09.01.10

Your Odds of Getting Into College

Which extracurriculars do top colleges consider most valuable? What's a “good” SAT score? Anneli Rufus on 15 stats that hint at what your dream school wants to see on your transcript.

If you're female, your chances of being accepted into an elite college are 25.9 percent.

And if you're male, they're only 24.1 percent. In preparing for college, "women are generally doing better these days" than their male high-school classmates, says Mike Moyer, the author of How to Make Colleges Want You: Insider Secrets for Tipping the Admissions Odds in Your Favor. "Women's grades are better, and women are more polished when doing interviews" at private schools.

Thomas Espenshade et al. (2004): Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at Elite Universities. Social Science Quarterly, 85 (5).


If you're a male athlete, you're four times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy League school than a non-athletic male.

According to the authors of the report that includes this statistic, the advantage is even greater for female athletes. Students and alumnae "identify with their schools," says college consultant Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution. "And for better or worse they like for their schools' sports teams to do well, even if it's the Ivy League. Harvard still wants to beat Yale. These guys are very competitive in every aspect of college life." If the school is top-ranked in academics, "then why wouldn't they want to be No. 1 in lacrosse and rugby, too?"

Robert García et al. (2004): Healthy children, healthy communities: schools, parks, recreation and sustainable regional planning. Fordham University Center for Law in the Public Interest policy brief.


If you're a legacy applicant—that is, if one or more of your close relatives attended the elite private college you're applying to—you're more than twice as likely to be accepted as a non-legacy applicant.

Legacy applicants have a 49.7 percent chance of being admitted, while non-legacy applicants have only a 24 percent chance. "The primary source of colleges' income is alumni donations, so legacy preferences are sound business," says Cal Newport, author of How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Into College by Standing Out. Legacy preferences "build up a family allegiance to a school, which might therefore become a financial allegiance."

Thomas Espenshade et al. (2005): The frog pond revisited: high school academic context, class rank, and elite college admission. Sociology of Education, 78 (4), 269-293.


If you've taken nine or more Advanced Placement tests, you're more than twice as likely to be admitted into an elite school as applicants who have taken no AP tests.

With nine or more AP tests, your chances are 36.2 percent. With three AP tests, they're 20.9 percent. With none, they're 15 percent. Number of AP tests taken "is a proxy for 'rich white kids,'" says O'Shaughnessy. "If you're a rich white kid, you have more access to APs. You're going to attend a high school where people live and breathe APs. You've got an advantage.”

Thomas Espenshade et al. (2005): The frog pond revisited: high school academic context, class rank, and elite college admission. Sociology of Education, 78 (4), 269-293.


If your combined SAT scores are between 1500 and 1600, you're more than 25 times more likely to be accepted into an elite college than if your combined SAT scores are less than 1000.

At every descending rung on the SAT ladder, the likelihood of acceptance at an elite school drops precipitously. With scores between 1500 and 1600, it's 48.7 percent. With 1400-1499, it's 33.2 percent. With 1300-1399, it's 24 percent. With 1200-1299, it's 17.5 percent. With SATs under 1000, it's only 1.9 percent. Newport laments that as applicants and admissions boards maintain "this brutal slog of hardened conventional wisdom" about what makes the best candidates, "authentically interesting people are in the minority."

Thomas Espenshade et al. (2004): Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at Elite Universities. Social Science Quarterly, 85 (5).

If you apply to a selective college via an early-action (EA) program, by which students apply before November and receive their acceptance or rejection letters before January, you're 20 to 30 percent more likely to be accepted than applicants who apply on the standard January-April timetable.

In the applications process, EA is worth "about the same as 100 additional points on the SAT," write the authors of the study that yielded this stat. In 2008, "Yale admitted 16.7 of its early applicants and Stanford 18.1 percent, about twice the rate for the regular pool." Early-decision (ED) programs, in which early applicants must officially commit to attending the school if accepted, raise applicants' chances even higher, to as much as 37 percent.

Christopher Avery and Levin, Jonathan (2009): Early admissions at selective colleges. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 14844.


A black applicant from a foreign country is more than twice as likely to be accepted into an elite U.S. college as an African American.

Two-thirds of the black student populations at elite private U.S. colleges come from foreign countries. Only one-third are U.S.-born and -bred. Foreign minority students look doubly good to college admissions boards, Moyer says, because they increase student-body diversity and seldom require financial aid: "This is huge. Never underestimate the power of the full-pay student" in the minds of decision-makers, he says. "Everybody likes money."

Thomas Espenshade and Radford, Alexandria Walton with Chang Young Chung. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 108.


If you completed calculus in high school, you've got an 84 percent chance of being accepted at a competitive college.

Math matters. If your mathematical journey ended with pre-calculus, you've got a 79 percent chance. If it ended with trigonometry, you've got a 75 percent chance. If you only got as far as Algebra II, you've got a 69 percent chance.

