Harvard's Acceptance Rate is Inflated

By: Caroline Koppelman

Frank Bruni recently wrote a satirical piece about Stanford having a 0% acceptance rate. Although Stanford received many qualified applications, Bruni wrote that none of them fully impressed the admission staff. With no “Olympic gold medalists” in the applicant pool, Bruni sarcastically comments that they’re hoping for better applicants next year. Although this article acts as a commentary on how outrageous the college process has become, we received many emails from concerned parents asking how this was possible. Since the college process has grown so competitive, people actually thought it was possible for Stanford to accept zero people. To make matters worse, the most recent acceptance rates have hit historical lows across the board. These decreasing acceptance rates have become exponential in the past years. With this insight, it makes us wonder how these statistics are formed. The reality of college acceptance rates is that they are incredibly inflated. 

Every year the numbers get smaller. This year Harvard’s reported acceptance rate was 5.3%. Stanford’s was 4.69%, Yale’s was 6.3%, and MIT’s was 7.8%. Most people look at these numbers and rightfully think that they have over a 90% chance of getting rejected. Although the sheer statistics should lead you to believe that, the facts say otherwise. We are here to tell you that these stats are not an accurate measure of your particular chances at these colleges. 

The US News and World rankings, in conjunction with the Common Application, are partially to blame for the inaccuracies in college acceptance rates. The US News and World Report takes acceptance rates into consideration when doing their ranking. Since acceptance rates are one of the few components the schools can control, if a school can lower their acceptance rate, they might be able to rank higher. Driving down the acceptance rate can boost their US News and World ranking while simultaneously branding them as a more competitive and selective school. While the numbers would lead anyone to believe that this has happened organically, various systems have been put into place to ensure larger numbers of unqualified applicants get in.

The inaccuracies in the application process start with the Common App. The Common App makes it easier than ever to apply to every reach school imaginable. Since an increasing number of colleges can be found on the Common App, the platform provides an extremely low barrier to entry for all colleges. There are no qualifying rounds or methods of weeding certain people out. On one hand, this could be viewed as somewhat of an equalizer because it means every student, regardless of background and financial constraints, can apply to the best schools in the world. However, the downside is that the applicant pool becomes flooded by students who will never be accepted.

Every year, there are stories (often rumors) that circulate about a student who was admitted to Harvard even though he was seemingly unqualified. Much like with the lottery, college applicants think that applying to certain schools is worth the gamble because “you never know.” They falsely believe that they can be the exception to the reality of their true potential. These students will apply to every Ivy League school only to later be rejected. This hopefulness creates an influx of unrealistic applicants who eventually drive down the acceptance rate.
Essentially, the numbers released by specific colleges claiming to have an acceptance rate lower that 10% are calculated under conditions that many people are not aware of. This is due to the fact that a large majority of students who submit applications to top schools have no business in doing so. Each school knows about the increasing amount of “reach” school applicants and encourage such students to do so. With more guaranteed rejections from students they are sure they won’t accept, the schools are able keep their acceptance rates as low as possible. 

As an incentive for “under qualified” students to apply to their institution, some schools are taking steps to make their applications more enticing by getting rid of their supplements and making their applications test optional. In fact, many schools are getting rid of their supplements completely. Skidmore College, for example, got rid of their supplemental question in 2013 and saw a rise in applications from 5,700 to 8,200. Their acceptance rate decreased from 41.9% to 35.1%. Prior to getting rid of their supplement, they were ranked 43rd on the US News and World Ranking. Now they are 38th.

With the overall public awareness that the college application process has become more cutthroat and competitive, schools that are inflating their acceptances rates are getting away scot free. As an applicant, we want you to be aware that the numbers aren’t always accurate and that you have to consider what school makes you feel best, not which acceptance rate seems most comforting. In the end, just like the schools have to be realistic in who they accept, you must be realistic in where you want to apply.