the state of college admissions

What do college admission officers and high school counselors like to do for fun? Complete surveys, of course! In the spring of 2013, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) asked thousands of college and high school officials to share school-specific information about everything from graduation rates and enrollment trends to admission strategies and international education. Earlier this month, NACAC released the results of those surveys in the highly anticipated “2014 State of College Admission Report.” (OK, well, it was highly anticipated by me, at least!)

While parents and students of the Class of 2016 might be more infatuated with this past year’s admission statistics (and not those from 2013), please know that the results of NACAC’s 2014 report represent the most accurate and up-to-date compilation of national statistics surrounding the college admission landscape in the U.S. And while some of the findings were rather expected (colleges’ waitlist use, for example, is still going strong), you may be surprised by some of these stats. Read on to learn what the “State of College Admission” means for you!

High School Graduation

Remember when it seemed like all anyone could talk about was the insanely high number of students who were graduating from high school, and how that would translate into even more unpredictable admission decisions on the college side? Good news, folks. While competition for college admission is still fierce, we have passed that frenzied “all-time high.” An estimated 3.41 million students graduated high school in 2013 (down from 3.45 million in 2012), and a projected 3.39 million will graduate in 2024.

Applications to College

While most families (and the media) tend to focus on colleges that admit just a fraction of their applicants, the national picture is much brighter. Across all four-year institutions in the U.S., the national acceptance rate was 65 percent. But what about the hundreds of colleges that deny more applicants than they admit? In an attempt to improve their chances of acceptance at such highly selective schools, students are continuing to apply to a high numbers of colleges. Over 80 percent of students applied to three of more colleges, while nearly one-third of students submitted seven or more applications.

Admission Strategies

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to college waitlists. The bad: as colleges seek to become more selective (and improve their standing in popular rankings such as those published by US News & World Report), the waitlist is becoming an even more common tool in the admission process. Over 40 percent of colleges report using a waitlist, and 40 percent of schools also increased the number of students they placed on those waitlists. The good: because colleges utilize waitlists to help manage yield numbers (and determine which qualified applications have a sincere interest in attending), admission officials are increasingly turning to waitlists to fill up their freshmen class. On average, 30 percent of waitlisted students were admitted in 2013, compared to 25 percent in 2012.

If an admissions officer has ever told you that their acceptance rates for early and regular decision are nearly identical, keep this in mind. NACAC found that ED applicants had a 20 percent greater chance of acceptance when compared to the general applicant pool as a whole. That’s a pretty significant difference! On the other hand, there’s no real statistical advantage to applying early action. In 2013, the national EA acceptance rate was 67 percent, compared to 65 percent for all applicants.

Factors in the Admission Decision

While families may feel like much of the admission process is out of their control, think again. The four most important factors in the admission decision (grades in college prep courses, strength of curriculum, SAT/ACTs, and grades in all courses) can be influenced by highly motivated students. And for those students who are aiming for highly selective colleges, be aware that one third of such colleges rate the college application essay of “considerable importance” in the admission decision. That’s great news for the thousands of students we get to work with on an annual basis!

And about that new SAT. Many students are wondering if they should attempt to take the new SAT when it launches in the spring of 2016, of if they should concentrate on the tried and true ACT instead. If you opt to focus on the ACT, you’ll be in good company. More freshmen submitted ACT scores than SAT scores in 2013, and the gap between the two exams (now at 5 percentage points) will likely continue to grow.

School Counselors

We all know that high school guidance counselors are an incredibly dedicated, overworked, and often underpaid group of professionals. But just how overworked are they? According to NACAC, the national student to guidance counselor ratio is a whopping 351:1. But in some states, notably in Arizona and California, the ratio is even more skewed, where 863 and 818 students, respectively, are assigned to a single guidance counselor. (College Coach’s student to expert ratio is 27:1, meaning that all students are ensured to receive the time and attention they need!)

International Education

Have you ever imagined what it might be like to attend college abroad? If so, you’re not alone. The number of US students enrolling in foreign colleges is growing, especially in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. While it’s wonderful that over 46,000 US students are broadening their horizons overseas, approximately 80 percent of high school counselors feel “not at all” or “slightly” unprepared to offer admission or financial aid advice to students pursuing international opportunities. Here at College Coach, our experts have successfully supported students’ applications to McGill University, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the University of St. Andrews, and more.

Trends to Watch

So now that we all have a solid grasp of the college admission landscape for 2013, what can we expect moving forward?

  • While the number of high school grads is stabilizing, it’s unlikely that the college application process will become significantly less stressful in the near future. Colleges’ early decision and early action policies will continue to push the conversation about college applications even earlier in high school, only adding to the frenzy of the culture surrounding college admission.
  • Despite the proposed changes to the 2016 SAT, it’s likely that an increasing number of colleges will simply do away with standardized testing requirements. Prepare to see the number of “test optional” colleges continue to rise.
  • Finally, supplemental application essays will begin to play an increasingly important role in admission decision, especially at smaller and more selective schools. While many colleges are reducing their writing requirements (essentially making it easier for larger numbers of students to apply), more schools will see the value of attracting fewer overall applications, especially if it means that those who do apply have a more sincere interest in attending.

Can’t get enough of admission statistics? The 2015 State of College Admission report should be released in less than 12 months! Until then, perhaps our other blog and Facebook posts will give you additional food for thought.

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Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. 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. Visit our website to learn more about Elyse Krantz.