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Understanding College Selectivity

Student in front of admissions building

If you believe the news, it's tougher than ever to get into college. Rest assured, you should take these stories with several large grains of salt.

College selectivity is a measure of how difficult it is for students to get admitted. Much of the anxiety about "getting in" comes from students who are applying to a few colleges that admit few students.

A Selective College Is Simply a College That Does Not Admit Everyone

Selectivity is measured by the percentage of students who are admitted. The lower the percentage, the more selective the school is. Essentially, most colleges are selective to some degree. A small group of highly selective schools admits less than a third of applicants.

Most Colleges Admit Most of Their Applicants

Your chances at the vast majority of colleges may actually be quite promising. Most colleges accept more than half of their applicants. The average acceptance rate for all four-year colleges in the U.S. is about 66 percent (or two thirds of applicants), according to a 2017 report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

The Headlines Are About a Small Number of Highly Selective Colleges

Out of the some 2,000 accredited four-year colleges featured on CollegeData, only about 50 of them routinely admit fewer than 30 percent of applicants. If your heart is set on one of these colleges, it is a good idea to include some well-researched backup schools on your college list. You may very well be attending one of them.

Colleges Can Be Selective in Other Ways

Selectivity isn't always based on the admission rate. It sometimes depends on other factors.

  • If your grades and test scores fall below the average qualifications of admitted students, that school will be more difficult for you to get into.
  • Applying to a public college out of state may lower your chances. Such colleges give preference to state residents and sometimes to applicants from neighboring states.

Applying to Selective Colleges Doesn't Have to Lead to Tragedy

You may want to try your luck with some highly selective colleges. But you should be fully prepared to receive letters that begin: "We are sorry to inform you..." If you also apply to selective colleges for which you are a good fit, however, you are likely to get more than a few letters that begin: "Congratulations!"

What's Next?

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 for any four-year college using College Match. You can also use College Match to search for colleges by their level of selectivity.

The College Chances Calculator looks at additional 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 students who were accepted to the same colleges you are considering.

The information contained on the CollegeData website is for general informational purposes only and may not apply to you or your situation. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of any content contained on the CollegeData website without consulting with your parents, high school counselors, admissions representatives or other college counseling professionals. We disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on any content on the CollegeData website.