Highly-Selective College Admissions 101

March 3, 2021

It is quite normal for parents and teens to begin their college search without a great deal of a hard data. A top student might be “Blank College” material while a less accomplished teen may be better suited for “Blank State.” These intuitions may be based on the admissions landscape of a past generation, a hyper-localized and/or anecdotal understanding of what caliber of student gets in where, or simply a patchwork sense of the postsecondary hierarchy gleaned from news articles and teasers about rankings.

As they advance in the process, prospective high school students receive input from their guidance counselor and begin checking out college guides (like ours!) and free college data websites (like ours!) and a more nuanced, data-informed understanding starts to take shape. Suddenly, you begin to see that students with certain types of credentials may be very legitimate applicants for a highly-selective college, while others should be focusing on moderately-selective or less-selective institutions. However, when we are dealing with the most selective universities in the country, we need to be aware that were entering a world without any guarantees. Just because someone’s academic stats are “in the ballpark” does not, in any way, assure them admission into an Ivy or Ivy-equivalent school. In fact, the most competitive schools reject countless valedictorians and 1600-SAT scorers each year (more on this later).

The intention of this blog is to provide those beginning the search process a broad overview of highly-selective college admissions in 2021. To that aim, we will tackle the following topics:

  • What is a highly-selective college?
  • What acceptance rates at elite colleges can tell us
  • What acceptance rates do not tell us
  • An explanation of holistic admissions
  • Primary factors for admission into America’s most competitive colleges
  • Secondary factors for admission into America’s most competitive colleges

To begin, let’s break this monolithic “highly-selective” tier into more digestible parts.

What is a highly-selective college?

Picture “selectivity” on a continuum where some schools admit 5% of those apply, while some admit 95% of applicants. There is no official taxonomy for college selectivity, but since categorization can sometimes enhance understanding, we like to think of the nation’s top schools as being either a) Most-Selective or b) Extremely-Selective.

Most-Selective: In general, this is a college that accepts under 15% of all applicants, where accepted students typically place in the top 5% of their high school class and possess median SAT/ACT scores of 1450/32 or higher.

The Ivy League schools are all properly placed in this “most-selective” bucket. They are joined by large private institutions like Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, MIT, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Chicago as well as elite liberal arts schools like Swarthmore, Pomona, Williams, and Amherst.

Extremely-Selective: Again, speaking generally, this is a college that accepts between 15% and 30% of all applicants, where accepted students typically place in the top 10% of their high school class and possess median SAT/ACT scores of 1400/30 or higher.

Institutions in this tier of selectivity include private universities like Boston College, Boston University, Notre Dame, and NYU, or public flagships like UC-Berkeley, UVA, and the University of Michigan. Liberals arts schools like Wesleyan, Middlebury, and Vassar also fit best in this category.

A quick overview of “highly-selective” acceptance rates

Colleges in both the “most-selective” and “highly-selective” categories have one thing in common: their acceptance rates have plummeted over the past decade.

Acceptance rates for the Class of 2024 at elite U.S. colleges are remarkably low—often below, at, or approaching 10%. Schools like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton and Columbia are closer to 5%. It’s also critical to remember that among those who get accepted to a school like Stanford, for example, are hundreds of recruited athletes, legacy students whose parents also attended the university, and other “special” admits. This means that the acceptance for a non-athlete with no familial connections to the institution faces even poorer odds of acceptance than the overall rate indicates.

Even universities like Tulane University now have an 11% acceptance rate, less than half of what it was just four years ago. Northeastern University in Boston has seen their acceptance rate sliced in half in that same timeframe. Schools like Claremont McKenna, Bowdoin, Vanderbilt, Johns Hopkins, Rice, and Colby are all now at the 10% mark or lower. A generation ago, these schools had acceptance rates two to four times these current numbers—Johns Hopkins was around 40% at the turn of the millennium.

How acceptance rates can be misleading

Acceptance rates are helpful, but there are two ways in which they can be a bit misleading:

1) As mentioned previously, there are legacy students and recruited athletes who are given preference in the admissions process. Further, the Early Decision acceptance rate is often far higher than the Regular Decision acceptance rate. This means that you are at an advantage if you apply early in manner that is binding, something not everyone is prepared for or even financially able to do. One quick look at our Early Decision vs. Regular Decision Admission Rates Dataverse chart will hammer home this point.

If you are not a legacy, an athlete, or an ED applicant, your odds are likely less strong than the overall acceptance rate indicates.

2) A side-by-side comparison of two schools’ acceptance rates can tell you a lot, but not everything. One reason is because some schools tend to attract self-selecting applicant pools, while others attract a massive swarm of applicants with greatly varying credentials.

Arizona State has an 86% acceptance rate but the average freshman SAT score is above a 1230. There are many schools with identical acceptance rates where students sport average SATs 200 points lower.

