Rising College Rejection Rates: What Parents and Teens can do to Avoid the Heartbreak

Acceptance rates among the most elite colleges and universities have broken the hearts of many teens aiming to be admitted to them, as evidenced by the statistics trickling in for the 2022-23 school year. As you can see from a few examples below, acceptance rate drops have occurred across the board:

Amherst College12%7%
Boston College26%16%
Columbia University6.7%3.7%
Dickinson College52%35%
Duke University7.7%6.2%
Emory University19%11%
Florida State University32%23%
Georgetown University17%12%
Harvard University5.0%3.2%
Washington University in St. Louis16%10%
University of California, Berkeley17%12%
Vanderbilt University12%6.1%

What can we attribute the admission-drops to, you may be asking? Well, one of the biggest factors is the test-optional policies adopted by many private and public institutions when the pandemic struck. At the start of COVID-19, schools were closed and vaccines weren’t available, which prevented many students from taking the SAT and the ACT. As a result, students assumed they had a greater chance of being accepted into schools that normally required high test scores now that they were no longer being used to make admission decisions. Ironically, the exact opposite occurred – the increased applications actually made admissions chances worse.

Based on this new reality, the need for students to be more realistic when building their college list is arguably more important than ever. Moreover, when it comes to college affordability, unbeknownst to many parents and students, the college list is the most important factor. Starting with the right list of candidate schools is essential to the desired outcome!

With that said, as students craft their list, it’s important to include schools that fall into one of three categories commonly recommended by high school counselors: 1) reach or dream, 2) target or match, and 3) safety. Below are definitions of each:

  • Reach or dream schools are those in which the student’s grades and test scores are lower than the average score range of last year’s first-year class. These are schools that may be a challenge to get into or have a low chance of acceptance, but is realistic enough to be worth the effort of applying. In a nutshell, these schools should be considered a reach by just about everyone, as rejection is the most common outcome – even amongst those that are high school valedictorians or that earn perfect SAT or ACT scores!
  • Target or match schools are those in which the student’s grades and test scores fall well within the school’s average range of the recently accepted class. There are no guarantees, but students have a good chance of getting admitted and these schools are also good matches for the student overall.
  • Safety schools are those in which the student’s grades and test scores are higher than the average score range of the previous year’s first-year class. Students should be reasonably certain to be admitted. However, I warn against picking a school just to have it on the list – make sure the student will be happy to attend and can envision themselves there in the future.

Test-Optional and Merit Scholarship Implications

If the school has a test-optional policy, it may still be a reach or target school if the student’s score is lower than what is published. However, the student’s GPA should be on par with what’s published, preferably higher. Also, keep in mind that while test-optional schools don’t require students to submit standardized test scores, it is very important for families to make sure that withholding them won’t jeopardize their student’s chances for institutional merit-aid.

To find standardized test score figures, visit the College Board’s website and type in the name of the school. Once the institution’s profile appears, click on the Admissions tab.

Final Word

Students who take their time to research and create a balanced list of schools are more likely to have a less stressful application process than those who apply to dozens of schools. They not only end up with a list of colleges that they’re excited about, many of which are well within the possibility of admittance, but they also tend to feel more in control of their college destiny. Why? Because they have applied to a range of schools rather than a long list of highly selective colleges and are therefore not entirely at the mercy of admissions decisions. So, it is very important to dedicate ample time to research schools of interest.

However, creating the right list is only part of the process. Parents and teens need to also be mindful of the financial piece as well, meaning the price must be reasonable and/or the student should have an excellent chance of getting a price-discount from the school. Thus, if money is an issue, it is critical to look at the financial implications of applying to reach/dream, target/match, and safety schools. In addition, given that financial aid and merit scholarships are tied to the kind of school the student is applying to, it is imperative that families get a heads up on the cost – which could limit the student’s expectations – BEFORE applying.

Families all too often fall short on these extremely important tasks. If the teen creates a problematic list, parents can end up paying more for college than they can afford. If you want to be proactive rather than reactive and need help with constructing a college list that is both reasonable and financially doable, check out our Kickstarter Platform. We will help you finalize your list this summer, BEFORE applying in the fall, which helps ensure that parents and teens are all on the same page.


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