Acceptance rate: the be-all end-all?
When I was first applying to college, I used acceptance rates as shorthand for school quality. It seemed obvious to me that a better school would accept fewer people, and that schools with an acceptance rate above a certain arbitrary number simply weren’t worthy of consideration. This view was both elitist and limited. While a school’s acceptance rate does reveal certain things that might be relevant to a prospective student, it can obfuscate a number of important points.
What is it that one gains from looking at a school’s acceptance rate? At its most basic, the metric gives a prospective student a sense of how likely it is that they’ll be admitted. A school with an acceptance rate of 10% is, in the general case, twice as hard to get into than a school with an acceptance rate of 20%. That may be, but no single applicant represents the general case. Applying to a college isn’t simply rolling a die; the applicants themselves matter. A liberal arts college on the East Coast might have very few students from, say, Montana, and thus be very excited to receive a qualified application from that state, giving that applicant somewhat more consideration than a similar applicant from New York. Likewise, a highly selective school with a relatively weak computer science department might be more lenient on applicants applying to that program. While a school’s acceptance rate is certainly helpful in quickly evaluating one’s chances, it, by its very nature, provisional and generalizing.
Beyond that, acceptance rate is sometimes used to gain a sense of how smart a school’s student body is. At first, this approach seems intuitive: the harder the school is to get into, the higher its standards of admission must be. However, certain factors that have nothing to do with a student body’s intelligence can distort acceptance rates. The University of Chicago’s Class of 2013 had an acceptance rate of 26.8%, while its Class of 2017 had an acceptance rate of 8.8%. What changed? The number of applicants. 13,600 people applied to the Class of 2013; 30,396 applied to the Class of 2017. The school’s adoption of the Common App, along with its increase in profile and prestige, resulted in a greater number of applicants and a higher yield rate. It isn’t that the Class of 2017 is significantly smarter than the Class of 2013; it’s that a lot more people want to be a part of the Class of 2017 than wanted to be a part of the Class of 2013. A school with a highly intelligent student body might have a higher acceptance rate because of relative obscurity, or other barriers to admission.
Even if we do accept that acceptance rate reflects a student body’s intellect, there’s still a qualitative element that can’t be ignored. Schools can have relatively similar admissions rates, median SAT scores, GPAs, and still have vastly different intellectual climates. MIT and Harvard have similar, if not identical, admissions statistics, but no student at either school would say that they are culturally the same. This subjective understanding is only possible through hearing the accounts of current students.
Judging schools solely on their admissions numbers can cause one to overlook more relevant details. New York University had a 30% acceptance rate in 2013, twice that of the least-selective Ivy, Cornell. In the eyes of many students applying to selective universities, these numbers would condemn NYU to being safety school material at best. However, for a very specific kind of student, NYU might be the superior choice. NYU’s philosophy program is ranked by some as not only the best in the United States, but the best in the world. For a student intent on walking in the footsteps of Plato, Kant, and Wittgenstein, NYU might prove to be the best of all possible worlds. Second to NYU is Rutgers – New Brunswick, which has an even higher, 61%, acceptance rate. Acceptance rate fails to account for the quality of specific programs. Prospective students intent on specialization would be wise to do the requisite research into their field, rather than dismissing schools entirely based off admissions statistics alone.t
In addition to failing to accurately account for specific programs, acceptance rates can fail to accurately represent certain schools entirely. Take the oft-cited example of St. John’s College. St. John’s College has a rather unique curriculum, called the Great Books program, which heavily emphasizes the classic works of western literature, philosophy, science, and mathematics. St. John’s admits 82% of applicants. At first glance, one might assume that the school must have very lax admissions standards, or, in elitist terms, that its student body just isn’t very smart. That isn’t the case; according to the college’s website, the middle 50% of its students critical reading SAT scores range from 600-740, comparable to the ranges reported by schools with much lower admissions rates. St. John’s admissions rate is so high because its applicant pool is very self-selecting; the kind of student who is inclined to go to a school with a Great Books program also happens to be the kind of student who would prosper in such a program. Schools that are less well-known, and have highly specialized programs, will likely have higher acceptance rates, which don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the quality of their student bodies.