College acceptance rates are a trap. Here’s why you should ignore them.

By Maxine Seya

Harvard boasted a 3.4% acceptance rate this year.

Vanderbilt accepted just 6.7%.

Northwestern 6.8%.

It goes on and on and on.

Colleges love publishing these numbers to brag about how selective they are, how popular they are, and how special they are in the eyes of their applicants.

On the flipside, applicants hate acceptance rates because the low numbers make them overthink the competition and just how much smarter, better, more accomplished, and more attractive the other candidates can be.

But the truth is that acceptance rates are like traps: They give applicants a false illusion about their admissibility or lack of admissibility into a school.

Before I explain that, let’s cover the basics.

What is an acceptance rate?

An acceptance rate is the percentage of applicants that received an offer of admission to a university.

Synonyms for acceptance rate include “admit rate,” “admission rate,” “percentage admitted,” and “admit percent,” among others.

Why do acceptance rates even exist?

Low acceptance rates can help colleges earn higher rankings on publications like U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, or Wall Street Journal.

If you’ve ever heard someone say something like “My friend Dan graduated from a Top 10 school,” that person is likely referring to the U.S. News & World Report college ranking.

Selectivity made up 7% of the 2019 methodology.

Reputation made up 20%.

“Reputation” is just a peer survey from other schools, so it’s likely that a college’s exclusivity is considered because humans covet things that are hard-to-get.

Why are acceptance rates traps?

The problem with acceptance rates is how applicants apply them to their own situations.

I often hear applicants say something like, “Well, Northwestern has a 6.8% acceptance rate, so there’s a 97.2% chance I won’t get in.”

Parents might tell their teens to rethink applying to a school like, say, UCLA, because “you only have a 14% shot of getting in.”

A Modern-Day Analogy

This type of thinking is wrong. It’s like saying “New York has a 50% Covid positivity rate and I live in New York, so I have a 50% chance of getting Covid.”

Every individual’s percentage likelihood of contracting Covid varies based on their age, health conditions, geographic location, personal habits, biology, workplace norms, means of transportation, income, housing situation, etc.

Sally vs Fred

Sally might take public transportation to work in an elementary school and come home to live with 4 other roommates who also take public transportation to work in restaurants. She might only be 29 years old with no pre-existing health conditions, but her exposure to Covid might give her a 50% likelihood of contracting the virus.

On the other hand, Fred, 55 and with hypertension, might own a car, live alone, work remotely permanently as a software engineer, and have the income to get groceries delivered to his front door. He doesn’t leave the house except to go for a walk in the woods where he lives.

His likelihood of contracting the virus? Perhaps less than Sally’s.

So in the same way, not every applicant to Vanderbilt has a 6.7% chance of getting in.

Take Candidate A:

  • 1.9 GPA
  • no extracurriculars
  • lukewarm letters of recommendation
  • essay that answered “Why UMich” instead of “Why Vanderbilt”

They applied on a whim and might have a 1% chance.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.