College Acceptance Rates Are Not the Same for All Students

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Last week’s scandal was another reminder of the unfair system for entry to colleges. Everyone knows that wealthy families often make large “donations” to colleges in order for their kids to gain admission. This scandal was something else entirely, with kids’ heads Photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies and cheating on standardized tests. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that these wealthy families got caught. There is a good chance there is more of this going on that hasn’t been uncovered yet.

Most people know that many colleges are getting more selective every year. Colleges that accepted 30% of applicants a few years ago might only accept 25% now, for example. Some schools’ acceptance rates have become ridiculously low, with rates in the single digits.

But, are the acceptance rates really the same for all students who apply to a college? After a tense period of waiting, now is the time that high school seniors are receiving acceptances and rejections from colleges. My son and his friends are going through this now, and the results really are surprising. Kids with top test scores and perfect grades in the hardest classes, in addition to really impressive extracurriculars and extraordinary personal achievement are getting rejected from schools that seem like they should be a shoo-in. What’s going on?

I did a little digging. It’s easier to find numbers for some schools than others, but I found quite a few for Swarthmore, which has a published acceptance rate of 11%. But that’s just an average. When you look at the odds for an individual student, that percentage can change quite a bit. Here is what I found for the class of 2022:

  • 34% of early decision applicants were accepted*.
  • 15% spots reserved for recruited athletes
  • 20-30% spots are legacy (estimate based on several articles, all links listed below)
  • 33% affiliated with local and national community based organizations like Questbridge**
  • 24% first generation college students
  • 15% non U.S. Students
*Typically only wealthy students can apply early decision since you must enroll if you are accepted, regardless of the financial aid package.
**The QuestBridge National College Match is a college and scholarship application process that helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges.

Looking at the individual numbers listed above tells a different story from the stated 11% acceptance rate and the numbers are similar for many, many schools. Since some students will obviously fit into more than one group, and since there is no way to know the precise number of early decision students in the class, it’s impossible to know what percent chance a kid has from the regular decision round who has no “hook” (i.e. recruited athlete, Questbrige, legacy, etc.). However, we can see that the acceptance rate for a regular decision kid with no hook, as brilliant and accomplished as he or she may be, must be very low. The kids without hooks are likely to only be compared to other kids without hooks–the unpopular crowd if you will–and it’s likely that this is the bulk of applicants. Although the odds are already bad, these kids are likely to be confused with their wealthier counterparts who benefit from expensive essay and SAT coaches, influential family connections, and other benefits.

In her article for Money Magazine, “What a Colleges Official ‘Acceptance Rate’ May Be Hiding From You,” Kaitlyn Mulhere interviewed Mark Hatch from Colorado College. Hatch said, “Most colleges have a protected category of applicants, such as athletes or legacies, so ask which admissions pool they’re considered in.” You should also ask about the admit rate for students who are deferred at early admission but get in during the regular round.”

It turns out that the admit rate for deferred students is an important one to know. At The University of Chicago, for example, that rate is just .5 percent. It begs the question, why do they bother deferring the students at all when there is practically no chance these students will get in?

Speaking of University of Chicago, I was able to find some stats posted by students themselves on the website, College Confidential, of who did and did not get in to the class of 2022. You can see the results here. It can be a head scratcher to see who did and did not get in, but from the posted results it is obvious that having a “hook” makes a huge difference.

The takeaway is this: If you want to gain admission to a prestigious school and you are not a legacy, a recruited athlete, an underrepresented minority, or a first generation college student, then you should apply early decision. Of course, then you are likely wealthy, since you can commit to paying whatever price the college quotes you. If you have the money, you could make a large “donation” too. Without a hook, you fall into an unpopular bucket of applicants, and with some luck and an exceptionally strong application, you have a very low chance of getting in. The moral of the story is to make sure you have a list of target and safety schools that you love! You will likely need them.

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Resources Use for This Post

Admissions Blog. (2018, May 11) Over 10,700 Applications for 420 Spots in Swarthmore Class of 2022. Retrieved from

Aisch, Gregor; Buchanan, Larry; Cox, Amanda and Quealy, Kevin. (2017, January 18). Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours. Retrieved from

Bergman, Dave. (2018, June 6). Does being a “legacy” increase your admission odds? Retrieved from

Clarke, Kim. (2015, April 1). Many Colleges Offer Affirmative Action for the Rich and Powerful. Retrieved from

Mulhere, Katilyn. (2016, October 21) What a College’s ‘Official’ Acceptance Rate May Be Hiding From You

Jenson, Erin. (2016, September 12). The Admissions Office Doesn’t Care About Your Values. Retrieved from

O’Shaughnessy, Lynne. (2019, March). College Admission Scandal: Symptom of a Larger Problem. Retrieved from

Questbridge website. Retrieved from

2018, October 8. Early Decision Schools That Double Admission Odds. Retrieved from

2018, March 19. 980 Students Admitted to Swarthmore Class of 2022. Retrieved from

2018, March. University of Chicago RD Class of 2022 RD Results. Retrieved from

2008. Recruited Athlete–An Edge? Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “College Acceptance Rates Are Not the Same for All Students

    1. It is–these schools are businesses first with their own agendas and priorities. Whether or not the truly best qualified applicants get in is not a priority. It’s hard to tell who they are anyway with the “back doors” and “side doors.”


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