San Diego State accepts 34% of applicants Macalester accepts a comparable 32%. Yet, an SDSU freshman possesses an average SAT of 1209, nearly 200 points lower than a first-year Macalester student. Next, let’s compare Macalester to a school with roughly one-third the rate of admission, Bowdoin College, which admits just 9% of applicants. The average SAT score for attending students at Mac is a 1402 and 1410 at Bowdoin—not much a difference. In short, the takeaway here is that an acceptance rate is not always wholly indicative of the academic profile of the average accepted freshman.

Holistic admission

Selective schools generally practice something called “holistic admissions” that attempts to view “the whole person” when deciding who is most qualified to be admitted.

Competitive schools care about a greater number of factors, including many “soft” factors that can surprise some unfamiliar with present-day college admissions including: extracurricular activities, including how students spend their summers during high school, demonstrating interest, essays, crafting a compelling story, and nebulous, hard-to-quantity items like character, personality, and talent/ability. In essence, competitive schools care about type of person you are, not just the type of student you are.

In a moment, we’ll cover some of these secondary factors that have an immense impact on the admissions process in more detail, but we’ll begin with the top tier of factors that applicants must first hurdle in order to even get a true, holistic look.

Highly-Selective College Admissions: Primary Factors

Excellent grades within rigorous courses

At any highly-selective university, the strength of your curriculum—that is, participation in the most rigorous coursework available to you (often AP or IB), is of the utmost importance. Your grades earned in those courses need to be extremely strong; in most cases, predominately ‘A’s.

SAT or ACT Scores

Most elite schools require the SAT or ACT and scores that are typically above the 95th percentile of all test takers. For example, Princeton’s mid-50% SAT range last year was 1470-1560, which is pretty standard amongst Ivy and Ivy-equivalent institutions. There are a growing number of elite test-optional schools—institutions that do not require the SAT or ACT—such as the University of Chicago, but the vast majority of accepted students there in 2020 still submitted standardized test scores as part of their application. While the pandemic caused most colleges to shift to a temporary test-optional model, many of those schools have reverted back to test-mandatory for the 2021-22 admissions cycle.

Class Rank

Class rank can also be a highly-valued measure of a student’s academic ability. If you look at the class rank data for the premier colleges you see that, at most schools, over 90% of the admitted students, sometimes as high as 97%, placed in the top 10% of their high school classes.

Having exceptional grades in a rigorous academic program and possessing extremely high standardized tests are necessary for admission at top-ranked colleges, but they are no longer, as they were a generation ago, sufficient. That brings us to the secondary factors that make an application review genuinely holistic and often serve as tie-breakers between students with near-identical academic profiles.

Highly-Selective College Admissions: Secondary Factors


Essays are one component of an application that are given far more weight in the American admissions system than in many others around the world. To give you an example, when applying to MIT, in addition to a 650-word Common App essay, you’ll complete two 100-word responses and three 250-word responses on topics such as “What you do for pleasure?” and “How you work to improve your community?” Columbia University wants to know a list of books you’ve read in and outside of the classroom, and the plays, concerts, and art exhibits you’ve visited. Students need to understand that while these seem like frivolous questions, they are actually one of the few opportunities to showcase who they really are and forge a personal connection with admission officer, even one who will never meet them face-to-face.

Demonstrating interest

Something called “demonstrating interest” in a prospective college is essential because admissions officers want to know if a given applicant is truly serious about attending their institution. While visiting a campus during COVID may not be possible, students need to show that they are serious in other ways such as emailing an admissions officer, connecting with a school over social media, seeking out an interview, and even by putting a great deal of research and thought into supplemental essays that essentially ask, “Why this college?

Extracurricular activities

When it comes to extracurricular activities, there is a myth that American colleges are seeking “well-rounded” students who fill every moment of their time outside of the classroom with an array of structured activities. The truth is that elite colleges are not concerned with whether an individual applicant is well-rounded but whether their freshmen class, collectively, is comprised of people with high levels of talent in one or two areas. For instance, someone who won a prestigious international math competition, someone who is one of the top violinists in their region, someone who published original scientific research, or someone who started a charitable organization that made a monumental impact on their community, or even on a nationwide or global scale.

College Transitions’ final thoughts  

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”-F. Scott Fitzgerald

Keep Fitzgerald’s quote in mind as you read the following statements, both of which are true:

1) Highly-selective college admissions has never been more cutthroat.

2) If you have solid grades and decent test scores, there are literally hundreds of high-quality colleges that you could gain admittance to.

Facts–some inspiring, some intimidating– about competitive college admissions to keep on mind as you begin your college search:

Inspiring Intimidating
  • A majority of colleges in the U.S. accept more than 50% of applicants.
  • Many well-regarded schools like George Mason, Drexel, Virginia Tech, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Arizona State have acceptance rates of 70% or higher.
  • 60% of colleges failed to meet their enrollment goals in 2020.
  • Harvard rejects 1 in 4 students with a perfect 1600 on the SAT.
  • Duke and Penn reject the majority of applicants who were valedictorian of their high school class.
  • Schools like Northeastern, USC, and BU that accepted the majority of applicants in the 1990s now let in less than 20%.