Using College Admissions Statistics to Your Advantage

There are a dozen websites I regularly recommend to college-bound students and their parents, including the College Board’s BigFuture for college searches, for a list of colleges that don’t require the SAT/ACT, and the Princeton Review for student descriptions of campus life. But there’s another source of information for families to learn about the fascinating world of college admissions. It’s called the Common Data Set (CDS). And although this collection of data requires a bit more digging to unearth, once inside CDS, you will find a veritable treasure trove of information, chock full of minute details and big picture data you never knew existed.

CDS is used by nearly every accredited four-year college in the United States. It’s generally compiled by researchers and analysts within a college’s Office of Institutional Research (more on this later) and is updated annually. As most colleges publish their CDS reports from both current and past years on their websites, it’s easy to click through years of admissions statistics to find the specific answer or overarching trends you’re looking for.

How can I find a college’s CDS?

The fastest method is to use your favorite internet search tool and enter “common data set X” (where X = the name of the college you’re researching). You might also have luck searching for “office of institutional research X” and then, once you’re on the website for the Office of Institutional Research, look for links that mention Common Data Set. CDS reports are traditionally organized by year, and keep in mind that admissions cycles mirror academic school years. Therefore, the most up-to-date CDS report (as of the time of this publication) will include data from the 2017-18 admissions year.

What does a CDS look like?

Here is a screen shot of the first page of the 2017-18 CDS for Ohio State University.

common data 1

What should I look for on the CDS?

Perhaps the better question is, what would you like to learn more about? The following admissions statistics can all be found on the CDS. (The numbers in parentheses correspond to the row in the CDS report where that information can be located.)

  • Total number of both undergraduate and graduate students (B1)
  • Racial/ethnic diversity on campus (B2)
  • First year acceptance rate, broken down by male and female applicants (C1)
  • Number of students placed on (and later admitted from) the waitlist (C2)
  • Required and recommended number of academic classes applicants must take in high school (C5)
  • Importance of factors like class rank, test scores, alumni relation, and demonstrated interest, in admissions decisions (C7)
  • Middle 50% of SAT/ACT scores for admitted students (C8A)
  • Acceptance rates for Early Decision (C21) and Early Action (C22) students
  • Acceptance rate for transfer students (D2)
  • Student life, including percentage of students who are from out-of-state, involved in Greek life, or who live off campus (F1)
  • Average need-based financial aid package, broken down by grants, self-help, and loans (H2)
  • Average merit-based scholarship package (H2A)
  • Most popular degrees/majors (J1)

And there’s more! A complete CDS report is 25 pages long, and contains information on dozens of data points.

How can I use CDS to my advantage?

Is your student planning to apply to college using an Early Decision (ED) or Early Action (EA) plan? Looking at CDS data from the most recent admissions cycle won’t predict your student’s chances of admission, but simply knowing what the ED and EA acceptance rates have been (and how they compare to the overall acceptance rate) can offer you some additional insights. For example, CDS reports from the past five years show an interesting trend at Middlebury College.

common data 2

While the total acceptance rate has remained relatively stable, the acceptance rate for ED applicants has increased dramatically. Middlebury will only admit well-qualified students, whether they apply early or regular decision. However, the numbers above clearly reflect that students who apply ED do have a statistically greater chance of admission than those who apply in the regular pool.

In what other ways can CDS data be helpful?

Every spring we are inundated with questions about students’ chances of being accepted off of a waitlist. While waitlist acceptances can vary greatly from year to year, historical CDS reports can provide students a realistic picture of their likelihood of admission. Consider the numbers below from Stanford University.

common data 3

Hundreds of students are offered a spot on Stanford’s waitlist every year, and yet only a fraction of them are ultimately admitted. Many factors come into play as admissions officers determine which students (if any) will be offered admission from the waitlist, but seeing one’s odds in black and white may help a student emotionally move on and focus instead on the positive results they did receive.

What should I do if I can’t find a college’s CDS?

Some colleges may not publish their CDS reports or, if they do, elect to withhold some of the statistical data points contained therein. For example, while Harvard circulates their overall acceptance rates, they specifically omit details about their early action and waitlist statistics. It’s possible you’ll find some of these numbers on other websites (such as BigFuture or USNews), but at other times it may be impossible to find those statistics online.

Common Data Set reports aren’t a crystal ball, nor do they answer every question about college admissions (e.g. what is the acceptance rate for students applying as computer science majors at X University?). But by examining CDS facts, students can gain valuable information and clarity in what’s often considered to be a confusing and less-than-transparent process.


Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College.