College Coach

What We Learned From the 2016 Admissions Cycle

Now that colleges have released the bulk of their admissions decisions, and students are reconciling their application triumphs and defeats, it’s time to take a step back and assess the trends and surprises from this year’s admissions decisions. While not all of these findings are unique to the 2016 admissions cycle, they are noteworthy enough that all college bound students – especially those wrapping up their junior year – should pay careful attention. And if you count yourselves among the thousands of hapless seniors who didn’t earn a spot at your dream college, perhaps the rationales below will help explain why you were the recipient of a “thin envelope,” while your neighbor/best friend/classmate was not.

New Rule #1: There are no “sure things” anymore when it comes to safety schools. Overqualified students (quantified primarily by GPA and SAT/ACT) are routinely being waitlisted or denied at “no problem” colleges because the admissions committee feels doubtful these students are likely to enroll if accepted. When fewer admitted students choose to enroll, that college’s “yield” goes down, as does their perceived desirability. Given the weight of college rankings in publications such as US News and World Report, colleges are reluctant to admit students who didn’t demonstrate adequate interest in attending. Juniors, don’t be perceived as a “yield buster.” Visit your safety schools as well as your dream schools to prove your intentions are sincere. (You might even find the best school for you is one of your “safety schools.”)

New Rule #2: Did you hear the one about the student who was admitted to Yale and Columbia but denied at Stanford? Or who was waitlisted at Northwestern but accepted at Cornell? Admission to the most selective colleges is as unpredictable as ever. A student who is a phenomenal candidate for every program she applies to will stand out in some applicant pools but not others. Different schools…different pools. Juniors, as long as your final college list consists of a balanced mix of no problem, just right, and challenging schools, and you follow Rule #1, you will have plenty of options to choose from next year.

New Rule #3: Just because a student has top grades, flawless SATs/ACTs, and stellar essays doesn’t guarantee him a spot at an Ivy. A host of factors affect admissions outcomes, and students only have control over a portion of their completed application. Realize that even a “perfect” applicant might have something in their file – perhaps in a required letter of recommendation – that raises some kind of red flag to admissions officers. Juniors, don’t make assumptions about why an acquaintance was admitted to a particular school or not. Unless you’re physically sitting in an admissions committee, it’s impossible to know what aspects of that student’s application was deemed the most compelling.

New Rule #4: Although some say it couldn’t be done, the nation’s most elite colleges are becoming even more selective. All but one of the Ivies (Brown) saw a decrease in their overall acceptance rates this year. Other colleges that announced an increase in selectivity are Barnard College (16 percent from 19.5 percent); Stanford (4.7 percent from 5.1 percent); and Tufts (14 percent from 16 percent). Juniors, try not to get caught up in the hype surrounding the “name brand,” ultra-competitive colleges. There are hundreds of exceptional colleges that offer outstanding students a top-notch education…that aren’t next-to impossible to gain entry to.

New Rule #5: Domestic students aren’t the only ones feeling squeezed out by single digit acceptance rates. International applicants are facing increased competition, too. While some strong colleges still court well-qualified, full pay international students, other elite colleges – most notably the Ivies and their peers – are seeing soaring numbers of full-pay international applicants, making it even harder for those students to distinguish themselves in the international pool. Juniors, it’s impossible to know what a college’s institutional priorities are in any given year, so don’t obsess over factors (such as race, ethnicity, geographic diversity) you can’t control.

Looking ahead to the admissions season for the class of 2021, what trends do we anticipate? Despite the well-intentioned recommendations of Harvard’s “Turning the Tide Report,” don’t expect prestigious colleges to relax their admissions requirements any time soon. As colleges like Dartmouth, Princeton, and Yale continue to target and attract larger numbers of applicants, their acceptance rates will continue to plummet. Early decision applications will continue to gain an edge in the admissions process as colleges seek to lock in “sure bets,” while colleges will rely even heavier on waitlists for managing their unpredictable yields. It may sound daunting, but it is possible to embrace the college admissions process optimistically. Armed with a realistic college list, a strong organizational plan, and the support of your high school and family, your college admissions process can yield some pretty exciting results.

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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.