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Why are Ivy League admissions so unpredictable?

Ivy admissions is like chess. It’s timing, luck, and other factors, such as who your competition is. But what exactly are elite schools looking for?
Yena Choe was rejected by Harvard Columbia, accepted to Princeton on Ivy Day.
Posted at 3:20 PM, Apr 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-06 15:20:47-04

Yena Choe was wrought with anxiety as she awaited the results of elite college applications on March 30. A student leader at Leonia High School in New Jersey with a near-perfect 1570 SAT score, she had already been rejected in the pick-one early decision round in December at her top choice school, Columbia University.

At 7 p.m. on Ivy Day, the rest of the results for the Ivy League universities she applied to were unveiled. One by one, she opened the emails. Harvard University, rejected. Yale University, rejected. University of Pennsylvania, waitlisted. Then a dash of hope: acceptances from Princeton University and Cornell University. 

“I was confused when I was rejected by Columbia,” said Choe, 18. “I didn’t know what to expect.” 

Such is the randomness of elite college admissions. For the Class of 2027, admissions to elite colleges continue to be challenging, a trend that hasn’t shifted within the past decade. The acceptance rate at Harvard Universitywas 3.4%, a slight increase from last year’s 3.2%. Admitting 1,942 out of this year’s applicant pool of 56,937 students. Yale Universityshowed a 4.35% acceptance rate, the lowest in recent history, compared with a 4.46% acceptance rate last year. Brown University's acceptance ratethis year was 5%, almost even with last year. Columbia University’s acceptance ratewas 3.9%, slightly higher than last year's 3.7% rate.

The smallest of the Ivy League schools, Dartmouth College,had an acceptance rate of 6% this year. Cornell University and Princeton University established policies of not revealing their acceptance rates. Admissions figures for the University of Pennsylvania for the Class of 2027 were not yet available.

Students can no longer count on top test scores and grades when it comes to top college admissions. The trend of competitiveness continues, with elite schools deluged with applications. 

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A game of chess

The randomness of elite college admissions is all the talk in higher education chat rooms, said Jacque Discenza, a private college counselor with Sarphatie Education. This year, each college is identifying one or two attributes in how they select their class, she said. It’s not a student’s SAT score, GPA (Grade Point Average) or AP (Advanced Placement) courses. It’s what unique aspect you can bring to the college, Discenza said.   

Elite college admission is chess. It’s timing and luck, as well as other factors such as who your competition is. An overabundance of STEM students applied to top colleges this year, with art and music students having an edge, Discenza said. She also heard from admissions officers that there were many COVID-related essays.

With the crush of applications, students are applying to more colleges. Over 20 is not an unusual number for those applying to top schools, Discenza said. 

Choe applied to 15 colleges with mixed results. In addition to receiving acceptances from Cornell and Princeton, she was also accepted at Georgetown University, New York University, Boston University, Rutgers University, and George Washington University.

She was waitlisted at Barnard College of Columbia University, American University, and Northeastern University.  

“There’s no such thing as a safety school any more,” Choe said.

Fit is real

Of the elite colleges, the eight Ivy League schools are among the toughest to gain undergraduate admissions to, along with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

The Ivy League is an American college athletic conference with eight private universities in the Northeast. The term Ivy League is used to connote elite colleges with academic excellence. Ivy League colleges do not offer merit scholarships; they only offer financial-based aid. The reported cost of attendance at Columbia University in 2022, including tuition, room and board was $85,967. 

After being rejected by Columbia in early decision, Choe raced against the clock to get other applications in. What she learned in the process is that each school is looking for a special niche. 

“Fit is real,” said Choe, who plans to major in political science at Princeton University this fall. 

Discenza said there is a deep divide in higher education, with students flocking to prestigious schools. That means the non-elite schools have to work harder at marketing and be more generous with merit scholarships to attract students. “It’s really doing the students a disservice,” Discenza said. “They think if I can get a big scholarship from this college, I can get into Yale.”