The Increasing Selectivity of Colleges

A map displaying the locations of popular colleges. Map obtained from

A map displaying the locations of popular colleges. Map obtained from

Ian Sun

As the final college decisions roll in for the incoming class of 2027, many students have noticed the increasing selectivity of top colleges. The eight Ivy League universities all report their lowest acceptance rates in history, and even historically less selective colleges are dealing with an unprecedented number of applications, forcing them to reject more students. Some wonder if future generations will even make it to college as acceptance rates sink to new lows each year, and many have raised concern over how this pressure will affect  students’ self-esteem and mental health.

This increase in selectivity is directly related with the increase in student applications, especially high-achieving students. Despite high school enrollment remaining steady at around 15 million over the past ten years, students are applying to more colleges than ever. According to a report by the Common App, 17% of the 1.2 million Common App users apply to more than 10 colleges, compared to 8% in 2015. Many of those students apply to historically selective colleges with acceptance rates less than 25%. In addition, many of these colleges have record numbers of applications to read, such as New York University with over 105,000 applications, University of Virginia with 50,000, and Boston University with over 80,000 (all in 2022). 

Although many people attribute the rise in applications to the test-optional policies and email campaigns which entice people to apply, much of this increase lies in the acceptance rates themselves. As colleges become more selective, students tend to apply to more colleges out of fear of getting rejected. This results in greater application pools and, in turn, lower acceptance rates. Because of that, a number of students felt nervous about their chances of getting into college due to the lower acceptance rates. Senior Yuna Yi in Massachusetts says that “[she] thought that [she] would never get into any of the schools [she] labeled as ‘targets’ or even some ‘safeties,’” and despite the suggestions from the class of 2026, Yuna felt as if “every goal [she] was aiming for was out of grasp.” 

Even students who are not yet seniors notice the declining acceptance rates; an anonymous junior at a school in California says how applying for college “has gotten more and more competitive with every year that passes” and that “getting into [one’s] top choice schools frankly seems close to impossible.” As a result, they feel pressured to stack their resumes with activities that sound “good” for college. Natalie Dumin, junior at Radnor High School, says that “everything in high school—grades, extracurriculars, volunteering, sports, etc.—is tied into the college admissions process. I’ve heard the statement ‘it’ll look good on your college resume’ many, many times. So I feel the need to excel at pretty much everything, even things that are just supposed to be for fun.” 

Much of the stress over college admissions has to do with the pressure students have to be “better” than others. A 2014 Harvard survey finds that half of American youth prioritize their own achievement over personal happiness (30%) and caring for others (20%). For many, the name of their college is just another “accomplishment” to add to the list. This leads to feelings of jealousy and envy, as the very students who brag about their accomplishments can feel inadequate in comparison with others, especially if they are perceived to accomplish more. In addition, students feel the need to impress parents and teachers in the hope that they would receive praise or a good recommendation from them or for the sake of their family’s image. As Perry Kalmus, founder of the counseling firm Akala says in Operation Varsity Blues, “The parents are applying to college; the kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college.”

As a result of this internal and external pressure, schools have become competitive environments. Senior Jordan Seigel in Indiana notes the competitiveness of his school: “In a class of over 1,300 students, people will resort to extreme measures… to stand out. I’ve seen many people try to keep their activities a secret so that people won’t copy them… People also try to load up on the most rigorous classes possible, even if they are not up to the task.” Junior Ema Torres at Radnor adds that “students are using a grade to measure who they are as a person… [and that] a lot of people’s passions and actual interest in a subject is lost because no longer is a student given the room to ask questions or be curious. There is only the time to get an A.” On top of that, quite a few students even resort to questionable activities, as one anonymous senior shares how some of her classmates spread gossip over each others’ activities and leech off others’ accomplishments.

The pressure for perfection, although often academically rewarding, leaves students anxious and burnt out. According to a Washington Post article, students in high-achieving schools report depression rates three times higher than the national average. Many studies mentioned in that article also note that the pressure to excel harms students’ mental health, as students tie their self-worth to their achievements. Junior Lidia Khellouf says how this year, she’s been “going above and beyond with [her] extracurricular activities,” on top of managing her grades. While she was successful in this balancing act, “this year’s college admission decisions have left [her] extremely paranoid for the year to come.” 

For Asian American students, this anxiety is more pronounced. Not only do Asian Americans feel the need to succeed because of the model minority myth, or the idea that Asians are “smart and successful”, but they also equate admittance to a selective college with success. “For Asians it’s really hard core, it’s like, do or die,” an anonymous senior noted. “A lot of them have been raised their entire lives just to get into a really good college, and when they can’t, it’s really rough for them.” As more and more people apply to top universities, Asian American students face even more stress trying to secure the coveted spots.

Despite the competitive admissions process and the pressures of achieving, students find solace in the support of their peers. The aforementioned Harvard study also finds that half of American youth still value care and concern for others, and that many of them would gladly partake in community activities, such as tutoring (86%) and volunteering (60%). Although many Americans value personal achievement, caring and support is not yet lost.

Junior Theodore He notes that at Radnor, “people know their strengths/weaknesses and try their best alone, help each other if asked, and celebrate or console each other upon receiving decisions – there’s not too much of a point being competitive after the applications have already been sent in.” Senior Miya Slaim also comments how “while [the school environment] is competitive, I don’t necessarily think the environment’s rigor is negative… It really seems like everyone wants everyone to do their best and succeed.” To Miya’s point, junior Lidia Khellouf says how Radnor’s competitive atmosphere “urges [her] to succeed and be a better student.” In addition, senior Yuna Yi says how the competition is only prevalent in the top 10-15% in her school, and that prestige isn’t a major factor when most students choose colleges.

When asked about their reactions to other’s college decisions, students have mixed feelings. Some students, like junior Ryune Kono in Indiana, junior Natalie Dumin at Radnor, and senior Mia Xie, express support for their classmates and friends. “Some of my friends had amazing acceptances, and I was super happy for them,” Mia says. “But at the same time, I’m sad for my friends who didn’t get the results they wanted.” Senior Gavin Griffin in Indiana elaborates further, indicating his excitement for the future, “especially when [he] hear[s] of peers getting into Harvard and Berkeley and institutions [like these].” 

Others, like junior Ema Torres, express confusion and shock at how “a student with a below 4.0 GPA is able to get into an Ivy based on legacy while someone who has a 4.0 or above can’t because of a financial situation or [first-generation status].” Radnor alumnus Sam Chanenson echoes this sentiment. In fact, even admissions officers note in their letters how the vast majority of applicants were well qualified to attend their schools, but were rejected because they can only accept so many. 

As seniors prepare to attend college and juniors prepare to apply, quite a few shared their thoughts about college admissions. Several noted the technical changes, like colleges’ decisions to continue their test-optional policies, streamlining the requirements across colleges, and removing the legacy biases that affect college admissions. Another student explains how they prefer that “circumstances outside one’s control shouldn’t be taken into account as heavily,” such as one’s ability to pay, socioeconomic status, and colleges’ needs at the time.

Ultimately, students desire an environment that is less toxic and stigmatizing towards people’s college choices, as one’s college choice does not determine their level of success, and college “prestige” is not a metric of a student’s worth. As seniors decide on their colleges this month and post about it on a college decision page, a more healthy, supportive environment can help alleviate students’ worries over college admissions. After all, those rejected from top colleges find themselves in plenty of company, as hundreds of thousands of seniors receive rejection letters from top colleges every year, and as Harvard’s rejection letter states, “the great majority of our applicants could be successful here academically… [and] present strong personal and extracurricular credentials.”