Is there a gender advantage in college admissions?
Countless mediocre-to-bad “comedic” films feature the storyline of a young man or woman posing as a member of the opposite sex in order to gain some level of competitive advantage. In Ladybugs (mediocre) to Juwanna Mann (bad), young men dress up as women in order to star at a sport. In the 80’s cult classic Just One of the Guys, a teen girl dresses up as a boy in order to enter the apparently ultra-competitive and absurdly sexist world of high school journalism. The canon of gender disguise comedies contains dozens more entries and, amazingly, only goes downhill from here (See the horrifically awful Amanda Bynes flop: She’s the Man).
Yet to be seen is the plot of a prospective college student pretending to be a member of the opposing sex in order to gain acceptance to an elite college. Given the wide disparity in admission rates along gender lines at many top schools, it seems only a matter of time until Channing Tatum is donning a wig and joining a sorority on the silver screen.
In the following blog we’ll reveal:
- The history and current landscape of gender splits in higher education
- Colleges where male applicants have an admissions edge
- Colleges where female applicants have an admission edge
- Gender admissions breakdowns of 700+ top colleges
First, let’s explore the current gender breakdown at U.S. colleges and universities.
The Widening Gender Gap
In 1979, women officially overtook men as the dominant sex on college campuses. In 2019, women made up 55% of the undergraduate population in the U.S. and 60% of the graduate school pool. Given that that the gender demographics of the United States have not changed — the latest census shows women making up 50.8% of the country and men 49.2% — this makes for a pretty fascinating phenomenon. While sociologists and other scholars debate the root causes of girls superior school performance, we’re only focused on one thing—what it means for admissions.
The Male Advantage
Naturally, the relative scarcity of qualified male applicants gives them a leg-up in admissions at many schools. School administrators generally strive toward a fairly even split of men and women on campus and worry that a 60/40 female-to-male ratio would turn off many prospective applicants. So congrats, high-achieving gents, you are the beneficiaries of your peers inferior academic performance.
Vassar is one of the elite institutions offering men a significant edge. Applicants to the Vassar class of 2022 were accepted at a 33% clip compared to just 21% for female applicants. Brown University has the greatest gender divide among Ivy League Universities—aspiring 2018-19 freshman women were granted access 6.5% of the time while men enjoyed a 9.4% success rate. William & Mary let “Williams” through the gates 43% of the time compared to a 34% mark for “Marys.” Other prestigious schools where men receive a slight admissions boost include (all statistics are from the 2018-19 academic year):
Male acceptance rate—9.2%
Female acceptance rate—6.6%
Male acceptance rate—10.7%
Female acceptance rate—8.7%
Male acceptance rate—18%
Female acceptance rate—15.6%
Generally speaking, gender-based advantages typically only occur at smaller liberal arts schools. Larger schools, even elite ones like UCLA or Berkeley, tend to hold the same, more statistically-based admissions standards across gender lines. In other words, schools of that ilk are looking purely at GPA and SAT scores, not whether the name on the applicant is Daniel or Danielle.
The Female Advantage
Worry not, young women—your admissions journey is not necessarily fated to be a harsh, uphill climb. If you have an interest and talent in anything to do with computers, engineering, or the hard sciences, then the tables turn completely.
Not surprisingly, many of the schools that favor female applicants have “Tech” in their name; Worcester Polytechnic Institute (53% v. 38%), Georgia Tech (29% v. 13%), and Caltech (12% v. 4%) all have a much higher acceptance rate for young women. MIT’s acceptance rate for women is more than double that of male applicants (10.9% v 4.9%).
Other top schools without the official “Tech” designation that grant favor to female applicants include Carnegie Mellon (24% v. 13%) and Harvey Mudd (24% v. 10%). Of course, all of these schools are known for their strengths in the same, and typically male-dominated areas of concentration mentioned above.
The Bottom Line
In general, men enjoy an advantage over women at many elite schools due to the greater quantity of qualified female applicants and institutional desires to keep some semblance of a balance of the sexes on campus. Young men looking for a backdoor into an elite college may benefit from targeting schools with a significantly higher admission rate for male applicants. Female applicants face greater scrutiny at many prestigious institutions but have the upper hand in just about all engineering, science, and IT-oriented programs.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).