How “Hard” is it to Get Top College Admissions?

Packaging yourself for college is a challenge to navigate especially when you are dealing with “top college admissions”. The phrase itself is subjective and hard to understand.

I’m often asked  “What is the “hardest” college to get into?

“Hardest” is “hard” to define. As a professional college consultant, there are three measures of tough admissions: Admission Rate, Selectivity, and Admission Requirements.

Admission rate is simply the ratio of those admitted vs. those who applied. Many people apply to high profile colleges on a hope and a prayer, which can drive this ratio down. Although Stanford usually has one of the lowest admissions rates, College of the Ozarks also appears frequently near the top of the list with a very low admissions rate – because it is free.

Selectivity is a function of how many of the highly qualified students are actually accepted. The Service Academies and institutions like Curtis College of Music, Webb Institute (Naval Engineering) and other niche institutions may have higher relative acceptance rates because the applicant pool had already been culled due to the high admissions standards just to be considered.

This brings me to the next factor, Admission Requirements. Most colleges post their admission requirements on their websites. Ironically, Stanford doesn’t, so they get more than their share of “hope and prayer” applications (perhaps this is by design to drive down the rate). Service Academies have a rigorous vetting process on top of very specific physical, academic, activity, leadership, and character requirements, making their admission requirements quite high, but a higher percentage of those who make the qualified applicant pool are admitted, so admission rate is not as valid a measure of “hard to get into” as selectivity for those type of institutions.

Another hidden factor – something many competitive colleges will deny on a stack of bibles – is Means Testing. Means Testing is simple – “can the student’s family pay retail?” Many high profile and expensive colleges are likely to admit a fully qualified student who can pay the full freight over students who have, perhaps, higher scores, better class rank (even from the same high school), better resume, etc., but would need financial aid from the college to attend. A corollary to this is family profile. Family profile and its influence is a factor. At the service academies there are many legacy applicants whose father (or mother), grandfather, etc., are graduates. Also, if a parent is a general, an admiral, or a Senator doesn’t hurt.

This goes all the way up to the Oval Office. Although I think Malia Obama would have been admitted to Harvard in her own merits, having daddy as the leader of the free world and an alumni didn’t hurt. Plus – he will pay full freight – which is not a factor at Harvard because they don’t do means testing.

So “Hard,” “Harder,” and “Hardest” are relative terms based on student qualifications, institution admissions requirements, and other factors the institution considers (known and unknown).

I’ll close with this. I was talking with a parent about a student we worked with who received a volleyball scholarship to Wake Forest.  I was asked, “Is it hard to get into Wake Forest?”  I replied “Not if you are a 6’ 3” outside hitter.”  I guess you have to know volleyball to understand that, but the young lady was an outstanding athlete and, at 6’ 3” could dominate the game.  She also was an outstanding student who graduated high school a year and a half early – entering Wake Forest in what would have been the spring of her high school junior year – and she made the Dean’s List her first semester.

If you work hard and do the right things that make you attractive to colleges, it is likely not going to be “hard.”  If you haven’t worked hard and haven’t done the right things, it is going to be very hard, and in many cases, it is going to be impossible.

“Hard” is relative.

Dr. Beasley

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