software design/engineering?)

One of the most important things I do with college advising clients is help them  develop a wider list of options.  My mantra on target schools is this:  You should always have three tiers of schools in your application list, with the bottom tier being schools for whom your data puts you above the 75th percentile of admissions, the middle tier with schools for which your data makes you an “average” admit, and your reach schools making up the third tier–where your data is at 25% or below, though I add that if your data is below or near the bottom of a college’s admit data, it’s not likely to be worth the time to write the app essays, much less pay the app fee.  The chances of admission always have to be weighed against the strength of your dream, of course, and maybe that fusion reactor you are constructing in your garage will do the trick . . .

I have written about strategy and creating a good college list before, and will write about it again in relation to this year’s application season in the coming months, so look for that.

Much of the overcrowding in the world of college apps  is a result of what an economist would refer to as market distortion–in this case rooted in the growing fear many people have about their economic future and the chances for their children to have a life as prosperous as their own.  This sense of decline in economic prospects is well-documented, as is the reality that fuels these fears, and along with  a focus on a narrow range of well-known brands, you can see the  problem with the information in this particular “market.”

The brand advantage does have a real effect on income when you are first hired in a range of industries, but that effect fades quickly–mid-range income is an indicator of job performance, and job performance comes from an alloy of factors, including how good your education actually was, your motivation, and decision-making on the job.  Which brings me back to that Tesla.

I have not seen a college sticker on the back window of a Tesla.  Well, okay, I have seen a couple, but those were on the back windows of Tesla 3’s   Yep, we already have truckloads of those loose in my part of the world.  The thing about a Tesla, and a college sticker, is two-fold: first both are a statement of status.  Second, both affiliate you with a group of people.

But a Tesla is a status symbol that speaks for itself, environmentally friendly, elegant in design, superb in execution and performance . . . and the one person I currently know who is driving a Tesla Model S went to Humboldt State University (not the Humboldt U in Germany–the Cal State in Northern California, an area more known for certain herbal products than tech).  This person started as an art major, moved to graphic arts and from there focused more and more on Computers . . . and now runs his own medium-sized digital arts company now–a success story showing the power of education and curiosity.

The car he owns because, a, he likes it, and b, he thinks that environmentalism can only succeed if it is not just moral but enjoyable.  His mid-career income is excellent, he loves what he is doing, and he came out of a college that does not get much notice even as a regional school–ranked only 57th as a regional university (West) by U.S. News and World Report.  Something to keep in mind as you churn through rankings and discard schools that are not getting brand recognition.







College Admissions Data from 2014-2015 and What It Means for You in 2015-2016

Warning for those used to reading only 140 characters at a time: 

This post has analysis and data on Ivy League applications for the last five years, as well as on the most popular U.C. campuses and a couple of interesting alternative schools (particularly for tech and engineering students).  It may feel like reading War and Peace for those of you whose reading does not generally extend beyond Twitter and text messages. On the other hand, for the labor, you will get a good overview on the trends in elite Ivy and U.C. schools, as well as free advice for saving yourself a lot of application misery–which starts with looking at the data on schools and on yourself.  For more, read on. 

For some things, the past is no longer such a great predictor of the future–the weather, for example.  I just came back from ten days in the Sierra Nevada and the weather reminded me of the monsoon:  thunder, lightning and rain daily, with green grass in the arid ghost town of Bodie–in July.  Go figure.

For other things, the past is still a good predictor of the future–take college applications as an example, in which the forecast is for admissions to be incrementally tougher every year–if you are going to the most competitive schools.  If you are not, relax and enjoy the application process (As much as possible.  Think about it as a challenge, as an opportunity for growth, as . . . a lot of work).

Some Examples That Show the Trends (and Why Averages are not Necessarily for the Average Applicant)

Turning to some specifics for this year, the tale is pretty much the same as it has been for over a decade:  if you want to go to one of the super select colleges, the going is tough and tougher.  Stanford, for example, came close to breaking into the 4% admit range this year, dropping to an all-time low of 5.05% of applicants admitted.  Of course, they do have a relatively small undergraduate population and are a worldwide brand pretty much on par with Disneyland, which means that your average 4.0 GPA can expect to be rejected, but . . . it’s even worse when you look at their average GPA and test scores and realize that they have under 8,000 undergrads and a very full and vibrant athletic program, among other things, which means for the average student, the GPA and test scores listed are not really averages for the average applicant.

Why?   Because those average numbers are skewed by hundreds of athletes, many of whom (but not all, for sure) have somewhat lower GPA and test scores.  And special categories for admits are not just for athletes.  For those who are upset at this, I believe this is actually fair–for one simple reason:  no money, no university.  Universities need to build a happy alumni and athletics are a big part of brand and of donations, and these donations and the happy supporters with their fond memories of tailgating, et al,  pay for all kinds of things, including new facilities, scholarships athletic and otherwise . . . and not only that, many kids who excel athletically but are somewhat underperforming academically for admission to the elite schools they get to attend will still go on to to exceptional work as adults.

And  special admits are not just for jocks.  A math prodigy who is mediocre at other things (yep, they exist) may also jump past an accomplished generalist when it comes to admits.   And a high performing kid from a rough neighborhood may also get a boost–which is okay by me.  It’s fair play for universities to have special categories for everything from athletic branding to social justice. Their game, their rules.  This is true in many areas of life.  Your task is to decide whose game to play.

