You’re not imagining it — it feels damn near impossible to get into top colleges right now
By Geoff Weiss | January 10, 2024, at 10:38 am EST
Members of royal families in Asia and the children of presidents are counted among the discreet clientele of Christopher Rim, the founder of Command Education, a New York City college-admissions consultancy. For some parents, the cost of getting their kids into a top university knows no bounds.
One family requested a Command tutor move into their Hamptons home for the summer — a “very, very rare” offering Rim said cost $250,000 a month. Another client was set to spend the summer on a yacht without WiFi. Rather than skipping the vacation, their parents procured a different boat so Command could videoconference with the rising senior, Rim told Business Insider.
Students, too, are going above and beyond. Instead of the model UN and chess team of yesteryear, Rim said, students increasingly focus on extracurriculars such as founding full-fledged companies and pursuing ambitious scientific-research projects. One of his clients appeared on “Shark Tank,” and another filmed for the show’s current season.
“Students are really upping the ante,” Rim said. “They’re just so much more driven, and I would say they’re more aggressive.”
According to the Common Application, which facilitates applications for 1,000 universities, total application volume rose from 5.4 million in 2019 to 7 million in 2022 — a 30% jump.
Because class sizes have been static, acceptance rates are plummeting. Harvard’s acceptance rate, for example, fell to 3.19% in 2022 — the lowest in the school’s history — and was steady last year at 3.45%.
It’s not just Ivy League universities seeing competition rise. Prestigious schools, including New York University, Northeastern, and Babson, have “skyrocketed in popularity” in recent years, Rim said. In March, for instance, NYU announced an acceptance rate of 8% for the class of 2027, which it called “a record” — down from 12.2% in 2022. In 2014, by comparison, NYU’s acceptance rate was 35%.
These numbers have forced some students to become more competitive.
“They’re seeing these acceptance rates, and they’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so much harder,'” Rim said.
The Common App and the deprioritization of standardized tests are partially responsible
Two major overhauls to the college-admissions system are predominantly responsible for the increased competition, experts told BI: the ubiquity of the Common Application and the fact that most universities no longer require standardized tests. On top of that, social media feeds into anxieties that admissions are more cutthroat than ever.
Steve Gardner, who teaches online college-prep courses to high schoolers, said that while the Common Application — which lets students apply to multiple schools with the same form — had been around since the ’70s, the internet vastly expanded its adoption over the past 15 years.
As for standardized tests, Gardner noted there were debates before 2020 about whether testing was more indicative of economic status than academic ability. After test centers shuttered during the pandemic, most schools became test-optional and never looked back.
All eight Ivy League universities accept the Common Application and don’t require standardized test scores — though noteworthy outliers on both fronts include Georgetown and MIT.
As a result of test optionality, “the barrier to entry in a sense to even apply is nonexistent,” Rim said, adding: “Now anybody can apply.”
Social media fuels a ‘storm of anxiety’ for children and parents alike
Another factor looming over the admissions process is #CollegeTok, a proliferation of discussions on TikTok about applications and admissions. In one popular — and, for many, stress-inducing — format, high schoolers open their acceptance letters as millions watch with anticipation and envy.
Gardner understands the allure of the emotionally charged content but said social media had fueled a fear of missing out for teens and their parents. Moms and dads convene in Facebook Groups, commiserating about the fate of their children and perpetuating a “storm of anxiety” that he called “heartbreaking.”
Even students who have gone megaviral for acceptance videos showing they got into multiple Ivy League schools called social media a major stressor.
Students became the envy of TikTok for their Ivy acceptance videos
In the summer, Olivia Zhang, a high-school senior, sat in front of her computer with her family, everyone decked out in Harvard merch. In a TikTok post with 18 million views, their faces nervously searched the glow of the monitor, then suddenly erupted with relief as gospel music blared.
“Dreams do come true,” Zhang captioned the clip.
With her Harvard-acceptance video, Zhang became the envy of a large swath of TikTok. But watching this kind of content influenced her application process, Zhang told BI. Worried she wouldn’t get in anywhere, she ramped up her applications from 15 to 26.
“Nowadays, you see kids applying to 30, 40, 50 sometimes — which is crazy,” said Kyungyong Lim, a Duke senior who reviews college applications on TikTok for his 260,000 followers to help students glimpse the application landscape.
Grant Tucker, a Yale freshman who went similarly viral for a video recapping his acceptance into five additional Ivy League schools, also fell victim to doomscrolling on social media during his application journey, comparing himself to candidates who seemed like the “idealized standard,” he told Business Insider.
“There’s definitely a huge amount of pressure regarding imposter syndrome and not feeling like you’re enough,” Tucker said.
He now sees it as a hapless pursuit, and urged others not to compare themselves to him. “Everybody’s story is completely different,” he said.
Students are founding businesses and nonprofits
Both Zhang and Tucker attributed their success to the nonprofit organizations they founded in high school.
Zhang’s Cancer Kids First raises money to buy gifts and build community for pediatric cancer patients. It counts 30,000 volunteers in 63 countries, she said. Tucker’s Co2nsequences, a recycling-focused nonprofit he launched in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, led him to create an accompanying podcast and children’s book.
“Eight US presidents went through Harvard,” Gardner said. “You better believe that they’re looking for the ninth.”
Gardner said that valedictorians, student-body presidents, and sports captains were no longer the Ivy ideal. Rather than well-rounded applicants, universities seek candidates with “lopsided” profiles, or outlier achievements in a focus area.
This is to avoid a class of clones and admit students who are more likely to shine glory back on the institution as alumni, says Gardner. The odds are higher when they’ve already shown success at a local level.
“The game is constantly evolving,” added Lim, who’s become fully enmeshed in the admissions world through the piles of applications he’s reviewed, from Olympic judo champions to candidates with asteroids named after them.
Schools are rethinking their admissions processes amid a glut of applicants
An exponential increase in applications has benefited schools financially and reputationally.
“A lot of these schools are making so much money from these application fees, which are $80, $90,” Rim said. “If they had 50,000 applicants multiplied by $90” — or $4.5 million — “that’s how much money they’re making just from application fees alone.”
Rim added that it’s also important for schools to keep their acceptance rates low. “They realize the more applicants they have, the lower the acceptance rate,” he said.
Keeping a low acceptance rate is key for the all-important U.S. News & World Report annual ranking, Gardner added.
But some schools are adjusting amid a glut of applicants. In 2023, Yale revamped its admissions process, adding a step called “initial review.” On a Yale podcast, admissions officers said that before applications were fully reviewed — as they had been in the past — there’s a new prescreening process to weed out ones who aren’t a fit.
Officers cited the rise in applications, from 36,000 three years ago to 52,000 last year, as the reason for the change, including an increase in “uncompetitive” and “unqualified” applicants.
And as the game gets more and more competitive year after year, students know they must rise to untold challenges.
“They want world leaders,” Tucker, the Yale freshman, said. “I guess that’s what they saw in me. So we’ll see.”
Originally published on Business Insider on January 10, 2024