Why You Should Consider Non-Elite Colleges: What The 2022-23 Common App Report Tells Us

This year, despite increasingly bank-breaking tuition costs and dwindling acceptance rates, more students than ever before applied to elite and name-brand schools – including those from the Ivy League.

According to a report published by The Common App in January of 2023, the number of applications colleges received jumped 20% from 2019-2020 to 2022-2023, concentrated heavily in elite and name-brand schools. And with this overwhelming influx of applications, several colleges saw their acceptance rates drop sharply.

With such grim data at our fingertips, then, why do students– and parents– continue to sacrifice their social lives, their savings, and their mental health in hopes of bagging an Ivy League acceptance letter?

Prestige, of course, plays a role. Students and parents alike are entranced by the prospect of graduating with a degree from a school whose name is known and respected worldwide. There’s also a pervading idea that elite, name-brand schools are a surefire way to secure a more fulfilling and prosperous career after graduation.

This New York Times article contradicts that idea by referencing a passage in Jeffrey Selingo’s book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. In his book, Selingo describes how Virginia Tech, with its 70% acceptance rate and generous merit-based scholarships, produces graduates who– ten years after graduation– earn virtually the same salaries as alumni from University of Virginia, where only 27% of applicants are accepted each year, and a mere 6% of scholarship funds are awarded on a merit basis. 

And while many have been fooled into thinking that the lower a college’s acceptance rate drops, the more prestigious it must be, this is only a tiny piece of the big picture. While this number plays a major factor in determining a college’s position on national ranking lists like that of the U.S. News & World Report, a college’s acceptance rate is only the tip of the iceberg.

Admissions committees at elite schools are now being faced with an increasingly convoluted task of selecting a limited number of students for admission from an ever-expanding pool of extremely qualified applicants. Many of these students– thousands, perhaps– will share the same flawless application materials: perfect GPA and standardized test scores; multiple AP credits; numerous extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and professional experiences; and a collection of well-written, attention-grabbing essays. 

How, then, does a college choose one student over the next? It often comes down to major choice, demographic quotas, personal preference, or even mere chance. There are only so many seats in the Computer Science or Psychology classrooms of any given college campus, now matter how many promising students have applied. Popular departments can increase their capacity over time, but never quickly enough to keep up with the demand of trendy majors. 

And when colleges do attempt to increase the supply of seats to keep up with demand of degrees, it often results in overcrowded classrooms and labs, where a limited number of both professors and resources are stretched too thinly. 

The New York Times highlights this issue, too, detailing Selingo’s investigation of how admissions officers at name-brand schools like Emory University and University of Washington would “[round] out a class in a particular year –  a point guard, a cellist, more prospective chemistry majors, more students from Wyoming.”

Does this mean you should give up on any hope of attending an elite college if you’re not a cello-playing Chemistry major from Wyoming (who is also a basketball star)?

Not at all!

But the key to a successful college application experience has always been about balance. When building your college list, for every Ivy League school you set your sights on, be sure to allocate an equal amount of attention to researching and demonstrating interest in both public and private schools that fall outside the realm of the elite. 

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic era and enter into a new normal, only time will tell how colleges choose to respond to the changing admissions landscape. But one thing will remain true, no matter what: choosing where to apply to college shouldn’t be taken lightly. Equip yourself with a well-balanced list of Reach, Match, and Safety schools that you’ve thoroughly researched to ensure they’re the right fit for you personally, beyond their position on a national rankings list or the brand attached to their name. That way, no matter where you choose to spend your college years, you can rest assured that you’ve made the right choice for you.

Madison B.

College Counselor

Washington University St. Louis (Full Scholarship Recipient)

Applying to college? Find out more about our college counseling services here!

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