So getting back go forecasting and data for this year, one easy prediction for your application experience is this:  if you are less concerned with brand and just want a good education,  you have no worries–last year I had multiple clients with C+ averages make it into multiple universities, and clients in the solid B range doing very well with multiple accepts to multiple well-known brands–not in the Ivies or Stanford of course, but getting accepted into a broad range of good schools, public and private.

It’s all about finding a broad range of colleges that will allow you to fulfill your ultimate ends and settling on a good list for your final applications, then having good supplemental materials.  Turning to one of the other popular options in California as a more sane option than Stanford, U.C. Berkeley had roughly a 17% acceptance rate for fall 2015 (still bad, but compared to the Cardinal, this looks very reasonable).

(For more insights into how college applications are evaluated and some thoughts on strategy, have a look at how applications are evaluated and my secrets to college application success.)

Your Takeaway in Only 633 Characters:

Before I get to this year’s data but let me give you my takeaway for this whole post now:

To avoid misery, create good goals and keep those goals in mind when planning for factors that you cannot control (like what the colleges are looking for to fill specific categories this year), without obsessing about fairness.  And be sure that you do not focus only on getting into HYPSM.  These are great schools and offer unique opportunities for their students, but so do most respectable colleges.    And finally, use the CollegeAppJungle cushion formula when creating your college list:  for every Stanford or top Ivy on your list, have one school for which you are average and one school for which you are above average.  You then can reach for your dreams, with a safety net.

Admissions Data for 2015 and Beyond

Okay, that’s enough of the preparatory remarks already; here’s quick rundown of some recent admissions data:

Pretty Scary Data:  Ivy League Results for the 2014-2015 application season (these students will be enrolling for fall semester, 2015-in a couple of months, in other words).


30,397 applied; 8.5% admitted

(2013-2014 data:  30,291 applications; 8.6% admitted–see what I mean by incrementally more difficult each year–this is pretty consistent throughout what follows.)


36,250 applied; 6.1% admitted

(2013-2014: 32,952 applications; 6.94% admitted)


41,907 applied; 14.9% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 43,041 applications; 15.2% admitted)


20,504 applied; 10.3% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 19,235 applications; 11.5% admitted)


37,307 applied; 5.3% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 34,295 applications; 5.9% admitted)


37,267 applied; 9.9% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 35,788 applications; 9.9% admitted)


27,290 applied; 6.99% admitted

(2013-2014 data: 26,641 applications; 7.28% admitted)


30,237 applied; 6.49% admitted–making Yale a bit of an outlier as their numbers softened slightly this year.

(2013-2014 data:  30,932 applications; 6.25% admitted)

And for you uber-STEMers, here is M.I.T:

18,306 applied; 8% admitted

(2013-2014 data:  18,356 applied; 7.9% admitted)

The numbers above could be described as ranging from tough to terrifying, if you are obsessed with the Ivy League and M.I.T.  But keep in mind that there are up to a thousand decent to superb colleges in the Americas, particularly if you break them down by schools or majors (e.g. Colorado College of Mines, the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan, among others, Oh Engineers).  Also be aware when assessing data that all colleges must estimate how many of their admits will actually choose to attend, which affects their admits–this is called yield, and I have written about this here: Why Yield Still Matters.  Ivy League colleges have very high yield, relatively speaking, and so have an even lower level of admits compared to schools with lower yield.

Of course, if you are not totally obsessed with the Ivy League, this data is merely interesting, and using it, along with, say,  a scattergram from Naviance, you can do a cost-benefit analysis based on your chances of admission.  I say, Go for it, given that your average app costs only 50-75 dollars, but have a healthy list of non-super-selective colleges, guided by a healthy perspective on why you want to go to college and what you expect to get from it.

Compare the last two years’ data to a three year trend that takes us from 2013 back to 2011:

Brown–2011: 8.70%; 2012: 9.60%; 2013: 9.16%

Columbia– 2011: 6.93%; 2012: 7.42%; 2013:  6.89%

Cornell–2011: 17.95; 2012: 16.2%; 2013: 15.15%

Dartmouth–2011: 10.14%; 2012: 9.79; 2013: 10.05

Harvard– 2011: 6.17%; 2012: 5.92%; 2013: 5.79%

Princeton–2011: 8.39%; 2012:  7.86%; 2013: 7.29%

U Penn–2011:  12.26%; 2012: 12.32; 2013:10.05

Yale–2011: 7.35%; 2012: 6.81%; 2013: 6.72%

And here is data for M.I.T: 2011: 9.6%; 2012: 8.9%; 2013:8.2%; 2014: 7.7%

M.I.T’s West Coast competitor, Cal Tech, had 11% admitted in 2013, 8% for 2014, for you STEMers who need another point of comparison.  I will update with this year’s data for CT when I get it.

