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Getting into college harder today?

Jenna Johnson

This week several of the country's most selective colleges announced they had received record numbers of applications for the Class of 2014.

The University of Chicago received 42 percent more applications this year than last. Brown, 20 percent. Princeton, 19 percent. Johns Hopkins, 13 percent. George Washington and Harvard, both had 5 percent more. The University of Virginia estimates a 3 to 4 percent increase. (Interestingly, Yale saw a slight decrease in applications.)

But will this boom in applications lead to lower acceptance rates? And will lower acceptance rates increase the anxiety of future high school seniors and their admissions-crazed parents?

No one knows, but a new report by The Center for Public Education tackles the idea that it's more difficult for top students to get into college today than a decade ago -- and finds that it's actually slightly easier.

In 1992, a student who was in the top 10 percent of their class had a 61 percent chance of getting into a selective college. In 2004, they had a 68 percent chance, the report says.

But in that same time period, the average number of college applications submitted per student rose from four to five. The extra applications often didn't keep up with added seats, so some acceptance rates decreased. Hype ensued.

Most of the report focuses on the average students, who make a up a majority of college-goers. They might not have a perfect GPA, breath-taking SAT scores or lengthy resume, but they can still get into a good college, assures the report's author Jim Hull. (In 2004, an average student had a 3.1 GPA, scored 21 on the ACT and had passed trigonometry and chemistry.)

And it's just as easy to do that today as it was a decade ago, he said.

"It might not be their dream school," Hull said. But students should "just get yourself into a good school where you are comfortable, where you can afford it, and you will be successful."

Some other things Hull learned from shifting through application data (and you can read more about this report on Valerie Strauss's blog, The Answer Sheet):

* Straight A's aren't the most important thing
In general, college applicants had slightly higher grades in 2004 than they did in 1992, but that didn't change their chances of getting in. What did help? Higher scores on the SAT or ACT, and taking more rigorous math and science classes (even if that meant lowering their GPA).

* Loading up on extra-curricular activities doesn't really help
Hull says he crunched numbers every way he could and couldn't find any statistically significant effect that a long list of activities has on getting into college. Although, he said a lengthy resume may help you get into your specific dream college (so don't drop out of the debate club just yet).

* Minority applicants vs. white applicants
Well-prepared minority students had just as good of chance of getting into a competitive college as their white, well-prepared counterparts. But a lower percentage of minority students have the necessary classes, test scores and grades to apply.

* Low-income applicants vs. high-income applicants
Low-income students are less likely to get into a competitive college than their high-income peers, even if they are just as well prepared. And, on top of that, few low-income students are prepared to apply.

By Jenna Johnson  |  January 25, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions  
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Jenna -
Very nice foil to Dan's article today. One important point to note - there are certainly colleges that are geting far more selective (Mason is, in a shameless plug, a good example) while others (without ever admitting it) "broaden" their standards, so to speak. The difficulty is that far too many students and families decide that there is only one RIGHT institution, leading to higher stress and inevitable dissapointment for some.

Posted by: aflagel1 | January 25, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Dean Flagel makes a good point about students (and their families) having preconceived notions about what is the "right" school. Sometimes, that's based on what's they think is the least-expensive school, or what school the parent attended, or what's close-by.

None of those are terrible criteria, but they are just one small piece of the story.

Students have to find a college where they will be successful both inside and outside the classroom, with the goal of getting a degree in 4 years with the least amount of debt possible.

In my own shameless plug (since Dr. Flagel started it!), my company seeks to help college-bound students in this pursuit. I welcome you to check out our site at

Posted by: srchanin | January 26, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

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