A college's overall quality and prestige is determined in part by its selectivity, of which acceptance rate is a main indicator. The acceptance rate figures are provided by the IPEDS database, a tool offered by the U.S. Department of Education.
Acceptance rate is determined by the ratio of the number of students who are admitted to a university to the number of total applicants that applied to that fall term. The acceptance rate is based on first-time, first-year students. A lower acceptance rate is indicative of a school that is more selective and admits fewer students. Schools with lower acceptance rates will rank higher, and overall acceptance rate plays a significant role in school ranking.
Note: IPEDS did not have acceptance rate figures for all of the colleges on our list. We did not, however, want to penalize those colleges without data. To that end, we simply excluded those schools from the rankings in this category.
Factors Determining College Acceptance Rates
Although you never can fully predict all of the factors that come into play in how a college determines who exactly to accept, when prepping for college applications, GPA and SAT scores will certainly be a determining factor. So, how well do you stack up? How should acceptance rate data be factored into your overall research when looking at prospective colleges?
If you're feeling a little lost when it comes to understanding the meaning of acceptance rate percentages, it's beneficial to dig a little deeper in your research to establish more meaning around each of the school's acceptance rates within the context of additional data points. Consider researching the following:
How does the acceptance rate percentage break down in comparison to the total number of students applying to your preferred school?
Sure, a 6% acceptance rate from Harvard may seem daunting, but it's important to put that into perspective with the number of total applicants that apply, and what that 6% acceptance signifies. For example, if an elite university admits 5% of students that apply, but the school receives 500,000 applications, that still means that 25,000 students have been accepted. In contrast, if you apply to a school with a 50% acceptance rate, but that school only receives 50,000 applicants, they will admit 25,000. Even though the acceptance rates couldn't be more different, the number of applicants is the same. Ultimately, it's important to keep the data in perspective when comparing schools, rankings, and data points.
It's also important to check how you (and that percentage from the first point) stack up against the average SAT and GPA of your desired school.
It's relatively easy to source a university's average SAT or GPA score for incoming accepted students. This is information that you can use to contextualize the admissions rate percentage. For example, if there are 500,000 applicants and only a 5% acceptance rate at your preferred university, but the average SAT score of accepted incoming students is 1500 out of 2400 and the average incoming GPA is 2.5 out of 4.0, then contextually you can see that the stakes aren't quite as high as you may have first thought. Your scores may stack up really well against this data. Or alternatively, if the average SAT score is 2250 out of 2400 and the average incoming GPA is 3.7 out of 4.0, then you'll find that the pool is filled with better applicants and it changes the meaning of the acceptance rate.
Evaluate the acceptance percentage compared to actual enrollment for additional context.
It's not uncommon for a university to accept more students than they can take in reality. This is due to the fact that not all students who are accepted will enroll. Evaluating the percentage of those who are enrolled against those that are accepted will give you additional information and context into what's going on. If the school has a 50% acceptance rate, but 90% of students are enrolling (45% of total applicants), then you may have a different perspective on the college, knowing that the majority of those accepted wish to go there.
Taking it a step further, establish more context around the acceptance rate percentage compared to the school's tuition, fees and financial aid.
Examining all of the data that you have gathered so far, now it's time to see how it measures up against one of the most important factors when it comes to your college education: price. Looking at tuition, extra fees, and potential financial aid should give you a good idea of the actual price tag of attending the institution. It's critical not to skip this piece when you are evaluating how the acceptance rates stack up against other schools. Universities with high price tags and little financial aid available sometimes may get fewer applicants, whereas schools with a lower price tag and substantial financial aid available often receive a higher number of applicants. Costs can impact the picture that a school's acceptance rate is painting, but it doesn't necessarily speak to the quality of education you would be receiving as a student. It's important to examine all of these factors in together in the schools you are considering.
Last but not least, compare each school's acceptance rate percentage to that of other colleges.
Always focus on comparing one college to another in each of the criteria outlined above and all of the criteria provided so you can have as full a picture as possible of each of the institutions you are considering, and also so you can break down some areas of interest that may be more or less important to you specifically as you make your decision.
Benefits of Low College Acceptance Rates
Many students aim for admission to a prestigious college or university, but the supply of open seats often does not meet the demand from applicants. Earning admission to the schools on this list can be especially difficult. With the lowest acceptance rates among all undergraduate institutions surveyed by U.S. News, regardless of ranking category, the 100 colleges and universities listed here are among the most selective, based on the fall 2015 entering class.
The school with the lowest acceptance rate in 2017 was Stanford University, located in Stanford, California. What follows is a listing of the top ten American colleges and universities with the most competitive acceptance rates:
- Stanford University with a 4.65% acceptance rate of the 44,073 applicants.
- Harvard University with a 5.2% acceptance rate of the 39,506 applicants.
- Columbia University with a 6.1% acceptance rate of the 36,250 applicants.
- Princeton University with a 6.5% acceptance rate of the 29,303 applicants.
- Yale University with a 6.9% acceptance rate of the 32,900 applicants.
- The Juilliard School with a 7.2% acceptance rate of the 2,597 applicants.
- University of Chicago with a 7.9% acceptance rate of the 31,411 applicants.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a 7.9% acceptance rate of the 19,020 applicants.
- California Institute of Technology with an 8% acceptance rate of the 6,800+ applicants.
- Brown University with a 9.3% acceptance rate of the 32,390 applicants.
Note: Data is taken from the most recent years with publicly available information.
Acceptance rates at top schools are continually dropping. For example, a recent Huffington Post article examining the dropped acceptance rate cited that back in 1991, University of Pennsylvania had a 47% acceptance rate, where by contrast 2016's rate came in at 12.3%.