The trend is clear:  steadily down for the most competitive schools, and the seeming upward trend in a couple of cases may be due to the fact that they admit more because more students use them for a backup school,  choosing to attend another school after admissions offers go out–universities  have to calculate this into the admits, much like an airline figuring out how to slightly overbook flights–the difference being that, if a school misses their admit/yield target, they either lose money when they under enroll, or have to find a way to house and provide classes to their excess new students–U.C. Berkeley had a bit of a fiasco with yield some years back and had freshman students living off of cots in rec rooms and hallways of dorms for quite awhile.   See my post on Yield, above, for more on yield.

If the current trend continues, the top three  Ivies will all be under a 5% admit rate a year or so before the next Winter Olympics roll around.  Fear not, however, for I will conclude with some recommendations for dealing with this in a moment–but before I do . . . . let’s get to this:

Getting back to REALLY Scary Data:  Stanford

Stanford–2011:  7.10%; 2012: 6.61%; 2013: 5.69% 2014:  42,167 applicants; 5.07% admitted–and in 2015, only 5.05%, or 2,144 out of 42,487 applicants were admitted.

As I said, really close to that 4% barrier and really likely to break it this year,  based on the trend.  They could decide to forestall this by adjusting and making some space for a slightly larger freshman class, but nothing currently suggest this will happen.  Stanford is the go-to destination for today’s Future Masters of the Universe, really–anybody who wants to launch a good STEM career has Stanford at or near the top of their college list.  So expect yield at Stanford to stay high, and for the Cardinal to drop below 5% during your application season as Stanford  turns down many students who look perfect in terms of numbers.  Other factors, like essays and extracurriculars will play in important role in application results here.  So will institutional needs.

Inconsistent Admission Results

I did have six of my clients be admitted to Stanford in 2013-2014, which was a new high for me, but two of them were outstanding female athletes as well as good students, and the others were nearly perfect, with outstanding essays and interesting backgrounds. This year, so far three have reported admissions, but I have only had formal reports back from about 70% of my clients as of July, so I hold out hope for those who may still be too giddy to respond to my June e-mail request for results and decisions.

I also had other clients who did not get into Stanford, some of whom were admitted into places like Harvard and Yale, and of course those who had admits to both/and.  My  Stanford admits were not admitted to some of the Ivy League schools on their list while being admitted to others.  The upshot on this is simple:  you cannot count on admission to any specific school in the usual short list of top universities–so you should widen your application list.  Do some deep breathing.  Remember that life is not about what college sticker you put on your car.

Have a Good Backup Plan

Let’s start with what West Coast applicants applying to the Ivy League think of as “backup schools:”  U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. (Personally I find the idea that the U.C.’s are somehow second-rate to be hilarious.  Berkeley has been ranked as the top school in the world overall by some ratings systems–not that I am all that impressed by ratings, which usually focus on incomes of graduates and a bunch of less clear metrics, none of which guarantee a good outcome for any individual.  But back to our topic . . .)

U. C. Berkeley–2011:  25.54%; 201221.13%; 2013: 20.83%; 2014: 17.3% admit rate, with 12,795 admitted for fall 2014 out of 73,771 applicants; of these, 65.6% were California residents and 4,401 were out-of-state students; this year’s admits had a weighted average GPA of 4.18, ACT composite average of 31 and SAT reading of 677, Math of 703 and Writing of 691.

Berkeley Update for fall 2015 enrollment:  78,918 freshman/1st year applicants, 13,321 admitted for a 16.9% admit rate, a new low. Yes, a large, “state” school with many applicants and an incrementally more difficult admissions rate, but a much better admit rate than in the Ivies.  Llike the Ivies, the trend is toward tougher admissions, and the drop  in admits at Berkeley is even steeper over recent years than at most other schools–a result of the Ivies, et al, having such low rates of admission that more and more students are dropping out of the Ivy League app race and going straight for the great public universities.  The average unweighted GPA for these admits was 3.91 with an average ACT of 31 and an average SAT of 2093.  For transfers, Berkeley had 17,239 applicants, 93% of whom came from California community/junior colleges; 3,763 or 21.8% were offered admissions this year; compare that to about 23% transfer admits last year and the theme of incrementally increasing difficulty reappears here as well.

U. C. L. A.–2011:  25.28%; 2012: 21.27%; 2013: 21.10; 2014:  18.23% admit rate, with 15,778 admitted out of 86,537 applicants–4,110 of these admits coming from out-of-state. Weighted average GPA for U.C.L.A. in 2014 was 3.94.  For  a complete look at U.C.L.A.’s test average (SAT/ACT) and other data up through 2014, which is rendered in more detail than Berkeley, see this:  U.C.L.A. Averages.

U.C.L.A. Fall 2015 Update:  17.3% admitted, including 16,027 freshman admits out of 92,722 applicants.  This is a pretty good jump downward in admits and upward in applicants for U.C.L.A.  U.C.L. A. also admitted 4,905 out of 20,063 transfer students (mostly J.C. transfers).  Again, you see a relatively easier admissions challenge relative to the Ivies, but also  a relatively steep decline in admits in recent years.

Some Other Schools to Look At

This will be more focused on STEM majors, not because I think STEM is the only way to go (far from it), but rather because so many want a STEM major, and it provides an easy way to focus on a small selection of the thousands of colleges in North America and beyond.

