University Selection: Acceptance Rates Overview

In 2014, University of California at Berkeley received the highest number of freshman applications in its history; the number of available student spaces remains about the same.

Top institutions are becoming increasingly competitive.  Some accept as few as 6% of their freshman applicants. [1]  This means a couple of things for you, as a student preparing to apply to college – and about to compete with the thousands of other very smart and very qualified students vying for spots at top institutions.

If you want to attend a top university – and the quality of education you receive will reap you benefits for a lifetime – you must begin to plan early.  Your GPA matters, as do the classes you take to comprise that GPA.  Your SAT scores should be in the uppermost percentiles.  If they’re not, retake your SATs until you get top marks.  In some places, your SAT score matters about as much as your GPA.  Yes, the score from a single test can be as important as your entire cumulative GPA over 3+ years of academic work.  This is largely because high schools grade differently, with varying levels of ease or difficulty, but the SAT is standard so it truly measures students against each other, regardless of where they attended high school.

As universities begin to reflect lower rankings, you’ll find that acceptance rates go up.  Many universities show an acceptance rate of more than 50%.  Accepting 1 of every 2 applicants, these are not very competitive institutions.  If your GPA and SAT numbers are decent, and you are at least somewhat competitive in other areas (e.g. school organizational involvement, volunteer service), your chances of getting in are high.

If you dream of attending a top university but your marks aren’t competitive, consider taking a different route.  The transfer system works wonders for ambitious people who may have gotten a slower start toward excellent marks, but don’t want their entire lives to be defined by a bad quarter sophomore year, for example.  It’s perfectly fine to begin your college career at a junior college or even the local four-year college or university, and transfer to your university of choice after a couple of years.  People do this all the time.  In the end, your degree will be from the university from which you actually earn your Bachelor’s degree, and no one will even know you attended any other institution unless you tell them.

If this is the route you decide to take, keep your grades up during your first couple of years.  One bad quarter can destroy your chances of getting in to where you ultimately want to go.  If you have a bad quarter and your grades aren’t excellent, consider withdrawing completely from college that quarter (before the deadline, usually at the end of week 7 or 8 in the quarter system).  A “W” (for withdrawal) won’t factor into your GPA, but a 1.0 will, and can literally destroy your chances of transferring to the institution of your choice, especially if the bad grade is in a key course.

Top universities are incredibly competitive.  There are also ways to get into them through a slightly more circuitous route.  If this is your dream, don’t give up on it.  Find a way to make it happen.

Michele Poff, Ph.D.
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