In fact, Ivy League universities contending for the lowest college acceptance rate have cut their acceptance rate percentages rough in half since 2007; in that year, Stanford accepted 10.3% of applicants versus today's 4.65%, and Princeton accepted 10% of applicants in contrast to today's 6.09%. The overall lowest college acceptance rate in 2007 was that of Harvard University, sitting at 9.8 percent; however, today, Stanford outranks Harvard for the lowest college acceptance rate.
Interestingly, the same Huffington Post article mentioned above, states that according to the Department of Education, international students studying within the U.S. has increased substantially by 22.3% since 2007 – in addition to the fact that numbers for graduating seniors are already sky-high at 3.2 million in 2016. So what does this mean? The number of prospective college students is rising, while the trend of acceptance rates is decreasing across the board.
Applying to Colleges with Low Acceptance Rates
Competitive universities are looking for extremely high-performing candidates, and one of the biggest predictors of academic success in college is academic performance in high school. GPA and standardized test scores like the SATs will both play a significant factor.
Many universities will also ask for recommendation letters from teachers, counselors, and coaches, as well as look for lengthy portfolios of success within extracurricular activities. However, more often than not, one will hear tales of high-performing students, student council presidents, and valedictorians with near-perfect SAT scores being denied by top-ranking schools.
Some believe that this could be due to a disappointing essay or interview, but it's also entirely plausible that many of the denials are simply due to the fact that the majority of schools have drastically reduced their admissions rate and many superior students are being denied acceptance to top-ranked schools simply due to the fact that they have the choice of too many stellar candidates.
Unfortunately, most students who are competing seriously to get into a highly competitive college with one of the lowest acceptance rates may have a tough struggle through the four years of high school leading up to graduation, pushing towards their desired result. In many cases, if the student is rejected due to the high volume of applicants, their extreme efforts may feel like they were for naught. Four years in pursuit of a goal that fails to flourish can be a very tough and exhausting feat to deal with. Generally, seniors are urged to certainly take their applications seriously, but maintain a balanced secondary school experience, and approach postsecondary opportunities without putting all of their eggs in one very competitive basket. Instead, seniors are encouraged to apply to a variety of schools with a range of acceptance rates.
Students should not feel discouraged if they find themselves rejected by the schools with the lowest acceptance rates; it's not a reflection of their capabilities or potential, nor will it indicate that their education at the schools with a higher acceptance rate be subpar in any way. Excellent learning opportunities happen in classrooms of all sizes.
Playing the Field When It Comes to Acceptance Rate Rankings
When it comes to college admissions, there are no guarantees. While many students get their hearts set on a particular school, if for whatever reason they don't get in, they're setting themselves up for tremendous disappointment and potentially limited options if they have not applied to a wide enough breadth of schools.
Students should aim for balance when it comes to applying to a list of potential colleges and universities. An example of good breadth when it comes to applying to universities could look something like this:
- Target three or four "reach" schools – these would likely have an acceptance rate of under 25 percent;
- Apply to four or five "target" schools – these would generally admit between 25 to 60 percent of those that apply;
- And also send applications to two or three "likely" schools, with an admission rate of over 60 percent.
It's always recommended for students to apply to ten to twelve options, so they are not disappointed or left without a potential choice. You aren't always going to get into the college with the lowest acceptance rate, but that doesn't mean you can't get a top-notch education.
Benefits of Schools with High Acceptance Rates
Sure, at first glance it appears that the schools with low acceptance rates are the most desireable due to their superior reputations and highly competitive admissions, but in reality, there are many benefits to attending a university with a higher acceptance rate.
For one thing, schools with high acceptance rates are easier to get into. The more schools you are interested in with higher acceptance rates, due to their specialized programs, unique locations, or other draws, the more options you'll likely have to choose from when it comes down to making an informed final decision.
Colleges with high acceptance rates are also a good option for those with lower grades, lower standardized test scores, or those who are looking to round out their list with safety schools. If you are struggling between committing to a two- or four-year program, a college with higher acceptance rates could give you the confidence to shoot for admission to a four-year college.
While the most selective colleges are focused on admitting the best and brightest students, colleges with high acceptance rates are more concerned with providing access to higher education to those who meet minimum requirements. Many students face obstacles that prevent them from excelling in high school, and some students simply lack motivation while they're in high school, but schools with college acceptance rates on the higher end are more willing to give these students the opportunity to pursue a four-year college degree.
Finally, when admission benchmarks are less aggressive, students will have more time to enjoy the end of their high school experience, and will be able to transition more smoothly into college – without the likelihood of burnout and added stress.
College Acceptance Rates Do Not Translate to Learning Quality
Placing so much emphasis on enrolling accomplished students into a university is a somewhat backwards sentiment given that students attend university with the intent to develop and learn. It stands to reason that more emphasis should be placed on the quality of education students will receive, rather than the quality of student that the university will acquire.
In reality, a low admissions rate tells you very little about the quality of education students will receive, and places an alarming amount of responsibility and pressure on the student to prepare to learn, resulting in a few exhausted and burnt-out students admitted to the school and a significant number left rejected and heartbroken.
In a recent Forbes article, UCLA professor Alexander Astin rejects the idea that low college acceptance rates automatically means a school offers a superior education, sharing, "the entire process is being driven by the folklore about institutional quality or excellence, our shared cultural beliefs about which are the best colleges and universities."
For each college, we gathered data for nine different metrics: the number of full-time faculty per part-time faculty member; institutional financial aid; acceptance; retention; graduation; job placement; default rates; years accredited; and undergraduate tuition. Learn more.