We call these parents the number-crunchers. Maybe you’re one of them and you just don’t realize it. Or maybe you do. The number-crunchers are the parents who fixate on admissions statistics for Ivy League and other highly selective universities. They talk about how the Regular Decision admission rate at Harvard University dipped to 2.6% for the Class of 2025 or 3.2% at Yale University. They fixate on how applications rose 66% at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from just last year. They are all about the numbers — so much so in fact that they strategize where their twelfth grade child should push the hardest on the waitlist or where their younger child should consider applying to in the Early round two years from now based almost exclusively on these figures. Their reasoning is, to put it mildly, unsound.
To be clear, there is absolutely no harm in looking at the numbers. Knowing the facts is always a good thing. Heck, we’ve been aggregating Ivy League admissions statistics, along with the admissions data for the vast majority of highly selective universities, for decades. But the numbers don’t always paint the full picture. As Mark Twain said it best (or paraphrased it best, depending upon the account you hear), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Indeed. As a case in point, just about every year, colleges love to boast how it was the most competitive year ever. But it’s often not the case. Just because applications rise doesn’t mean it’s necessarily harder to get in. Rather, these schools just get better and better at getting students — even unqualified students — to apply. Yet, as an extreme example, more C students applying to Harvard doesn’t exactly make the Harvard applicant pool more competitive. It just makes it seem more competitive since it leads to a rise in applications and an invariably lower admission rate.
And while this year actually was the most competitive year ever in the history of elite college admissions — by a landslide — it wasn’t per se because of the skyrocketing applications. As we’ve expressed on the pages of our college admissions blog and in the press, this year’s applicant pools at America’s elite universities were filled with those we’ve deemed “squeakers“: students who thought they might be able to sneak in without test scores in light of the newly announced “test-optional” admissions policies that resulted from the pandemic. So many of these applicants soon learned their pipe dreams weren’t to be. And why? Because these schools weren’t being forthright about their “test-optional” policies. All else being equal, a student with a great score enjoyed an advantage over a student who didn’t submit a score at the vast majority of these institutions — no matter how loudly and how vociferously admissions officers told you they stood an equal chance.
But ultimately it wasn’t the skyrocketing applications, the surge in submissions from so many squeakers, that made the admissions cycle for the Class of 2025 the most competitive in history. Rather, it was all the seats — around 20% at some of these highly selective universities — that were already reserved for students admitted to the Class of 2024 who took gap years because of the pandemic. These schools, as we correctly forecasted early on, would not construct new dorm rooms to accommodate an increased class size. They simply filled the slots of the gap year students from the Class of 2024 with waitlisted applicants and took away slots from the Class of 2025 which were earmarked for the students who deferred their admission by a year.
And this all leads us back to the number-crunching parents. Because now you see that the numbers don’t always tell the full story. They don’t always expose the truths of elite college admissions. Allow us to leave you with an analogy. If, heaven forbid, one is ever diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to go online and look at survival rates, which so often look a whole lot like admission rates to our nation’s elite universities. You might find yourself rather depressed in scanning the numbers. But do remember — these figures include folks who choose not to get treated for their cancer. These figures include folks who ignore their symptoms for months and months. These figures include folks who go to subpar hospitals. They don’t only include folks who go to, say, MD Anderson or Memorial Sloan Kettering, leaders in the fight against cancer. So don’t study those grim admissions figures for too long. Look at them once and then move on. It’s not healthy to fixate on them. Just come to the MD Anderson or MSK of elite college admissions. The ride will be oh so much smoother.
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