Estrela Consulting Blog

Understanding Selective College Admissions: Data Insights and Reality

Jamie Kirby September 05, 2023

Note: This is a companion piece to our recent Estrela Webinar Series: "Understanding Highly Selective Admissions". You can find the recordings of Part 1 and Part 2 of these webinars using the links embedded here. Enjoy!


What does it take to get into a highly selective college?  There is more to it than just your GPA, test scores, and activities.  This 3-part series will explore what goes on behind the scenes and some tips and strategies to make your application as strong as possible.

Over the last several years, there has been a continued increase in the number of applications to highly selective schools, resulting in a decrease in acceptance rates.  Let’s take a look at some examples:


2020-2021 Acceptance Rate

Acceptance Rate

Acceptance Rate

Northeastern University




Boston University




Tufts University




We can examine Tufts a little further.  They have had a 50% increase in applications since the pandemic.  In the 2022-2023 cycle, they received over 34,000 applications for 1,800 spots!  That included both their largest Early Decision pool yet, and their largest engineering pool ever.

Tufts is not unique; highly selective schools across the country are seeing similar trends.  Why are applications increasing so much?  A few reasons:

  • Test optional policies have removed a “barrier” to applying.  Students who have strong GPA’s and extracurricular activities, but low test scores, may not have applied in the past, feeling like their test scores were going to prevent them from being admitted.  They are now more likely to submit an application knowing they can choose test optional.
  • The lower the acceptance rate, the more students want to attend.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Lower acceptance rates give the perception of prestige, which makes more students apply, which then makes the acceptance rate even lower the next year…it’s a vicious cycle!

  • A fixation on colleges at the top of the rankings.  Students are submitting multiple applications to highly-selective colleges hoping to get into one of them (which is not the best strategy when it comes to building your list!)

Behind the scenes in the admissions office, decisions are not an easy or straightforward process.  Students are applying to multiple colleges, and admissions offices know that not everyone they accept will decide to attend.  Yet they are trying to hit specific numbers.  If too few students that they accept decide to enroll, they lose revenue; if too many students enroll, they are faced with not having enough housing.  Enrollment management is the key word.  They use sophisticated algorithms based on past data to determine yield (how many admitted students are likely to attend).

Sometimes you hear about a student who sounds like a great candidate for admission to one of their target schools, but wasn’t accepted.  They may have been hit by “yield protection”.  The admissions office has reason to think that the student isn’t likely to attend; maybe they’ve never visited campus or interacted with an admissions rep, or their “why us” essay is generic and doesn’t really show any knowledge of the school or programs. 

In addition to enrollment management, admissions offices must consider institutional priorities - characteristics that the college is looking to fulfill or emphasize when building the incoming class.  Read more about institutional priorities in Part II!

Despite some of these scary-looking acceptance numbers, I also want to give you a positive reality check.  For the past 20 years, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges has not dropped below 63%.  Take a look at this data from the Fall 2021 application cycle:

From the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admissions Report (May 2023)

The vast majority of colleges out there have reasonable acceptance rates.  Yet colleges in the 30% or under acceptance range are receiving significantly more applications than colleges in the 31% or higher range, which has created a hyper-focus on those schools.

Part III of our blog series will give you some tips and tricks for your application to highly selective schools, so stay tuned for more.  But if I can leave you with one piece of advice today, it is this:  

Build a balanced list.  

More importantly, build a balanced list of colleges that you like and would be happy to attend.  

Don’t add target and likely schools to your list that you aren’t happy about, just because you know you should have a couple on there.  Remember that colleges with an acceptance rate below 15-20% are wildcards (lottery schools) for everyone, no matter what your stats are.  If merit scholarships are important to you, place a special focus on likely schools; if your stats are significantly higher than their averages, there is a good possibility that you will be offered scholarship money to entice you to attend.

Stay tuned for Part II and Part III in this series!

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Tagged: college admission, testing, ivy league

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