An actual conversation with The Girl on Thursday. She was nervous after she saw some TikToks from high school seniors with great grades who got rejected from the colleges they wanted.
TG: Why did acceptance rates go so far down this year?
Me: I think it was a combination of schools going test optional and a backlog of students who deferred admission from last year.
TG: Do you think they’ll stay test optional?
Me: Probably. It seemed to help their application numbers.
TG: That’ll make it even harder to get in!
Me: Yes and no. They have more applicants, but they aren’t opening more seats.
TG: Exactly! That makes it harder!
Me: Sort of. But also students are applying to more places than they used to, because they don’t feel like SAT scores rule them out.
TG: Which makes it harder!
Me: But more applications doesn’t mean more people. It means each person is applying to more places. Remember how TB got into a half dozen schools but could only go to one? The other five schools let him in, but he didn’t go, so they had to let in others to fill the seat.
TG: Okay …
Me: Each school has to let in more students than it has seats, because they know that some accepted students won’t come. They usually have a percentage. Like if a school has to fill 2,000 seats, it might have to accept 8,000 students in a normal year to do that. But with students applying to more places, now it might have to accept 12,000 or 15,000 to fill 2,000 seats.
Me: If it accepts too many, that’s a problem because it won’t have room. If it doesn’t accept enough, that’s a problem because it won’t have enough tuition. Schools know that this year was weird, but they don’t know what the percentage to use is. Next year they’ll have a better idea. So they’ll probably use wait lists to manage the uncertainty.
TG: So many of my friends are saying they got wait-listed almost everywhere!
Me: Yeah, that’s because schools don’t know what percentage to use. But wait lists are tricky, too. Just because a student is on a wait list doesn’t mean he’ll accept an offer. He may have already committed elsewhere. There’s a percentage there, too.
TG: This is crazy!
TG: Why can’t they just take more students?
Me: Exclusivity is part of what they’re selling. The more people they turn away, the better their rankings. That’s why you got the “Have you considered Harvard?” letter a few weeks ago.* They want you to apply so they can reject you and brag about how hard it is to get into Harvard.**
TG: They get us to apply so they can reject us?
Me: Yeah, pretty much.
TG: That’s terrible!
Me: No argument there.
TG: What’ll I do?
Me: Next year should be less crazy, just because they’ll have some idea of percentages. Besides, it’s possible to have a great experience in any number of places.
TG: That’s true, I guess.
Me: It is. And you’re smart, and you work hard. There are lots of ways to be successful. This is just one of them.
TG: If it were up to me, I’d pick by location. I really like [names area].
Me: It is up to you.
*True. This is exactly what it said. I am not making this up.
**Akil Bello refers to “highly rejective colleges.” I am adopting this usage.