If you read the news about college admissions, it may seem like it's tougher than ever to get into college—that colleges are getting more "selective." If these stories make you anxious, rest assured, you should take them with several large grains of salt. Let's separate fact from hype.
You may be wondering if you should put a few "selective" colleges on your list. Your counselor may be urging you to apply to a group of colleges that represents a range of "selectivity." But what does college selectivity actually mean?
What Is Selectivity?
College selectivity is the "application-to-admit ratio," or the number of students admitted compared to the number of students who applied. In other words, it is a percentage, such as 34 percent admitted. The lower the percentage, the more selective the school is. The degree of selectivity at a school can change from year to year, depending on the number of students applying for admission and the number of slots the college has available.
Are Selective Colleges Hard to Get Into?
Most colleges are selective, meaning they don't admit everyone who applies. But in fact, most colleges admit over half of their applicants and many admit even more. The average acceptance rate across all four-year colleges in the U.S. is approximately 63.8 percent, according to a 2012 report published by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. So, your chances at the vast majority of colleges may actually be quite promising.
What About Highly Selective Colleges?
When people say a college is "selective," often they are referring to a group of "highly selective" schools that admit less than a third of their applicants. This group is small. Out of some 2,000 accredited four-year colleges featured on CollegeData, only about 55 colleges routinely admit fewer than 30 percent of applicants. Admissions at these schools has become slightly more competitive because more students are applying to them. This is due in part to the ease of applying through services such as the Common Application.
You may be eligible for admission to highly selective colleges if you have a high grade point average, numerous Advanced Placement or other honors classes, and top standardized test scores. But it's one thing to be eligible and another thing to get admitted. Space is so limited at these schools that they turn away thousands of exceptionally talented students each year.
Your chances may improve if the rest of your application supports your outstanding qualifications with glowing recommendations, compelling essays, and evidence of strong extracurricular commitments. They may improve if you have a quality, such as a particular talent, that the college believes will contribute to its college community.
But in the end, your chance of admission to a highly selective college is always a "maybe," no matter how stellar your qualifications. If your heart is set on one of these elite colleges, it is a good idea to include some well-researched backup schools on your college list. You may very well wind up attending one of them.
Selectivity at Public Institutions
Students applying to an out-of-state public college may find that admission is more selective for them. Public state colleges normally give preference to students from within the state, even over applicants with stronger qualifications from outside the state. At highly selective public institutions—such as the University of Virginia or the University of California—competition for admission as a resident is intense, but for nonresidents it is particularly fierce. Some public colleges give applicants from neighboring states more favorable treatment. Check with the college to see if you qualify.
Selectivity Also Depends on You
There is another way to look at college selectivity. If your grades and test scores fall below the average qualifications of admitted students at a particular college, that school will probably be more selective for you—in other words, more difficult for you to get into. Plus, it may be more difficult to handle academically once you are enrolled. Such a college may not be a good match for you.
Gauging Your Chances
To get an idea of how selective a college might be for you, compare your GPA, test scores, and other qualifications with those of admitted students. You can find this information on CollegeData using the College Match search tool. Each college profile on CollegeData reports the average GPA, SAT and ACT scores, and class rank of freshmen recently enrolled in the college.
The College Chances calculator looks at this data and other factors, such as the relative weight the college places on different types of qualifications, to quickly estimate your chances of admission at any four-year college.
The Admissions Tracker shows you the academic scores and backgrounds of the students who were accepted to the same colleges you are considering.
Many students believe that applying to college means many disappointing rejections. If you apply entirely to highly selective colleges, this may in fact be the case. But if you apply to a healthy number of less selective colleges for which you are an excellent fit, you are likely to be rewarded with plenty of letters that begin with "Congratulations!"