Selective Universities Admissions Series: 2 What Do The Numbers Mean?

*In this installment, Mr. Bill Parker breaks down what the numbers mean for selective schools. He also discusses the mysterious May 1st deadline and what it entails for both the college admission and student.

This seems like a good place to talk about admission numbers in general. Many descriptions of a college focus on the numbers, specifically, on how many students applied for a place there and the percentage who end up getting accepted. These are good, though limited, ways of looking at a school. Why are they limited? 

Let’s compare two selective schools, Williams College, a private liberal arts college in the out of the way western Massachusetts town of (where else?) Williamstown, with Cornell University, an Ivy League institution located mostly in far upstate and isolated Ithaca, New York. Both institutions share being well removed from any urban center and call home to locales that often get extremely cold and snowy in winter; both also have earned widespread respect for their academics: the authoritative Fiske Guide to Colleges (2016 ed.) awards each school five stars, its highest rating. Fiske also tells us that Williams, which generally ranks among the best private liberal arts colleges, had (roughly -- I’m rounding for ease of analysis) 6,850 applicants, an excellent showing. Cornell reportedly tips the scales with 40,000 applicants, over 5.8 times more than Williams. Does this mean Cornell is 5.8 times better -- or any better -- than Williams? Not necessarily. The answer depends on what an applicant is looking for -- a small college or a major university, generalization or specialization. 

Let’s think of each of them for a moment. Williams has -- or is -- just one school, a liberal arts college. From Fiske, it accepted 18 percent of applicants -- so by no means is it easy to get into -- and enrolled 45 percent of those it accepted, meaning the remaining 55 percent chose to matriculate someplace else. Doing the math, 45 percent of 18 percent of 6,850 applicants gives us some 555 freshmen who will be coming to Williams in the fall. What about Cornell? From Fiske, Cornell accepted 16 percent of its applicants and enrolled 52 percent of them, so from a raw numbers perspective, Cornell is also very selective. Moreover, over half the kids it accepted decided to go there.

So at this point, the two schools seem roughly comparable.

The math on Cornell: 52 percent of 18 percent of 40,000 applicants gives us roughly 3,330 entering freshmen last fall, a number that dwarfs the 2,100 total student enrollment at Williams. But then, Cornell is a full university. Along with separate graduate and professional schools, Cornell is also home to seven (count ‘em, 7) undergraduate colleges, four of them privately endowed (Architecture, Art & Planning, Arts & Sciences, Engineering, and, Hotel Administration) and three publicly supported (Agriculture & Life Sciences – Cornell is New York State’s land grant university, Human Ecology, and Industrial & Labor Relations). Data for each of these seven colleges are combined into the numbers published in Fiske and other guides. This mixture of public and private colleges, each college tasked with a vastly different mission and boasting an appropriately unique admissions profile, renders the combined admissions data for Cornell less than ideal; for someone interested in, say, Engineering or Hotel Management, the aggregate Cornell numbers would seem almost meaningless, and more digging will be required to find out the true story. (Incidentally, there is also a Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.  One assumes that on rare occasion, people confuse it with its similarly named cousin in Ithaca.)

 IMAGE CREDIT:  Dodgeball Time

IMAGE CREDIT: Dodgeball Time

All of this is a roundabout way of suggesting that when you look at a given school, it pays to do your homework, to get into the “soft” side of a college to better understand what may lie in store for you; schools differ. The percent of accepted applicants who opt to attend a school is known in the college admissions sphere as yield and this measure provides a strong, perhaps the best, indication of the drawing power – though not necessarily the academic quality - of a school. At first blush, Williams College’s yield of 45 percent may not seem all that great - after all, more than half the students accepted chose to enroll someplace else, right? But some fine schools have a yield of 40 percent or even lower, and Williams is generally considered to be one of the two or three most outstanding small private liberal arts colleges out there. This means a yield of 40 percent or higher may not be all that bad; in fact, it’s pretty good. Perhaps another way to think about this number is to consider the other schools that Williams’ applicants also apply to – check out the Williams College write-up in the Fiske Guide. A yield of 50 percent or above is considered exceptionally high, and 60 percent or above, stratospheric.

Following the release of regular notification decisions, the magic date, the response date, for all colleges and universities is, by common agreement, May 1. On this day, accepted students must reply, both to the college of their choice (“Save a place for me.  I’m coming!”) and to any other school that also accepted them (“Sorry, I’m NOT coming.”). By May 1, for the first time, schools have a pretty good idea of the makeup of their incoming freshman class. But not the final word; for all colleges and universities, the number of students who announce they will show up next September falls off a bit over the summer, a phenomenon known as summer melt. The reasons for melt are varied, but include: 

  • I’d rather remain closer to home/Mama
  • it costs too much
  • my family circumstances have changed
  • I’ve been taken off the wait list by my first choice
  • and many more.

Admissions departments are aware of this and expect melt to occur, so they purposely accept a few more students in the spring, knowing that, by September, their numbers will drop a little. (If the numbers drop too much, then they turn to their wait list.) Students who remain committed to attending and actually show up will form September’s entering freshman class.

An aside:  How did May 1 become the commonly agreed-upon deadline for admitted students’ reply? 

Until 25-30 years ago, there was no universal deadline, and many accepted applicants waited long into the summer to reply.  And so, as kids made up their mind and summer melt reduced the numbers of matriculating students whom a college could (literally) bank on to show up for freshman orientation, schools running short of numbers would turn to their wait list and invite the most attractive candidates there to come on in, we have a place for you.  It also meant that kids culled from the wait list then had to decline their prior acceptance at another, usually less prestigious, school, which then had to scramble to fill the resulting unanticipated opening(s) in its class by turning to its own wait list.  While this bumping went on all summer, it reached its climax in late August.  By necessity, last minute invitations tended to be swift, sudden and without much pretense of grace:  Dear wait-listed applicant.  We have a place for you.  You have 36 hours to respond.  Sincerely… The loss (some would term it poaching) of incoming students from schools below the upper-most end of the prestige ladder, cascading down the rungs, meant that on opening day, some schools down the ladder would inevitably come up short.  This was explained to me in terms of Princeton, a couple of weeks before opening day, turning to its wait list and snaring kids from, let’s say, nearby Bucknell.  The students Bucknell loses to Princeton are almost certainly among its very best acceptees -- hey! they were good enough to make it into Princeton.  Predictably, the Bucknells of the world, left scrambling with only a few short days to fill out their class -- and with kids nowhere nearly so appealing and talented as those lured away to Princeton -- cried foul.  Eventually, their plaints were heard, and the problem was resolved by making May 1 the universal deadline for accepted students to respond to their offers of admission – yes or no.   To be sure, a school can still turn to its wait list to fill out its freshman class, but the wild gyrations of 25 years ago that occurred immediately prior to freshman orientation no longer take place. 

On that note, I guess I’ve given you plenty to chew over until our next installment. Good luck, and enjoy the search as much as possible. Think of it as an exciting chance to visit new, interesting places and, maybe, meet new friends. I’ll talk more about visiting in a later part of this series.