University of Washington

Why not, STEMmers and others?  For you STEM folks who think that Berkeley or Stanford are the only way to go to get a foot in the door of the West Coast Tech Industry, you might have heard of those guys at Amazon and Microsoft up there in the Seattle area (Of the latter, I know, I know, so Old School, but still–one of the biggest and most important tech companies in the world.)  Not to mention those biotech companies and internet companies like Zillow, Expedia, et al and so forth.  Specifically of interest to you computer science and programming folks, U.W.’s Comp Sci school has a truly fantastic new building and a large degree of protected funding dedicated to Computer disciplines–a good thing in today’s challenging  world of educational finances.  For more on that, look here: U Washington Computer Sciences.

Here’s a quick look at UW data:

2012: 26,138 applications, 16,679 offered (55% acceptance rate) with a yield of 6.225; 2013:  30,200 applications, 16,679 accepted (59% acceptance rate) and a yield of 6,049; 2014–Applied 31,611, Accepted 17,451 (55%) Yield 6,361 or 36.4%.

2015 data is pending as of July, 2015–a relaxed approach from a university that is pretty relaxed compared to the Ivies and Berkeley.

Looks doable, doesn’t it?  Of course, some majors will be far more challenging to get into–like those in the computer disciplines–but still not even nearly as tough as the Ivies, Stanford, or the U.C.’s, especially Berkeley, if you are a STEMmer. Of course, there is some rain, but the good coffee and access to excellent salmon offset that . . .

Harvey Mudd

If you haven’t heard of this place, they know it well in Silicon Valley.  And while it is tougher than Berkeley and far tougher than Washington, its data shows that it is a good alternative school for those convinced that the Ivies are the Cat’s Pajamas.  Here some data:

2013:  3,539 applicants; 18% admitted;  2014:  3,678 applicants; 524 admitted (14.2% admit rate);  as of July, I am still waiting for HM to report stats for fall, 2015 enrollment.  One additional point–more than two men apply for every woman who applies to HM  (2,588 men for fall 2014 vs. 1,090 women), but the number of women who were admitted in the last available class (fall 2014) was 255 vs. 269 for the men.  So the advantage is to you ladies.  Though the admit total is admittedly small in both cases.

H.M is a beautiful, small school in a Southern California setting (807 undergraduate students last year), and while both private and expensive, has pretty generous financial aid (32,000 has been the average aid package in recent years, according to HM, apparently an upgrade from the old HM 25 k package).  If you can pay for an out-of-state public school, you can likely afford HM.  The steep recent decline in admits does suggest that HM has been discovered, with a rising rate of out-of-state applicants, but still:  worth adding if you have some space on your target school list and are interested in a small school.

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

One of my favorite, small, public colleges and also a favorite of Silicon Valley employers, as well as companies like Bechtel, Webcor, Kiewit, et al. Look em’ up, if you are curious, Oh engineering types.  The school is well-known for programs ranging from Architecture to Electrical Engineering, has a highly ranked business school and a number of very strong humanities programs.  Here’s some CPSLO data:

2013: 40,402 applications, 13,939 accepted (35% accepted) with an average wieghted GPA of 3.96, ACT composite average of 29 and SAT 1 average of 1311.  2014: 51,707 applicants, 14,749 admitted (28%-this is a record low for CPSLO), with a weighted GPA of 3.97 on average and SAT Reading and Math of 1318–the ACT composite was 29.  Fall 2015 Update: 46,799 applied; 14,386 admitted; 4.0 GPA average (weighted); ACT average of 30; SAT Reading and Math average of 1332.

Cal Poly has (finally) started to offer more detailed information on student data by fields of study–click here for information by school:  Cal Poly Data Breakdown.

Your Takeaway:  Diversity, Diversity, Diversity–and a somewhat longer list than the old “10 is the max” standard.

As in recent years, the takeaway for this is to develop a longer list of target schools and add some diversity.  I suggest 12-15 as a minimum on your target list, not the old ten maximum list.

After all, it’s the 21st Century, Friends, and as you can see, the admit rates at my alternate schools are also declining, a trickle-down effect of both increased expenses at some of the more popular schools and the very low likelihood of admissions to the most competitive schools–students and parents are getting the message and are looking for the hidden gem or overlooked schools like the few I showed you in this post.

So look for the overlooked, look across borders and over the sea, as well as in your backyard.  Don’t limit your search to the United States.

As in recent years, I strongly encourage students to look at Canada–the University of British Columbia, U of Toronto and McGill come immediately to mind, and are cheaper on average than going out of state within the U.S.  A West-Coast flight to Vancouver, or an East Coast flight to Toronto is actually pretty affordable, so parents can visit with ease, if necessary, and Canada is on average a safer place to live than the U.S., even if they do have more guns per capita.  Must be that relaxed and friendly attitude.

And don’t take the various university rankings too seriously, even if you are a STEM person, which some  of the best known university rankings weight over other factors (money being the other dominant metric).  Nobody knows how to measure the real value of an education, and there is a degree to which the Ivies, particularly Yale, Harvard and Princeton, demonstrate a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to income–income and some other stuff that is used to rank universities does not necessarily reflect the quality of your undergrad education.   Having said that, you might want to check out international rankings for British and Irish universities, and check out some specialty programs, like the accelerated medical degree at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland–an example only if you want to be a surgeon, of course.

