Why Has College Admissions Become So Competitive? : Which Colleges Are the Most Selective?

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The percentage of students offered admission to a college is a major factor in determining its selectivity. As the number of applications to a college increases, the admission rate decreases. Another key factor affecting selectivity at a given college is the academic strength of the applicant pool, since applicants tend to self-select when applying to certain colleges, especially some smaller ones, known for their academic rigor. Such schools may accept a higher percentage of those who apply because their applicant pools tend to be smaller and more uniformly strong. Both factors admission rate and strength of the applicant pool—help determine the difficulty of gaining admission to a particular school.

To simplify the discussion here, however, we define selectivity only in terms of admission rate, and define a selective college as one that has an admission rate of 50 percent or less. We further divide selective colleges into three categories—super-selective colleges (those admitting less than 20 percent of applicants), highly selective colleges (those admitting less than 35 percent of applicants), and very selective colleges (those that admit less than 50 percent of applicants). These are artificial boundaries, of course, and they don’t take into account the self-selection factor, but they give a sense of the relative difficulty of gaining admission. Even though more than two thousand four-year institutions of higher education in the United States admit 50 percent or more of those who apply (and most admit more than 80 percent), many students focus their attention on the hundred colleges that fall into one of the three groups defined as selective.

The students applying to selective colleges are the ones experiencing the crisis in college admissions. The crisis does not affect those applying to community colleges or those seeking admission to the many colleges that accept most or all of their applicants. Nevertheless, it is very real to those who are applying to selective colleges now or expect to apply in the next few years. If you are reading this book, you (or your child) may be one of them. Keep reading. Our book is designed to help you build a college list that is right for you and to help you submit strong applications. If you’ll be applying to less selective schools, please keep reading as well. Most of what we have to share in this book will help you too. All students face the challenges of identifying colleges that will be a good fit and then submitting well-crafted applications.

Why So Much Interest in Such a Small Group of Colleges?

What is behind such intense interest in this small group of colleges and universities? Why, in particular, does such a mystique surround the colleges included in the Ivy League, as well as a few others accorded similar status? What benefits do these elite colleges bestow (or do people believe they bestow) on their graduates?

Prestige, of course, is one obvious answer. By definition, the more selective a college, the more difficult it is to get into and the greater the prestige associated with being admitted. The student enjoys the prestige directly (after all, the student is the one who was admitted!), but parents enjoy prestige by association. Parents are often the primary drivers of the push toward prestige, but students also report similar pressures from peers in high school. Just in the last generation, going to a highly ranked college has become a status symbol of greater value than almost any other consumer good, in part because it cannot simply be purchased if you have enough money.

Although some people openly acknowledge considering prestige in college choice, many more will cite the assumed quality of the educational experience as the basis for their interest in an elite college. But this rationale often depends on the unstated, and often untested, assumption that a good indicator of the quality of something is how much others seek it. This means that selective colleges are presumed to offer a better education; the more selective, the higher the quality. But is this really true?

I was happy and proud when my son was accepted at Stanford. I quickly became embarrassed, though, by the gushing responses I received when friends asked where he was going. He had just been accepted to college, after all—he had not won the Nobel Prize. Things have gotten rather warped.  - Parent of Stanford freshman

Take the eight colleges of the Ivy League, for example—Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and Columbia University. One counselor we know, whose children attended two of these institutions, refers to the group as the “Climbing Vine Schools” to take away a little of the allure of the name. The Ivy League originally referred only to a football league. (Only seven colleges belonged at first. Brown University eventually joined as the eighth member, although several other colleges were considered possibilities at the time.) Over time, though, Ivy League colleges have become known among the general public primarily for academics rather than athletics and are accorded high prestige. The admission rate of each Ivy places it in the super-selective or highly selective category, and each has renowned faculty as well as fine students. Everyone agrees that they are excellent schools, but do the Ivies automatically offer undergraduates an educational experience better than that at many other institutions? The answer, well known in academic circles but surprising to many others, is assuredly no.

The college admissions process should be about fit—the fit between a student and a college. Finding a good fit does not mean that there is just one perfect school for a student—it means exploring an array of factors that can enhance a student’s academic and personal success.

Colleges by Admission Rate for the Class of 2011



(less than 20 percent of applicants admitted)

Highly Selective

(less than 35 percent of applicants admitted)      

Very Selective

(less than 50 percent of applicants  admitted)

Amherst College

Bowdoin College

Brown University

Cal Tech

Claremont McKenna College

Columbia University

Dartmouth College

Harvard University


University of Pennsylvania

Pomona College

Princeton University

Stanford University

Swarthmore College

Williams College

Yale University

Bard College

Barnard College

UC Berkeley

Boston College

Brandeis University

Bucknell University

Carleton College

Carnegie Mellon University

University of Chicago

Colby College

Colgate University

Colorado College

Connecticut College

Cornell University

Davidson College

Duke University

Emory University

Georgetown University

Hamilton College

Harvey Mudd College

Haverford College

College of the Holy Cross

Johns Hopkins University

Kenyon College

Lafayette College

Lehigh University


Middlebury College

University of North Carolina

Northwestern University

University of Notre Dame

Oberlin College

Pepperdine University

Pitzer College

Reed College

Rice University

University of Southern California

Spelman College

Trinity College (Connecticut)

Tufts University

Vanderbilt University

Vassar College

Washington and Jefferson College

Washington and Lee University

Wesleyan University

College of William and Mary

Agnes Scott College

Baylor University

Berea College

Binghamton University

Bryn Mawr College

University of Connecticut

Cornell College (Iowa)

University of Delaware

Denison University

Dickinson College

University of Florida

Fordham University

Franklin and Marshall College

George Washington University

Gettysburg College

Grinnell College

Macalester College

University of Maryland

University of Miami

University of Missouri

Northeastern University

Occidental College

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

University of Richmond

University of Rochester

Rutgers University

UC San Diego

Sarah Lawrence College

Scripps College

Skidmore College

St. Lawrence University

Stony Brook University

Texas Christian University

Tulane University

Union College

University of Virginia

Wabash College

Wake Forest University

Wellesley College

Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

Whitman College

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