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What’s new in U.S. university admissions, and is it still possible to get into my dream school?

Updated: May 21

Ever-decreasing acceptance rates for university admissions are making national news year after year, but what does that really mean for someone getting ready to apply? We break down the trends you need to know about below.



 

  • Acceptance rates keep setting records. Since the pandemic, the number of applicants to the 71 most highly selective schools has risen 35% (nearly 2 million students applied to these schools this past year). For example, Yale recorded 57,465 applications and the admissions rate dropped to its lowest ever, 3.7%. “But,” you may be thinking, “it’s Yale – what do you expect?” The most important thing to consider is not be the record low acceptance rates of Ivies like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc. Rather, it is first, that universities like Duke and Johns Hopkins are now accepting only 5-6% and, second, not only top-20 institutions like Rice, Washington University-St Louis, and UCLA, but also top-40 institutions in trendy locations like University of Southern California, Tufts, NYU, and Northeastern are only accepting 7-10% these days!

  • Demand for selective, “capped” majors rises. A significant trend we’ve observed in recent admissions cycles is the concentration of competition in a few popular majors associated with high future salaries, overheating the competition for these majors as they become “limited enrollment” (a student must be admitted to that major at the time of admission or face low odds of transferring into it). Even if a university’s overall acceptance rate is relatively high, the actual acceptance rate for Business, Engineering, or Computer Science fields might be close to Ivy League levels. As an example, the University of Washington in Seattle usually has an admissions rate of 30-40%, but the admission rate for their Computer Science program is around 3%! Institutions like the University of Texas – Austin and the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign also exemplify this dynamic in all the fields named above. Even some universities commonly thought of as more moderately competitive, such as Rutgers University, University of Maryland, or the University of Massachusetts Amherst are in various stages of becoming highly competitive specifically for Computer Science. 

 

So, who is getting in?

 

  • Academic standards remain high, and standardized testing is coming back. High grades within a rigorous curriculum and high standardized test scores remain a major factor, especially in admissions to highly selective schools. For example, the average SAT at places like the Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, MIT, and Harvey Mudd ranges from 1510-1540 out of 1600 (meaning that half of accepted students score above this), the middle 50% of ACT scores for Princeton admits is 34-35 out of 36, and 95% of accepted students at Yale were ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. True, some top universities like University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan are still not requiring standardized testing for the next cycle, however, with a patchwork of universities like Harvard, CalTech, Yale, University of Texas at Austin, and Dartmouth bringing back standardized testing requirements (and others like Georgetown and the University of Florida never having fully dropped them), students are well advised to prepare to ace standardized tests so that they can make the nimble selections about their targeted universities list that the current competitive environment requires.

  • Extracurricular activities must be meaningful, not just numerous. It is in this area that we see the most change over a five-year span. While grades and scores have always been important, with the increase in applications from highly qualified applicants, students now face even more pressure to craft distinctive application profiles. Especially at many highly selective schools, simply participating in a lot of extracurricular and service activities is not sufficient anymore; colleges are now, more than ever, looking for enterprising originality, demonstrated excellence, and/or leadership in students’ activities: while competition wins are always great, they also want to see a record of self-motivated achievement and impact through research, social action, and work experience extracurriculars. Moreover, they also want to see that the activities have had on a deep impact on the student, not just the student on the activity! This means that the importance of the “resume” now goes way beyond filling the ten boxes giving on Common App for “activities” and the five for “academic honors.” Students’ essays (personal and supplemental) and interviews (where relevant) are now complex meaning-making tasks to provide not just the “why?” but also the “so what?” motivating their achievements and demonstrating their ability to reflect on their impact. 

 

To get into a top university, keep up your top academic performance but also look within yourself to find your personal mission: identify a social problem, a scholarly question, or an area of action that matters deeply to your most authentic self. Really make a difference, and be able to tell admissions committees why it all matters – not just to the world, but to you!



 

The socio-political landscape of American university admissions is changing. Since the Supreme Court ruled in June 2023 to ban race-conscious admissions, colleges and universities across the U.S. have responded to this decision in their own ways to still try to diversify their student bodies. As a response, many schools also are now scrutinizing their legacy admissions preferences and policies, with more schools joining ones like MIT to remove legacy admissions altogether – with Johns Hopkins University, Amherst College, and Wesleyan University as leaders in this trend. Moreover, the diversity of applicant pools continues to expand. According to the Common App, there has been a 67% rise in first-year domestic applicants who identity as underrepresented minorities and/or first-generation students since the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. In the same period, there has been a phenomenal 87% rise in international applicants. With all these changes, the road map to an acceptance letter has become less predictable.

 

In conclusion, it’s certain that changes in institutional priorities, admissions policies, and applicant pools all contribute to one overall effect: continued ramping up of competition, not only for top-10 universities and liberal arts colleges, but all throughout the top 50+ public and private institutions. However, we have good news: by taking our advice above and finding your academic motivation as well as identifying and starting to enact your personal mission early, you will not only end up with a pile of top acceptance letters – you will also streamline your time and dedication into activities that are deeply meaningful to you!


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