Moving back to the role income plays in university rankings, a school from a western state, particularly if it has a smaller population, will obviously have folks with lower incomes–it’s cheaper to live there and more of the students from, say University of Washington or Oregon will be from those states and likely continue to live in the Northwest, which has a great standard of living, but lower average incomes than, say, New York or Mass.  If you went to school in Seattle, but took a job in Cupertino, your income would reflect that.

Keep that in mind and ask what you want from your college experience–a good job is huge, but a good experience is as well, and it starts with having a good list of backup schools to ease the stress of applications.  Good luck and come back soon.

What Universities Will Look For This Year In College Applications–A Quick Introduction

What universities are looking for starts with what kind of university you are applying to.  In the most basic sense, universities can be divided into two categories when it comes to applications: holistic or objective universities.

In the first case, holistic universities take a “whole person” approach, looking at grades and  (usually) test scores, but also looking at other factors, like essays.  Whether this measures the whole person or not is open to question.

Objective universities use test scores and grades . . . and that’s pretty much it.  With the exception of some specific programs, your academic record is the sole measurement, so no sweating essays and recommendations.  On the other hand, with objective schools, you also have  little or no chance to persuade somebody to give you a chance if your academic record is a little sketchy.  And how well grades and scores reflect your potential is a matter of some debate;  I have written about this and about how college applications are evaluated in earlier posts, and I suggest you read this post from last year before reading what I have to say below:  How College Applications are Evaluated.  I will pause while you click and read . . .

Welcome back.

So let’s turn now to factors that most applicants think are more important  than they really are.  I must caution you before we proceed to keep in mind that, in this post, I am dealing with aggregated numbers, i.e, with averages.  Despite the trends and averages,  there are specific colleges which do emphasize elements that other colleges ignore completely–a college that states diversity as a mission will emphasize this in applications, for example, so being the first in your family to attend, or being a first generation American, may give you some sort of boost.  Other colleges that have small student bodies, a personal approach and active and committed alumni may put an emphasis on a personal interview–in one specific and extreme case, Deep Springs College requires an extended visit to campus, participation in the work and classes there, and a panel interview that can be, well, a bit confrontational, and this panel, which is dominated by students currently in the Deep Springs program, ultimately determines who is admitted after making it to this second round.  But hey, if you do make it into Deep Springs, you are getting a free education at a super elite (and highly iconoclastic) school that sends most of its grads on to the Ivy League or other super-elites for further ausbildung.  And schools which put interviews and personal characteristics at the top of their criteria are rare.

In fact, for most universities, in terms of the activities and qualifications that play a role in the application process,  interviews and class rank are not of significant importance or are not considered.

Surprised?  You have  a lot of company.  I  have some clients who follow their class rank like a gambler staring at the roulette wheel, even after I show them that it won’t really matter, and I have others who really sweat the interview and I have to repeat, over and over, relax, dress decently, smile and all will be well  until I have them hypnotized.

While there are probabilities in admissions, your college applications are not a crapshoot, and unless you suddenly turn into Linda Blair in The Exorcist, (Don’t click this link if you don’t like scary pictures)  or otherwise go out of your way to offend the interviewer, the interview won’t matter  other than as part of your overall expression of demonstrated interest.  And demonstrated interest is important, but an interview is only one of the ways to demonstrate interest to the college.  Talking to any reps the university sends out on the road, to your school or your region, talking with people in the admissions department and in the various programs, visiting the campus, et al, also fit into the category of demonstrated interest.

The reasons for the decline of the interview are multiple, but most importantly come down to money–with the enormous volume of applicants many universities process, it is, for most schools, too difficult to establish and maintain an adequate pool of good interviewers.  Over the years, alumni have become the go-to source for interviewers,  but they are often not really vetted because it is hard enough just to find somebody with the time and desire to do the job.  Interviewers are not paid or get only a nominal remuneration, for the most part.  As applications have soared into the many tens of thousands for elite schools, even after an initial pool of qualified candidates is established, the multiple hundreds to thousands of remaining applicants represent a huge interviewing challenge.  So when it comes to interviewing, my advice is to schedule an interview and follow my mantra, above.  Oh, and be on time.

The decline of class rank as a factor is more complicated.  One reason is the decline in the number of high schools who report class rank.  Put simply, high school administrators grew tired of the bloodletting that occurred over class rank as students vied to be valedictorian and salutatorian, and it’s pretty hard to compute rank in a fair way when comparing students who have, say, the same G.P.A. and same number of A.P. classes but have emphasized different areas.  How would one fairly compare an exceptional arts and humanities student to an exceptional STEM student?  Universities, on the other hand, have de-emphasized class rank for a number of reasons connected to variations in the quality and size of high schools.  The third-ranked student at a small school that is mediocre is not likely to be all that competitive with the third-ranked student at a large and very highly ranked high school.  Or at least it is not possible for the universities to assess a pair or students like these in an objective and accurate way.

Here is a summary of the trends in interviewing:

In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.

A more important issue for admission is also a perennial hot button topic:  race (or ethnicity, if you will) which, after this week’s Supreme Court decision, will still be used in admissions–at least in the next couple of years.  The very last legal word has not been said on this matter yet .  . .

