While it’s a truth widely acknowledged that many institutions game the U.S. News and World Report rankings by inflating their app rates (among other things) A quick look at the admissions statistics tells the tale.
For 2010, U.C. Berkeley had 50,312 applicants and admitted 12,914—a 26% rate of admission; U.C.L.A. upped that by admitting only 13,088 of 57,608 applicants, for a 23% admit rate; on the other hand, the most popular of the Cal State campuses, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, had a 33% admission rate, and CP SLO has consistently been one of the highest rated universities on the West Coast.
Over on the right coast, Columbia admitted 9% of its applicants, Harvard admitted 7%–excuse me, with that rate, it’s Haaaaaahvad–while Princeton admitted 8%. In the midland, U of Chicago admitted 19% while Northwestern admitted 23%.
These are ugly numbers and even more fearful in our bad economic times. But what do they really mean?
In the big picture, they mean that we have a resource problem. The elite schools have always been selective—and have, for many years, gamed the ratings to appear as selective as possible—but the shortage of educational opportunities in California is particularly acute. Demand far outstrips supply and tax revenue has declined at a time when public institutions are viewed by many in our country as part of the problem if not as an actual enemy within. If you want to deal with the big picture, you’ll have to get involved politically. This is a workable approach for parents of 6th graders and a civic duty for everyone else, but not very useful if you have a college-bound student in high school.
If you have a high school junior, you will have to focus on an immediate, pragmatic strategy. Presumably you are already been making all the basic stops on the Via Dolorosa of the college admissions process, but some things to consider might not be immediately obvious.
Start with researching your preferred campuses. At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, for example, admission rates for each school varies. The Business School at Cal Poly is ferociously competitive. The history department, not so much. A history major with a business minor would be a far easier admit ticket to get punched than the reverse would be. And turning out more students with such a background might be an improvement overall given the recent history of our banking sector.
Be aware, however, that CPSLO is discouraging double majors due to budget cuts and has always been hard on those who wish to change a major. Not only that, the admin at SLO is ramping up pressure on students to finish a degree in less than five years, all of this as a response to the budget problems as well as to prevent those who game the system by selecting a low subscription major and then switching to a more impacted major after being admitted. And yes, at the same time that fewer sections of many classes are being offered. Of course, that will be true on many campuses.
Next, consider colleges which have higher admissions rates. Sonoma State has many of the advantages of Cal Poly, including a fairly bucolic setting (though Rohnert Park is nobody’s idea of a happening little town, unlike SLO) and the admit rate is in the 80% range.
A final consideration I would look at is the location—is this a great place to spend four or five years? Out of state is looking better all the time. Eastern Oregon University offers in-state tuition for all students—okay, so the location is isolated, but Portland State, as another alternative, is in what might be the nicest place to live in the Northwest, and they offer a scholarship to out-of-state students with a high GPA. Visit their website for details.
Finally, do spend extra time on the college essay for the applications that require it. By the time the junior year is over, you don’t have many opportunities to stand out from the crowd, and the essay is the only place to really show your creativity and brilliance in a first-person way.