Top Students and the College Choice Process Paradox

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Michelle Kretzschmar of DIY College Rankings recently interviewed me about my experience with my oldest daughter’s college search.  You can read the interview here.  In the interview, I mentioned that a paradox exists for kids with great GPAs and test scores.  I want to talk a little more about that here.  I believe the paradox is that the more attractive a student looks on paper, the harder it can be to get into the colleges they are aiming for.  I am basing this on the record low acceptance rates reported at top colleges over the last several years.  It seems that it gets harder and harder each year to gain admission to these schools because more and more top students are applying.  What schools am I referring to?  Below is a list of 30 ultra-competitive colleges and there 2013 admission rates.  There are many other similar schools with slightly higher admission rates.

  • Stanford – 5.7%
  • Harvard – 5.8%
  • Yale – 6.7%
  • Columbia – 6.9%
  • Cal Tech – 6.9%
  • Princeton – 7.3%
  • MIT – 8.2%
  • University of Chicago – 8.8%
  • Brown – 9.2%
  • Dartmouth – 10.1%
  • Duke – 11.5%
  • Claremont McKenna – 11.7%
  • Vanderbilt – 11.9%
  • University of Pennsylvania – 12.1%
  • Pomona – 12.9%
  • Amherst – 13.6%
  • Northwestern – 13.9%
  • Swarthmore – 14%
  • Bowdoin – 14.5%
  • Pitzer – 14.6%
  • Washington University in St. Louis – 15.01%
  • Cornell – 15.2%
  • Rice – 16%
  • Georgetown – 16.6%
  • Hopkins – 16.8%
  • Williams – 16.9%
  • Tufts – 18.7%
  • Middlebury – 19.2%
  • USC – 19.6%
  • UCLA – 20.1%

There would be little argument that these 30 schools are among the most prestigious in the country.  They attract the brightest students.  The problem is, they attract way too many of them.  These days, even high school valedictorians are getting waitlisted and declined.  There is no “sure thing” based on a student’s GPA, ACT/SAT scores, number of AP credits, leadership positions held, impressive extracurricular activities and awards, and countless hours of community service hours.  Everyone else applying at these schools has these things too.

So What’s a Top Student to Do to Gain Admission?

The way I see it, there are two options.

1) A student can try to write a really impressive essay on the application for a handful of these schools or dozens more like them and hope one or more sends an offer or admission.  A fallback plan of one or more less competitive schools is necessary just in case he or she doesn’t make the cut on the ultra-competitive list.

2)  A student can change his or her mindset regarding what success looks like.  There are tons of great colleges out there that carry less prestige and have higher acceptance rates.  This includes small liberal arts colleges that are nationally recognized, flagship state universities, and lesser-known national and regional private universities that will offer a similar level of academic rigor as those listed above, either school-wide or through honors colleges and honors programs aimed at top students.  These schools may also offer top students substantial merit scholarships to lure them away from the ultra-competitive schools.

I agree that a top student should rarely be the smartest one in the room.  There are many more opportunities to learn and grow when you are surrounded by peers at an equal or higher level.  I do believe it is possible to achieve this balance beyond the ultra-competitive colleges.  It just takes a little more research into what the schools have to offer, looking beyond just a great name and reputation.

1 Comment

Chuck Self · June 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Wendy, I could not agree with your second suggestion more. What most parents of smart kids don’t realize is that you will be known in life by the last college from which you graduate. I went to the University of Minnesota for undergraduate. But when asked “Where did you go to school?,” I always reply that I went to the University of Chicago, from where I received my graduate degree. The financially and psychologically smart course for most students to take is to enroll in a good regional, small, liberal arts school at first and go for the prestigous university for graduate school.

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