But here is the nut of this issue:  ethnicity is not really a major factor in most cases, and for those where it is a factor, this is only true after you qualify and at a particular point in the process with particular schools: before any additional factors are evaluated, the initial pool of candidates is established using GPA and test scores; then essays, activities and other factors, along with race, are used to determine who will be offered admissions, based on a scale that reflects what the university wants and needs.  A truly unqualified candidate is not in this initial pool.  I have written about this in more detail in the post linked above and also in this post:  Seven Rules for College Admissions.

Here is the data that the NACAC study came up with for race and other “personal characteristics” in college applications:

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

How Colleges Use Factor First-Generation Status Race or Ethnicity Gender
Considerable Importance 3.5% 4.7% 4.7%
Moderate Importance 22.5% 21.0% 8.2%
Limited Importance 26.0% 21.8% 23.0%
No Importance 48.1% 52.5% 64.1%

For 70-95% or more of the colleges, depending on which factor you look at, it’s not such a big deal, eh?

For the most part, your application  essays are far more important than personal attributes like gender or race, and the essays themselves often tie into or show something of your activities and interests, so you can cover a lot of ground with a good essay. Good essays are particularly important when you are likely to be in the middle of the pack qualifying for the pool and need something to stand out. So after grades, test scores and ongoing activities, you should be looking at developing a good set of essays.  That, I think, is the takeaway here.

To recap and to wrap this post up, the two most important factors in college admissions are, in this order,  grades in college preparatory classes and test scores on the SAT and ACT (AP classes obviously rule the college prep class category, unless you are in an IB program–more about this in a later post).  Following grades and tests in importance are essays, activities, teacher and counselor recommendations (I favor getting both, as long as they are specific and solid), and demonstrated interest also matters to many schools; below these factors in importance, for most schools, are subject test scores, portfolios (though portfolios are a must for some programs and do make a difference if you have something remarkable to offer) and, depending on the school, near the bottom of the priority list in admissions are interviews and personal characteristics, with the exceptions I noted earlier.  Do read the links I posted above if you haven’t already and stay tuned: I’ll be turning my attention to specific application essay topics in the next two weeks as the universities start to post their essay prompts for 2013-2014.

A word of warning, however:  As I start to write about some of the specific posts at elite schools, some of my posts will be available only as excerpted samples on this site; you will need to pay a small subscription fee to gain full access to all posts, via my private site.  It’s only fifteen bucks for the full application year, through April, 2014.  I call that a bargain.  But just to check, feel free to peruse my archives and to click on tags and categories for other posts.

College Admissions Data for 2013: A Look at Yield and Some Sympathy for the Devil

For many years, yield was vital to college rankings.   Universities tried not only to attract far more qualified applicants than they could possibly admit, they also tried to get a very high yield.  From the point of view of applicants, this was, well, a bit devilish.  The universities, of course, have a different point of view, and it’s worth considering their perspective as you begin the process of applying.

For those of you who are not up on the inside game of college admissions and its terminology (yet), yield is the  number of admitted students who then also actually enroll in the school instead of, say, turning down the school to enroll in their “other” first choice.  Yield was for many years important due to the U.S. News and World Report’s use of yield in its rankings of colleges, a practice they gave up years back. But yield remains, as a kind of ghost hanging around the theatre of college applications, influencing the general perception about how in demand a college is.  The psychology is not so dissimilar to that of the fashion industry in some ways, if you step back and squint your eyes a bit—or maybe not.  Too scary to visualize.

In any case,   universities today still  share their yield info with applicants; those universities with high yields share the information as a sales point (simply everybody, or at least  a supermajority of our admits wants to go to our school, etc.) and the others share presumably either so they won’t seem like they have something to hide or because they really are perfectly fine accepting students who were ranked in a top decile but who were not in the tiny cohort of the  top 1 to 3% of those who actually gain admissions to an elite Ivy or Stanford.

As a side note, for those of you who are already feeling the butterflies as you consider the odds of getting into, say, Princeton or Stanford, look:  You will find a surprising number of really excellent schools that accept the top 10-15% of students, and many people in fact get a great education for less debt at public schools with even “lower” standards.  Some of these less competitive schools have specific programs that compete with anybody.  Once you look beyond the same 10-15 schools that everybody else knows about and wants to apply to, you can find all kinds of hidden gems.  So breathe deep and relax as I present the admissions facts as they are, and I will, in upcoming posts, also help you look outside the envelope everybody else is staring into, including looking at cheaper and less well-known but still excellent domestic options, as well as looking outside the country. If you can expand your horizon beyond the same 12-15 schools everyone else is applying to, you can find some real gems, colleges that may suit you and your needs better than many marquee universities.