Jim Hull (2010): Chasing the college acceptance letter: Is it harder to get into college? Center for Public Education report.


Nearly twice as many black applicants are accepted at elite colleges as Asian applicants.

At the private schools examined in one major study, 38.7 percent of black applicants were accepted, compared to 31.6 percent of Hispanic applicants, 26.9 percent of white applicants and 20.9 percent of Asian applicants. Because more Asian students than students of other races apply to elite schools, more Asians get rejected, says O'Shaughnessy. And for many Asians, “it's ingrained in them that they have to go to elite universities, but there are too many of them, so Harvard is never going to be like Berkeley," where Asian students comprise more than 50 percent of the student body. (The passage of Proposition 209 in 1996 made race-based admissions policies illegal in all California schools.)

Thomas Espenshade et al. (2004): Admission preferences for minority students, athletes, and legacies at Elite Universities. Social Science Quarterly, 85 (5).


If you're a high-school valedictorian applying to Harvard, you have only a 25 percent chance of being admitted.

Admission is denied to 75 percent of the high-school valedictorians who apply to Harvard every year. As the nation's top-ranked and most selective school, Harvard accepted only 7 percent of all applicants in 2009. This represents a sharp drop from the already-slender 10 percent of applicants who were accepted into Harvard in 2003. As a point of comparison, Yale accepted 8 percent of all applicants in 2009, Swarthmore accepted 17 percent, and Missouri State University accepted 83 percent.

Sally Springer and Franck, Marion. Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College. Somerset, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

US News & World Report: Best Colleges 2011, annual survey.


97 percent of the student bodies at Princeton and Yale ranked in the top 10 percent of their high-school graduating classes.

In other words, if you want to go to one of those two universities and you're not in the top 10 percent of your graduating class, your chances of getting in are about 3 percent. "That's no surprise," says Newport. "It used to be enough to just be in the middle" of your high-school graduating class. But competition grows more and more cutthroat "as you try to qualify in the increasingly escalating pools of baseline scores and grades."

Marna Atkin and Leslie, Ian. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting into Top Colleges. New York: Alpha, 2009.

If you've never participated in 4-H or ROTC, your chance of being admitted to an elite college is at least 60 percent higher than if you won awards or served as an officer in these organizations.

Not all extracurricular activities are equal. "Excelling in career-oriented activities is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission," write the authors of the book in which this stat appears. "These activities include ROTC and co-op work programs. They might also encompass 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, and other activities that suggest that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures." Odds-improving extracurricular activities include science/math clubs, debate teams, and "computer activity," but another odds-lowering behavior is "intense involvement" in the performing arts.

Thomas Espenshade and Radford, Alexandria Walton with Chang Young Chung. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 126.


32 percent of current U.S. college freshmen have learning disorders.

This number has more than doubled since 1985, when only 15 percent of U.S. college freshmen had learning disorders. "Do a lot more kids have learning disorders now than in 1985," Newport wonders, "or is it that a lot more kids are now being diagnosed with learning disorders? It's hard to find a developmental or psychological trend related to youth that isn't on the increase, so, in the last few years, have we been getting a lot more kids with issues or just a lot more observation of kids with issues?"

Marna Atkin and Leslie, Ian. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting into Top Colleges. New York: Alpha, 2009.


If you're African American and from a lower-class background, you're 1,087 percent more likely to be admitted to an elite U.S. college than a white applicant from a lower-class background.

"Elite universities give added weight in admission decisions to applicants who have SAT scores above 1500, are African American, or are recruited athletes,” this Princeton University study found. “A smaller, but still important, preference is shown to Hispanic students and to children of alumni." The study found that the likelihood of admittance for lower-class African Americans is 87 percent, compared to 8 percent for lower-class whites. But, Moyer says, “it's not because we all feel bad,” it's because colleges consider racial diversity an asset to the entire study body. The odds of second-generation Hispanic students being admitted to elite colleges "are almost three times as high as they are for comparable white applicants," add the researchers.

Thomas Espenshade and Radford, Alexandria Walton with Chang Young Chung. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 128.


At least 50 percent of the incoming freshman classes at Ivy League schools have GPAs of at least 3.75.

"It's generally believed that if you don't have at least a weighted GPA of 3.0, it's likely not worth your time to apply to an Ivy League school," write the authors of the book that includes this statistic. (In "weighted" GPAs, harder classes such as AP classes are worth extra gradepoints.) "Ignore the statistics," Newport urges. "They'll drive you crazy. The best strategy for maximizing your chances of getting into a top school is to get the best grades you can with the best courseload you can manage, and try to live the most interesting life possible."

Marna Atkin and Leslie, Ian. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting into Top Colleges. New York: Alpha, 2009, p.25.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.