written by
Abbie Sage

College Acceptance Rates and the Admissions Process

College FAQs Advisor Tips Admissions Tips 11 min read
college acceptance rates image: a stack of college applications sits on a low wood table

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts Theodore and Abbie define college acceptance rates and the role they play when creating a college list. For more guidance on planning for the future and the college application process in general, sign up to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Introduction: Defining College Acceptance Rates

Throughout your college process, you’ve probably heard teachers, counselors, Admissions Officers, and fellow students discuss college acceptance rates. But what are college acceptance rates, and how should you evaluate university acceptance rates as you build your college list?

Given today’s college admissions landscape, it’s no surprise that many students fixate on university acceptance rates. In recent years, the college admissions process has grown significantly more competitive. According to Pew Research Center, the average student applied to four colleges in 2002. In 2017, the average student applied to seven colleges—a 75% increase. This means that more qualified students apply to each school, causing college acceptance rates to decrease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused elite university acceptance rates to decrease. Spark Admissions found that the most selective universities saw a significant spike in applications during the pandemic. Most likely, holistic and test-optional policies emboldened many students to apply to competitive schools. While this spike had an overall effect on college acceptance rates, the trend is more pronounced in the most selective universities. These schools are more sensitive to changes in application numbers due to their smaller class sizes and selective admissions process. In other words, the universities already considered the hardest colleges to get into became statistically more difficult in terms of admissions rate.

So what does this mean? Should you focus on colleges with high acceptance rates, also known as “safety” schools? Or, depending on your candidate profile (test scores, GPA, etc.) set your sights on the hardest colleges to get into?

As you build your school list, it’s important to understand university acceptance rates. College acceptance rates can make a major difference as you determine which colleges to apply to, research different institutions, and manage your expectations.

What do acceptance rates mean?

Simply put, college acceptance rates are a ratio—the number of total applicants to accepted students. For example, if 100 people apply to a college and 10 are accepted, the college has a 10% acceptance rate. So, with schools like Harvard University, where 57,786 students applied last year and only 2,320 were accepted, you end up with an acceptance rate of 3.43%. Lowest acceptance rate colleges, like Harvard University, have a well-earned reputation for being the hardest to get into, however, college acceptance rates are only one part of the picture.

College acceptance rates are based on the number of spots available. This means larger schools tend to have more open spots and higher acceptance rates than smaller schools. For example, a larger state school will usually be among the colleges with high acceptance rates. This has no bearing, however, on the quality of education its students receive. Similarly, smaller, private institutions tend to fall into the group of lowest acceptance rate college—their student bodies are smaller and open spots each admissions cycle are fewer.

Trends in college applications

Accordingly, trends in college applications—such as a particular school gaining sudden attention—will disproportionately impact smaller schools’ acceptance rates. Location, tuition, and other factors all influence college acceptance rates. In other words, lowest acceptance rate colleges tend to have reputations of prestige and selectiveness. Their reputations create an aura of being “elite.” The aura of “eliteness” then motivates more students to apply. As more students apply, university acceptance rates are driven lower as the number of open seats does not increase to meet the rising application demand.

Quality of education

Keep in mind that selectivity isn’t everything. College acceptance rates do not inherently speak to the quality of students who applied, just the quantity. Moreover, college acceptance rates do not speak to the quality of education that each student will receive at a particular university.

As you consider a school’s academic merit on a statistical basis, you should view university acceptance rates as part of a larger picture. You should also look at each school’s enrollment rates (the number of students who accept offers), retention rates (the number of students who continue onto their sophomore year), and graduation rate, among other things. One should also consider factors such as faculty-to-student ratio, the average ACT/SAT score and GPA of accepted students and the ratio of classes taught by tenured faculty. All of these factors influence the caliber of education you can expect to get at any particular school.

For example, the average GPA of high school students admitted to Harvard is 4.04. The average GPA for high schools students admitted to the University of Michigan is 3.88. That’s a .16 difference. Both schools generally admit applicants who are at the top of their respective classes. However, the college acceptances rates are words apart, 3.43% and 26%, respectively. Most important takeaway: don’t sell a school short by only looking at college acceptance rates.

What is the average acceptance rate for colleges?

According to U.S. News, college acceptance rates average out to 68%. Although the hardest colleges to get into have less than a 10% acceptance rate, Pew Research Center found that over half of U.S. universities have an admissions rate of 67% or higher.

You might hear a lot about competitive schools with acceptance rates of 5-20%. College acceptance rates tend to figure prominently in famous college rankings like U.S. News, Forbes, and Niche. These schools might be particularly prestigious. Keep in mind, however, that there are many schools out there that can provide you with a quality education. Exclusivity isn’t everything!

So, while you might have heard a lot about competitive schools, many colleges have far less daunting acceptance rates. As long as you build a balanced college list with two to three “safety” schools, you should still have an acceptance letter at the end of the admissions cycle. Also, while building your school list consider important things like major, programs, professors, etc. For example, if a student wants to study film, the list of best schools will look completely different than what they’ll see on the U.S. News site. Moreover, if they have aspirations of learning from a particular director, like Spike Lee, they may end up narrowing their list even further. In terms of college acceptance rates and building a school list, let your needs dictate your choices, not university acceptance rates.