With this preamble, let’s first take a look at the data I gathered on some of the most competitive colleges in the United States—yes, these are some of the schools everybody has heard of:

Three-Year Yield Data on Über-Competitve schools

Brown2013 (class of 2017): 59.9% ;  2012:ca 57%; 2011 55.8% (None from wait list this year)

Columbia2013 (class of 2017): 61%; 2012: 61%; 2011: 61% (Very consistent to 2008, which was 60%)

Dartmouth–2013 (class of 2017): 48.5%; 2012: 49.5%; 2011: 52%

Harvard2013 (class of 2017): 82%; 2012: 80.2%; 2011: ca 77% (46 from wait list this year)

Princeton2013 (class of 2017): 68.7%; 2012 66.7%; 2011: 56.99% (Princeton Admissions Page stats claim 65% for 2012/2016 class; this appears to be an inaccurate early number)

Stanford2013 (class of 2017): 76.7%; 2012 72.84%; 2011: 70.05%

University of Chicago2013 (class of 2017): 54.98%: 2012: 47%; 2011: 39.88%

UPenn-2013 (class of 2017): 64.25%; 2012: 64.88%; 2011: 62.92%

Yale2013 (class of 2017): Yield not available as of 6/19; 2012: 68.4%; 2011: 65.2%

Compare the yield rates for the elite schools, above, with the overall category averages below, which come from the most recent NACAC (National Association of College and Career Counselors) report, with data up through 2011; these are averages for the entire public/private categories:

Yield Rates for Public and Private 4-Year Colleges


































The story that my data on the super selective schools and the data in this categorical chart tells  is clear:  the most elite schools have been pretty well sheltered from the big drop in yields in recent years, but many others have been, therefore, disproportionately affected.

Why?  Well, demand, largely.  And the demand is driven by certain realities—the famous profs, the famous alums, the data they issue about how smart their applicants are, the data about how few of those applicants they let in, the data about how high their yield rate is of those they did admit . . . oh, wait, it looks like we are discussing, well, marketing, and therefore, Dear Applicant, we are discussing you. Or your perceptions both personally and aggregated with your peers across the country and world.  Take your pick.

As you consider your own perceptions, we should also consider the plight of that demonic realm known as the Admissions Department. You might want to cue some Rolling Stones (Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste) as you think about those dark empires into which all your personal information will disappear, leaving you to wait for months to find out if you are one of the blessed or one of the damned when the envelopes are mailed or the e-mails sent next spring.  But here’s the thing:  they have problems, too.

You are in a race to be admitted; they are in a contest to improve their rankings, or if they are near the top, to maintain their position.   Changes in college rankings mean big money and can make or break campuses and careers.   In some cases,  the suffering of admissions deans may even surpass that of those applying.   A large part of a dean’s problem is hitting the sweet spot where most of those admitted actually attend.  All heck can break loose if 400 extra freshmen admits appear who weren’t expected.

Yes, screwing up on your yield can wreak some serious havoc, with 18-year olds sleeping on cots in hallways, irate parents calling,  news vans prowling campus.   Worse even than that  is a big drop in yield,  when dorm rooms are empty because the admissions people didn’t get enough new faces to show up.  Instead of simply bad PR, which they can deal with, they lose real money and their prestige takes a hit.  That’s a scary, nay a terrifying thing for university administrators, even with the economy appearing to recover. Have a little compassion for those admissions types who are not really devils anyhow.  They are your fellows in the suffering created by our crazy college applications market.

And here is one more thing to consider:  You will do a better job at creating a strategy for college admissions if you better understand the problems facing your admissions officers, because you will also know more about your own  challenges when you apply.  And when you turn to writing your application essays, your audience should be one of your first considerations.

Of course, in the long run, the more of you who do a better job understanding those problems, the (paradoxically) larger problems those same admissions officers will face, at least in the long run.  For one thing, you  will follow my advice and continue to apply to more schools, and you will also continue to demonstrate more interest in more schools, using persistence and discipline to evade their attempts to measure just how committed you are as they, for their part,  try to get more apps, admit fewer people and have a higher yield.

With that, let’s say the game is afoot, and may the best applicants win.  Read my earlier post on how applications are evaluated while you start to plan your moves, and I will have more about all this strategy stuff in later posts. Speaking of which, some of these posts will be protected and you will need to pay me a very small subscription fee for full access to all my posts on my private blog.  Contact me at for more information.  See you soon.

Finding The Right University: Some Resources

College Search and Evaluation Software and Websites

Most of the people I help with college applications can be categorized in two ways:  those who are fixated on a list of big-name universities which are the ONLY places they can possibly consider applying to, and those who are overwhelmed by the information available and so feel paralyzed and unable to choose.  I usually start with the college names they know in both cases and then move on to things they may not have considered, such as this question: Would you want to live there if the university was not located there–a good thing to ask about a place where you are likely to spend at least four years of your life.

In addition to asking questions beyond the status of the university, which in itself is no guarantee of a good experience, it helps to use some of the excellent sources of information that are available today.  I have elsewhere discussed some of the books that can help with the college search, but increasingly the best information is available online.

I encourage my clients to use the information sources below to help narrow the search–I offer suggestions and give them information that falls into the gaps, so to speak, but your average searcher for a good university could do much of the work a college counselor might be paid to do (which is one of the reasons I prefer the title “College Advisor” and put most of my time into intellectual and essay development).  By sending my clients to the sites below and helping put the information in perspective, I can almost always help my clients with a good, varied list of colleges to pursue.  I suggest starting with somewhere around twenty names, then reducing this list to ten or twelve colleges–I used to recommend ten, but in these times, a few more apps is a good idea. So the first step is to empower yourselves, folks.   Take charge of your search, starting with the following sources:

Software And Sites You Should Definitely Use (if you can)

The College Board

If I may compare the college application game to the rackets, the College Board is the Godfather.  They have a finger in every pie and control much of the important data.  Go to their site, pick a college name and search—this will take you to their Big Future college search engine, which has all kinds of useful data and information—for example, cost estimates are broken down not just by in and out of state but also by on and off campus.

