Fat Envelopes

Who Got Into the Country’s Top Colleges?

College admissions were tougher than ever this year, with Harvard and Yale accepting an even tinier percent of applicants. Steve Cohen reports on what the early statistics reveal.

04.04.12 8:01 PM ET

It’s that time of year again. The fat (and thin) envelopes have begun to land, as high-school seniors’ fates take shape. So just how insanely competitive were this year’s college admissions?

According to many colleges’ self-reported statistics for the class of 2016: the results aren’t encouraging for most ambitious seniors, and they’re especially dismal for “unhooked white girls.”

That’s the euphemism for smart girls with really good grades and solid SAT scores, but who lack some special “hook” or positioning—for example, being a star athlete, concert pianist or first generation to go to college. They experienced a particularly tough time getting into most of the nation’s most competitive colleges. But they may enjoy a bit of peace of mind knowing everyone else did as well.

Harvard and Yale: Even More Exclusive

The nation’s Ivy League universities—typically among the toughest to get into—saw slightly fewer overall applications this year: a total of 242,671 versus 245,732 the year before. And while the chances of getting into Brown and Columbia were slightly better this year than last—still under 10 percent for each school—the other Ivies were more selective than ever. Harvard accepted only 5.9 percent of kids who applied and Yale only 6.8 percent.

Outside the Ivy League, admission trends are equally scary: Stanford accepted only 6.6 percent of its applicants, down from 7.1 percent a year ago.  Duke and Amherst each accepted only 11.9 percent of kids who applied. Northwestern accepted just 15.3 percent, and has seen the number of applicants double to 32,000 since 2005.  And on the West Coast, the University of California, Berkeley, saw a record number of applicants—61,661, up almost 10,000 from last year—and an admit rate of 19.5 percent, down from 25.7 percent.

“With more kids each applying to more schools, the colleges can be even more picky about the smallest credential,” said Michael Muska, the dean of college relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep (and my coauthor for Getting In!). “Although many schools say they are relying less on SAT or ACT scores, I’m seeing evidence that suggests just the opposite. Test scores count—a lot! At the same time, a kid with great SAT scores but without a ‘hook’ will have trouble getting into the most competitive colleges. You need both.”

The Curse of the Well-Rounded White Girl?

And why are “unhooked white girls” finding it especially tough? “Because there are so many high-achieving … girls who have studied hard, participated in all the right activities, and expected the top colleges to appreciate their efforts,” said Scott Farber, president and founder of A-List Education and a test-preparation and admissions expert. “Do they deserve to get in? Sure. Would they do well if admitted? Absolutely. But colleges are not looking for the well-rounded kid; they want the well-rounded class. And unless you are a superstar in some area, you’re just one of thousands of smart, all-around, but unhooked white girls. It may be unfair, but that’s life.”

Colleges Want to Be Loved, Too

Students at the very top of their class academically—with high SAT/ACT scores and a “hook” that sets them apart—are still in demand at the most selective colleges. But according to admissions officers across the country, once you drop a few slots on the selectivity ladder, a student’s well-considered desire to attend a particular school can make a difference in a college’s decision to accept the applicant. “We are seeing colleges really looking at whether kids are applying because it is a good fit or whether that college is the next-most-prestigious place they can get in,” said Pete Silberman, dean of the upper school at Los Angeles’s Harvard-Westlake. “Colleges want kids who really want them; where it is a good fit.”

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Conveying that sincere interest can be accomplished, said Poly Prep’s Muska, “through a well-written essay, an interview, and via the college counselor at the high school.”

“Part of the problem [with admissions] is that there are so many qualified applicants applying to the same colleges,” said Farber. “It is simple math: more applicants for the same number of seats means a lower percentage of accepted students. Many parents and students have a ‘bumper sticker’ mentality and only look at schools they know, rather than finding the best fit. The numbers out this week shouldn’t scare applicants; they should motivate them to broaden their horizons and expand their college search.”  

