Should You Pay Attention to College Acceptance Rates?

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Colleges of Distinction »

If you’re applying to college, you’ve likely come across the college acceptance rate statistic. You might also wonder why people make such a big fuss about this number. A school’s acceptance rate is just another number used in traditional ranking methodology, but its significance has been wildly overestimated. So, should you pay attention to college acceptance rates during your college search? We don’t think so, and we’ll tell you why. 

First, what is a college acceptance rate? 

In simple terms, it is the rate at which a given school accepts applicants. It’s the percentage of students that a school admits to their incoming class based on the total number of students that applied. This number is calculated by dividing the number of accepted students by the total number of applications.

Two colleges can admit the same number of students but have completely different acceptance rates. Uh, what? Look at it this way: this year, Harvard accepted 2,056 out of 39,506 applications.Thus, 2,056 ÷ 39,506 = 5.2% acceptance rate. But if another school also accepted 2,056 students, but the number of applications they received was smaller, their acceptance rate would be higher. 

Let’s test it. So, Mystery College received half of the amount of applications as Harvard but accepted the same number of students. 2,056 accepted students divided by 19,753 total applications = 10.4%. That’s still a low number, but it is double Harvard’s rate. And the only thing that changed was the number of applications. So why do some schools get more or fewer applications than other schools? 

Factors that contribute to application numbers: 

Prestige: The more prestigious a school seems, the greater desire to attend. This is why Ivy League schools receive more applications than some lesser-known schools. 

Pull factors: (lower tuition, popular sports programs, etc): Schools with a certain level of notoriety will always attract a high volume of applications. Whether it’s a propensity for generous financial aid, or a party school reputation, different schools will attract more applicants than others. 

Size: Smaller schools that do not fit in the above two categories can still achieve low acceptance rates. How? Well, they have fewer spots to fill. So while they might not be attracting as many applications as the Ivies and “party schools,” they still achieve a lower rate because they’re working with smaller numbers all around. Let’s scale Harvard’s numbers to reflect a smaller school: 200 accepted students divided by 3,900 total applications = 5.1%. Just like Harvard. 

Okay, that was a lot of math for this former English Lit major to write, but you get the idea. There are so many factors that contribute to the numbers used in the acceptance rate equation. So why do we pay attention to them? Should you? 

What an acceptance rate really means:

The significance of acceptance rates is due, in large part, to the frenzy of college rankings. A household name in college admissions, the U.S. News and World Report has long been considered the biggest perpetrator of numbers-based ranking. The magazine has since removed acceptance rates from its ranking methodology, but it continues to compile college lists centered around the statistic. These lists create a false equivalency between selectivity and quality. 

A college’s acceptance rate says very little about the quality of the programming, resources, community, and experiences a student will find there. All this statistic shows is how many students are admitted. A “selective” college is not better simply because it is selective. It just means that they don’t admit as many students as another school. 

Why should you ignore it? 

You don’t have to ignore statistics completely, but it’s important to think critically about what they really mean. If understanding a school’s selectivity will give you a realistic perspective about your chances of admission, then that’s great. However, like most statistics that influence rankings lists, a college’s acceptance rate rarely conveys the true quality of a school. 

What’s worse is that acceptance rates can be, and often are, manipulated so a school can rank higher. “Top-tier” schools have been caught red-handed deliberately mishandling data, such as application numbers or SAT scores in order to lower their acceptance rates. That’s not to say that every school deliberately misreports data. Or that all stats are entirely unuseful. Rather, we think it’s more important to understand that there’s more to a school than just its numbers. 

What to look at instead: 

At Colleges of Distinction, we’ve been looking beyond the numbers for over 20 years. We know that the true value of a college isn’t found in statistics. It’s found in the people, experiences, and opportunities. So instead of worrying about how selective a college is, think about whether it will be a good fit for you. Figure out what you’re really looking for in a college experience. Consider your academic and career goals. Imagine the kind of connections you want to make. You’d be hard pressed to find all that you’re looking for based on just a low acceptance rate. 

Rather than focusing too much on statistics, try a more organic approach. Look at the programs a school offers to see if you’ll be challenged academically. Research professors to get a sense of who will be guiding you. Look at the clubs and organizations on campus to imagine the different ways you can get involved on campus. Take a virtual or in-person campus tour to really get a feel for the campus. Better yet, get insight directly from current students

Bottom line:

Statistics, like acceptance rates, can give you a sense of what your chances for admission are, but they aren’t everything. Don’t lose sleep over one number; you have enough things to worry about when it comes to college applications. Focus on doing your best in class, getting stellar recommendation letters, and finding a school where you will really thrive. At the end of the day, no number can quantify your happiness and success in college. To find the right fit for you, check out our list of schools that we know are committed to helping you learn, grow, and succeed.