The gamble of college admissions: is the “game” more competitive than ever?


Cici He, Staff Writer

Every year, millions of high school seniors take part in the college admissions process, hoping to get a spot into their dream colleges. It is only natural for students to put their best foot forward and aim for top schools in the country. However, it hasn’t always been this way. Even though higher education has been praised and valued for centuries, there has been an even bigger emphasis on college attendance that has been placed on millennials and Gen-Z when compared with their parents from the older generations. In fact, it is becoming more and more common for a college degree to be expected or even necessary when applying for jobs. This sparks the question of, “Is college admissions more competitive than ever?”

There has been a noticeable trend of lower acceptance rates over the past few years, which has been especially prevalent in the 2021-2022 admissions year. Lower acceptance rates have multiple causes, such as more students taking gap years through the COVID-19 pandemic and applying a year later, along with high school seniors of the class of 2021 and 2022. After doing some digging, I came across a significant factor: Most college admissions rates remain relatively high (with the average percentage of all US 4 year colleges being a comfortable 66%). The shrinking acceptance rates are a trend most prevalent within the most prestigious and top ranked schools in the country, such as the Ivies and UCs to name a few. With that said, the stress of extremely low acceptance rates is one that students who apply to top universities face. 

Photo credit: Pew Research Center

To expand on the reasons behind why college acceptance rates have decreased dramatically and why college admissions seem more competitive than ever, the trend of an increasing pool of applicants is one of the answers. In fact, the number of admitted students per year to top schools has remained almost constant for decades, since most schools don’t have the space on campus to expand and build new dormitories and classrooms. For example, Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts had an acceptance rate of 20% in 2021, which dropped by 6.7% in fall 2022. New York University’s admissions rate dropped 12.2% for the class of 2026. The significant decrease can be explained by the increase in applicants – more than 105,000 students applied, the highest number of applicants in NYU’s history. Other prestigious universities around the country are following these trends of shocking decreasing acceptance rates due to their attempts to accommodate the increasing applicant pool. 

Other than maintaining a relatively similar class size at colleges, not only are more students shooting their shots at their dream colleges, more of these applicants are becoming increasingly qualified. It is no secret that having straight As is no longer the only requirement to guarantee a spot at top universities. Many students are able to maintain a good GPA, participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and arts, volunteer in their local communities, and acquire leadership roles. Furthermore, colleges across the country have always been competing to earn “brand names” and to be recognized as the top colleges in the country. The overqualification of the student body ties into this issue of how colleges tend to put more consideration into their self benefits of admitting legacy students and athletes instead of admitting students purely based on consideration of the qualities of each applicant. 

The combination of competition between students applying for colleges and the competition between colleges to be “the best school in the country” is not new, but it is essential to acknowledge this trend and how it adds to students’ stress and mental health problems. Many students have reported experiencing burnout from high expectations and unmanageable workloads. Moreover, with the increasing pressure and difficulty to gain access to higher education, college dropout rates have increased over the past few decades, averaging 40% for undergraduate college students in 2022 in the US. It is clear that there has not been enough emphasis and care for students’ mental well-being and happiness in the college admissions process and that work must be done. However, it is difficult to identify efficient next steps. For example, senior Vivian Li (22’) at La Jolla Country Day School said, “I think the process is stupid. I also realize, however, that there is no unflawed way for colleges to decide on who to admit and that this holistic review is an attempt at a fairer process. That said, it still is so much unnecessary time, energy, stress, and anxiety.” 

As we continue to observe the college admissions process in the next few years and decades, there is no doubt that “the game” will grow even more competitive and stressful for students. That is, if the education system remains the same. While there is no perfect solution to the admissions process, work can be done to ameliorate it. Government officials, school teachers, admission officers, high school students, college students – everyone – must join together, sit down, and take a moment to really talk about what future of education they want to see. “In the end, such long-needed changes to the application process might make high school less a game of jumping through hoops for the college application and more about making friends, joining student government, enjoying homecoming, and taking interesting classes—in short, more about having a more meaningful experience, and one that prepares them for the college students they’ll become.” – The Atlantic.

Cover photo credit: Alison Kenatson