International Applicants Soar

Two trends that began to emerge in the last few years are now in full bloom: the nationalization of the applicant pool at many top schools, and the soaring number of international students. Jeremy Manier, news director at the University of Chicago, noted that many more of the record-number of applicants to the University of Chicago came from coasts. “California is now the largest source of students, not Illinois,” he said.

Brown admitted students from 80 different countries, with China edging out Canada as the largest source. At Princeton, international students represent 12 percent of the admitted class.

Colleges also boosted their outreach to “first-gen” students—recruiting those kids from homes in which the parents didn’t attend college, according to Anne Dwane, president of Zinch, a company that helps colleges connect with prospective applicants. “Diversity is not just about race,” she said, “it is increasingly about economic background; families of all ethnicities where kids are striving to do better than their immigrant parents.”

Who Will Students Choose?

Between now and May 1—when students and parents have to send in deposits to hold a space for the fall—the power-balance shifts from the admission committee to the admitted students. Colleges know that many kids have been accepted at more than one college, and want to maximize their “yield,” the percentage of admitted students who actually matriculate. Yield is both a major factor in “prestige” and hard to predict. Even highly selective schools such as Amherst know that only about 46 percent of the students admitted to their school will choose it.

And so, over the next month, students will get invited to campuses and regally entertained—in order to convince them to attend that particular college. And after May 1, colleges turn to the waitlist, a number most colleges keep top secret. But not all. Yale admitted that it has waitlisted 1,001 students, up from 996 last year. Of last year’s group, 103 made it off the waitlist and onto the New Haven campus.

20 Top Schools’ Admissions Stats for the Class of 2016

Applications, Class of 2016: 34,302
Acceptances: 2,032
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 5.9
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 6.2

Applications, Class of 2016: 36,631
Acceptances: 2,427
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 6.6
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 7.1

Applications, Class of 2016: 28,974
Acceptances: 1,975
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 6.8
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 7.4

Applications, Class of 2016: 31,851
Acceptances: 2,363
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 7.4
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 6.9

Applications, Class of 2016: 26,664
Acceptances: 2,095
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 7.9
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 8.4

Applications, Class of 2016: 28,742
Acceptances: 2,670
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 9.3
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 8.7

Applications, Class of 2016: 23,110
Acceptances: 2,180
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 9.4
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 9.7

Applications, Class of 2016: 31,610
Acceptances: 3,752
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 11.9
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 12.6

Applications, Class of 2016: 8,555
Acceptances: 1,020
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 11.9
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 12.8

University of Pennsylvania
Applications, Class of 2016: 31,216
Acceptances: 3,840
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 12.3
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 13.6

Applications, Class of 2016: 7,457
Acceptances: 956
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 12.8
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 13.6

University of Chicago
Applications, Class of 2016: 25,277
Acceptances: 3,344
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 13.2
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 16.3

Applications, Class of 2016: 32,065
Acceptances: 4,895
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 15.3
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 18.0

Applications, Class of 2016: 37,812
Acceptances: 6,123
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 16.2
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 18.0

Applications, Class of 2016: 20,100
Acceptances: 3,316
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 16.5
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 18.1

Applications, Class of 2016: 7,067
Acceptances: 1,182
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 16.7
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 17.1

Johns Hopkins
Applications, Class of 2016: 20,496
Acceptances: 3,628
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 17.7
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 18.3

University of Southern California
Applications, Class of 2016: 45,917
Acceptances: 8,358
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 18.2
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 23.0

UC Berkeley
Applications, Class of 2016: 61,661
Acceptances: 12,000
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 19.5
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 25.7

Applications, Class of 2016: 10,503
Acceptances: 2,073
Percent Accepted, Class of 2016: 19.7
Percent Accepted, Class of 2015: 23.3

Editor's Note: This article originally stated that Georgetown's acceptance rate for the class of 2015 was 12.9 percent, when in fact, it was 18.1 percent; it also incorrectly stated that the school had increased its acceptances in an attempt at produce a higher student yield. The text has since been corrected.