Why is getting into an Ivy so difficult and unpredictable?

Taking a look at the figures goes some way to explain this but doesn’t tell the whole story. From the student perspective, the fact that the Ivy League represents 0.2% of higher education institutions in the USA offers lessons for their research

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 10:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 10:32am

Firstly, let’s deal with the use of the term Ivy. The “Ivy League” is in fact an athletic conference: that is, a group of eight colleges in the northeast of the United States that happen to play American football against one another. As they are all highly selective, not to mention prestigious, the term is often used or misused to describe the most selective colleges in the US as a whole. In fact, the likes of Stanford, MIT and even Chicago are more selective than some of the Ivy League, but are not part of it.

So, let’s simply say “most selective” and examine why admission seems so difficult. I was asked this question a few years back by my employers at the time: more specifically, “why are more of our students getting into the top UK universities but fewer into the top US colleges?”

My somewhat curt answer was “do the maths!” I took what can reasonably be regarded as the top five US colleges and compared them to the top five UK universities. The undergraduate populations of the former are often smaller than many realise and the following figures, updated recently, are striking:

Schools US Top 5 UK Top 5
Undergrad Places Available 7,639 23,707
Population 323m 66m

As you can see, this is not rocket science, but it should not deter potential US applicants. I would remind both students and parents that the breadth and depth of quality of higher education in the US means there are many opportunities there for those who can take off the Ivy League blinkers.

However, it is undeniable that “admit rates” (the percentage of those who apply that are accepted) have become disturbingly low, reaching 5 per cent for Stanford and Harvard.

Remembering that their undergraduate populations are not huge, the rising number of applications is the main reason for this: online application is so much easier and international applications (many of which are utterly unrealistic), in particular, have rocketed in recent years. Add to that the hype surrounding these brand name colleges and you have most of the answer.

For the class of 1997, Northwestern received 12,640 applications and accepted 43 per cent: last year, the figures were 38,259 and 11 per cent, respectively.

It is also true to say that application to selective US colleges, particularly several, usually takes more time and effort, with standardised tests (SAT/ACT) and different college essays demanded by most institutions. With the exception of applications to Oxbridge, or for medicine, a similar set of applications for the UK involves just one form: the UCAS application.

What frustrates many is the unpredictability of acceptance to such colleges, exacerbated by occasional reports (true or false) of quotas for Asian students for some of these brand names. The bottom line is that these colleges do want bright students, but not necessarily the 1,000 with the highest grades: what they want is an interesting freshman class that is talented and diverse. If the orchestra is short of a trombone player, it might be your lucky year, all things being equal. In general, grades will get you into the ballpark and then essays, recommendations and activities will play their part.

Other factors can include athletic recruitment, legacy, state residence and demonstrated interest. It is not a science and at the stage where admissions committees are examining the “possibles”, there can be a significant degree of subjectivity (rather like many job applications).

It’s worth pointing out that the average “admit rate” for all US colleges is 66 per cent’, that domestic enrolment is actually falling due to current demographic trends and that, despite the “Trump Effect”, demand for international applicants is strong. Maintain the ambition, take off the blinkers and you will be fine.