The Common Application

Continuing with my rackets analogy, if the College Board is the Godfather, these guys are the consigliere.  Much of the information on the Collegeboard site can be found here, but focused specifically on the hundreds of universities using the Common App.  Not quite as detailed as the collegeboard, but you are most likely going to set up an account here and you might as well check out what they offer.

College Navigator

If the College Board is the Godfather, this is the Oracle of Delphi.  This is a federal website and it is built right on the source of education statistics for the U.S.  The site is a function of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is essentially the data clearing house for education facts nationally, among other things.  Graphics windows that open up when you search are not flashy, but the layout is very easy to use and clear, and  you can see very detailed breakdowns of costs from tuition to room and board to an estimate of extra expenses, as well as test scores and pretty much any other statistic you might want, though some of the numbers may be a year behind.   Go now if you haven’t already.   They are the data set, really, that everybody else uses.


If your school or district has not purchased this service, then you are only going to be frustrated in reading this; if so, convert your frustration to political action and advocate that the board or school purchase Naviance.  Naviance is an institutional software package and service, meaning that it can be purchased by school districts but not by individuals.  There are legitimate institutional reasons for this limitation.  If your district does use Naviance, it will perform most of the functions of a traditional college counselor by providing a highly accurate picture of your chances of gaining admission to a particular university—this feedback is specific to your profile and to your school’s profile.  This includes scattergram reports updated annually for your school.  See Cappex, below, for more on that.   Of course, Naviance can’t read your essays and evaluate them, nor is it very good at figuring out if you are going to get an athletic or music scholarship, to name a couple of very important admissions factors.  But  if your school does have Naviance, Congratulations!  Go see your counselor posthaste.  If you do not have access to Naviance, the two sources above and those I list below can help you approximate Naviance.  In any case, any prediction made by Naviance or any other service is a based on data, in other words is based on the past, and the past is becoming less and less reliable as a predictor of the future except for the general truth that every year it is becoming harder to gain admissions to most selective universities.

Apps and Sites That Are Worth A Look


Cappex is trying to be a free version of Naviance, with a dose of attitude.  They even have  scattergrams  for the schools they discuss.  Scattergrams are xy graphical representations of results on student applications, with GPA and ACT/SAT score as the two factors represented.  This means that, like all of these predictive tools, we can’t factor in essays, talents, et al, and we don’t know exactly how large the sample is for the Cappex data either, but they do claim to show the results of all of their members who applied, and this number is definitely growing.  There are many other nice features here—their profiles of universities, which include the scattergram,  are reasonably informative and can quickly give you an idea of where you fall among applicants–the most selective unis are shifted way up toward the top right in the scattergrams . . .

College Ray

A good statistical site with a lot of data, presented in a straightforward fashion.  It is searchable and has statistical info like that offered by the College Board, et al.  It’s not clear where they intend to go with this site—it was developed by Harvard undergraduates for the HackHarvard web app incubator–but it offers good info in an easy-to-use format.

Admissions Splash

This is a Facebook app that works with around 1,500 schools, matching your profile with the schools and giving you a prediction of your chances to be admitted.  This is a numbers only site—GPA, SAT/ACT—so essays, talents and other factors are not weighed.  This is true of all the software or apps which predict admissions chances, though Naviance, above, has more specific information  and theoretically should be  a bit more accurate.  Still, Splash is worth a look as you search.  It will give you a score range from 1-100 and chances are calculated from “fair” to “great.’  They claim to have a 90-97% predictions.  Keep in mind that you are providing private information—while they have no plans at the moment for using your data, they have not “determined” the long-term use of the data.  In addition to the calculator for predicting admissions, they have a question and answer function and a blog on topics related to college and college admissions.  As with college confidential, almost none of the information offered by individuals can be validated and you are probably wasting your time reading a bunch of responses which purport to offer “insider’ info.


This is a participant driven site—think of it as the Yelp of universities.  Or you might think of it as an attempt to create a college student Borg.  Good for some idea of aspects of your potential colleges that are not readily clear in statistics—social life, for example—but I always wonder what the basis for comparison is—how do you really know how to rate the social life at your school against that of another?  Without, say, attending both?  An epistemological mystery, but anecdotally this site is useful for things like reviews of dorm life to what the stereotypes of students at the school are, or is.  They also (claim to) rate schools against each other.

Can Give Interesting Information But Probably Not Worth The Time

College Confidential

I like most of the “official’ info, by which I mean the commentary the adults in charge offer, but the various chat threads and discussions of how to finesse an app to a particular school are pretty much sliced lunchmeat.  The discussion threads do have occasional tidbits of good information, but it’s like looking for a pearl in the tanks of a sewage plant.   Buy a rabbit’s foot instead of spending time reading the chat(ter).  The people who work at universities in or with insight into admissions have frequently lambasted the information offered here, with good reason.