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Keeping Up With The Steady Climb of Competitiveness at Top Universities

MAR 05, 2021

It’s no secret that college admissions have reached a point of such intense competition that single-digit acceptance rates have become the norm for top universities. Why is that, and how can students keep up with it?

Relative to today’s cutthroat admissions climate, getting admitted to top universities used to be easy. The country’s most prestigious institutions would be considered moderate matches for today’s competitive applicant: in the 1980s, the University of Pennsylvania boasted a 40% acceptance rate with an average SAT score of 1230 on today’s scale. Nowadays, only 8% of its 40,000+ applicants receive that prized acceptance letter. This trend can be seen at schools across the US and UK, and reflects an inverse relationship with the ever-increasing baseline needed for applicants to top colleges to be considered competitive.

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Consider: the average SAT of a competitive UPenn applicant has increased by approximately 250 points and a student needs to be in the 97th percentile to reach academic criteria. Further, alongside the objective measures of scholastic merit needed to gain admission to elite universities is the enormous time and effort that today’s top applicants now pour into their extracurricular activities and overall applicant profile.

With so many talented students having the intelligence to succeed at prestigious institutions like UPenn, admission officers are increasingly looking to other, more subjective measures of ambition and potential. Essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and interviews now provide the glimpse into a student’s capability for admissions officers to consider when making decisions.

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The two most glaring culprits are the rapidly growing volume of high school graduates and the rising need for a college degree in the professional world, leading to a significant increase in college applicants. Fifty years ago, one could argue that a college degree wasn’t necessary to start almost any career. Then the professional world evolved; after a couple of decades, most office jobs began to require at least an Associate’s degree. This evolution continued and by the early 2000s, a Bachelor’s degree became the baseline requirement for most career-type jobs. Today, it’s hardly possible to get a mid-level job or higher without a Master’s degree.

For many high school students with aspirations of impactful, professional and high-earning careers, this means getting a degree — and a valuable one at that — is a requirement. With the world gravitating to higher education as a gateway to compelling careers, it isn’t difficult to understand why the prestige of top universities amounts to massive pools of applicants each year.

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What does this mean for the future? Will this trend ever change?

The short answer: it depends. Much of the trajectory of college admissions will rely on the politics of the future, whether a public college education in the US — home to the second-greatest number of universities in the world — is ever free (or more affordable), whether private colleges continue receiving the they rely on, and the general ebb and flow of the educational landscape.

One informed prediction is that college admissions at leading institutions will continue to grow more competitive until an even greater proportion rest in the single-digit acceptance rate range. With the increasing societal significance of higher education (alongside the ever-growing population), this trend won’t likely slow down soon.

What this means for current students

With application numbers at elite universities reaching record highs this year, good grades and test scores with basic, well-rounded extracurriculars are no longer making the cut. At Crimson, we’ve had such great success helping students get admitted to their dream schools because our students are extraordinary — they’ve launched companies, created podcasts, published books, made award-winning documentaries and more. And they’ve got teams of admissions experts helping them put their best foot forward!

To put it simply, today’s students face a higher-than-ever standard when applying to universities. This means they now need to excel not only in the traditional ways, but in their personal initiative and community impact as well. The competitive admissions process can be intimidating, and the baseline requirements for consideration at prestigious institutions will likely never be as low as it once was.

Want to learn more about how Crimson can help you build a stand-out application that makes admissions officers take a second look? Click the link below to schedule a free one-hour consultation with an admissions officer today.

Alex N.

Written by

Alex N.

Alex is a longtime Crimson student who was admitted to Middlebury College to study physics. He enjoys poetry, history, philosophy, Spanish, and of course — physics! In his free time, he enjoys writing, exercising, and spending time with his friends.