What is a good acceptance rate for a college?

Generally speaking, there’s no such thing as a “good acceptance rate” for a college. Why? College acceptance rates are a fluctuating scale that’s affected by many things: total applicants, number of seats available, changes in policy (see test-optional COVID-19 policies). University acceptance rates are not the be-all-end-all when it comes to college admissions.

Instead, use college acceptance rates as a barometer to gauge how well you’ve put your college application list together. For example, if you read over your list of 6-10 colleges and find that all of them have the lowest acceptance rates, then you may want to reevaluate your list. Having a few “reach” schools on your list is good, but an entire list composed of highly selective schools, or the hardest colleges to get into, is not a wise game to play in terms of numbers. While you may be a competitive candidate, so are most of the students who apply to the low acceptance rate colleges. A “no” from any of these schools isn’t a reflection on your abilities, but instead a reflection of the large, qualified applicant pool and the small number of slots available.

Need help building your college list? Check out our pieces “Finding Balance: Picking a Great List of Colleges,” and “College List FAQ: Ask and Admissions Officer.”

Why you should look past college acceptance rates

For all the reasons explained above, many of the hardest colleges to get into have the lowest acceptance rates. However, there is more to college than prestige. In fact, when it comes to CEOs and where they attended college, only one of the top ten Fortune 500 CEOs attended an Ivy League school. Although some elite universities have acceptance rates below 10%, a low acceptance rate does not automatically translate into higher quality education, nor does it decide one’s success after college. For instance, large universities will typically have higher acceptance rates but may rank highly on other metrics. As you evaluate university acceptance rates, remember that these numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The hardest colleges to get into won’t necessarily be the objectively best colleges; after all, no college is objectively the best! The most competitive colleges also may not be the best colleges for you. Remember school lists should be based on a variety of variables: faculty, alumni employment rates, the school’s overall atmosphere (such as location, size, emphasis on athletics, presence or absence of Greek life), and the availability of opportunities that interest you (such as study abroad or specific research options).

It’s also worth noting that colleges with higher acceptance rates may offer enticing scholarship opportunities to top candidates. Overall, don’t discount a school due to its acceptance rate. At the end of the day, university acceptance rates are just numbers.

What is a bad acceptance rate for college?

Once again, there’s no such thing as a good or bad acceptance rate for a school! Less competitive schools often have acceptance rates above 50%. And remember, colleges with high acceptance rates can be a great fit for some students.

Additionally, many colleges with high acceptance rates also have greater levels of economic and ethnic diversity. Costlier schools often have lower university acceptance rates and cater to a wealthier student body. Moreover, most of these schools are predominantly white institutions (PWIs). While recent years have seen an increase in diversity at elite universities, there is still a long way to go in terms of ethnic and socioeconomic equality at these institutions.

Interested in learning more about the experience of a Black student at PWI? Read our series by McKenzie Murray, a student at Cornell University. In this three-part series, McKenzie breaks down ways in which she feels the university both succeeds and fails at building a diverse, welcoming community for all students.

What is the hardest college to get into?

It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: there is no objective hardest college to get into! If we use college acceptance rates as the only criteria, however, the answer is interesting: Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia! Why does Curtis rank higher than Harvard? In terms of the applicant pool and the open number of seats, the ratio is slightly smaller at Curtis. Even before the pandemic, based on Fall 2019’s college acceptance rates, Stanford University outranked Harvard. Do these answers surprise you?

College acceptance rates are just one tool in the vast landscape of college admissions. There’s no single “hardest college to get into,” as different colleges look for different things. For instance, a given student might get into a STEM powerhouse like Caltech but not a liberal arts school like Swarthmore, since these schools prioritize different things.

Generally speaking, Ivy League institutions (including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) tend to be some of the hardest colleges to get into. MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and several other universities also fall into this category. However, it’s impossible to objectively compare college acceptance rates. After all, as we’ve discussed, university acceptance rates depend on a variety of factors!

Is a higher or lower acceptance rate better?

While many prestigious schools are also some of the hardest colleges to get into, this doesn’t mean any acceptance rate makes a school better or worse.

For the most part, think about university acceptance rates as a tool. When making your college list, use acceptance rates to make sure you have enough balance—for instance, don’t just apply to schools with acceptance rates under 10%. Beyond this, you shouldn’t depend on college acceptance rates to judge whether schools are “good” enough.

At the end of the day, most universities will provide quality educational opportunities. The admissions process is about determining where you will shine. Don’t let a higher admissions rate discourage you from attending a college that is an otherwise great fit!

College Acceptance Rates: Final Thoughts

University acceptance rates depend on a variety of factors. They can be useful as you build your school list. However, be careful not to take these numbers too seriously! No statistic should keep you from attending the school that will best serve your needs.

Colleges with high acceptance rates are not inherently bad, nor are the hardest colleges to get into necessarily the best. At the end of the day, focus on finding the best school for you, regardless of its acceptance rate.


This informational essay was written by Theodore Longlois, Harvard ‘16, and Abbie Sage, Harvard ‘21. If you want help planning your future from our CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

college acceptance rates college list harvard ivy league