College Acceptance Rates

I was wondering: do college acceptance rates actually mean anything? It there a difference between someone who attended Harvard in the 1960s versus someone who attended Harvard in the 2010s?

Is there a significant difference between a 80% and 60% acceptance rate?

What about a 5% and a .9% acceptance rate?

Admission rates do not mean that much without context of the strength of applicant and admit pools.

That said, most of the more selective colleges have gotten more selective since the 1960s, due to increased population of high school seniors resulting in more highly qualified applicants applying to more selective colleges (“more selective” doesn’t mean just the super selective colleges, but state flagships, many non-flagship state universities, and private schools of that level of selectivity).


Would a lower acceptance rate though mean higher difficulty? Or is that not true?

In general, the lower the acceptance rates the more difficult it is to be accepted. You need to review the colleges common data sets to see what the average GPA and test scores are for each college and if your score are within the range of accepted students.

Lastly, if your are asking if the college has “higher difficulty” once accepted, the answer is probably yes. The expectations are high and the student body will be stronger. It also depends on major and college within the university.

The primary significance of a very low acceptance rate is that it is very hard to get admitted.

What schools are you focused on that are not Ivy League or with super low acceptance rates? Have you come up with some that could be safeties for you?

Higher difficulty of what? The college program?

Harvard has a very low acceptance rate, but there are some who will tell you it is harder to flunk out of Harvard than it is to get in. One would expect a top college to have a strong level of academic supports available.

Acceptance rates mean little. There are some public flagships with high acceptance rates overall, but significantly smaller acceptance rates to certain programs within the university. And low acceptance rates do not mean that college’s programs, across-the-board, are all excellent - or a good fit for every student.

My father, at the time of his retirement, had a secretary who was a Harvard grad. It is fair to say that she did not need a Harvard degree to do that job, although it was a well-paid position at the time. My husband’s company recently fired a Harvard grad because he was too snooty to go out on the plant’s production floor, which his job sometimes necessitated. Guess who won’t be hiring any more Harvard grads?

No one statistic (ex. acceptance rates) should be taken in a vacuum. Typically a lower acceptance rate equates to a higher degree of difficulty of getting in. – that seems obvious. However, there is a wealth of information out there for each college (ex. average GPA, standardized tests, graduation rates, number of applicants etc.) that should all be taken into account so do your research.

AGAIN I BEG YOU TO FOCUS ON YOUR OWN LIFE AND YOUR OWN SITUATION. It should not matter in the least to you if it was easier to get into Harvard in 1960 or 2010 – it simply doesn’t pertain to you.

Maybe I hold an element of insecurity, but the idea that if I got into a college now, and then 20 years later someone tells me “My acceptance into this college was harder than yours” seems to be absolutely counterfeit and a blatant invalidation of my hard work.

An article I read in The Atlantic was interesting.

It noted that “But “beneath the headlines and urban legends,” Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, says their 2010 report shows that it was no more difficult for most students to get into college in 2004 than it was in 1992. While the Center plans to update the information in the next few years to reflect the past decade of applicants, students with the same SAT and GPA in the 90’s basically have an equal probability of getting into a similarly selective college today.”

And frankly, some minorities are more underrepresented than others. The world will (falsely) tell you that America is a equal and meritocratic society, but that is dead wrong. I know that from firsthand immersion.

Groundwork2022 There are always people who say that it’s harder to get into Harvard/Ivy than stay in. They are never graduates of these schools. CC is also replete with stories of someone hiring a Harvard grad that didn’t meet their standard, or someone with a state U degree who was infinitely more successful than the Harvard/Ivy grad. Usually it’s sour grapes. Often they are basing success on the amount of $ or title of the person. Single data points are not formulas.

Why would someone work as a secretary as a Harvard grad? And since she was female, perhaps she was actually a Radcliffe girl? Or maybe she just wanted flexibility or was working on a Phd. Lots of reasons. We don’t know them.

I find these reads so tiresome. Did you graduate from Harvard? Do you know for a fact that it was hard to get in but you blew off classes and assignments or did very little and still graduated? Doubtful.

As an Ivy grad (3 degrees) and one who has also taught and attended other schools, I can tell you for a fact that these top schools are filled with top students from around the world, who work hard and who find success in various ways. Few are lazy, few coast and many are quite stellar. That is my personal and direct observation. I also think the students from these schools from years past were also the top of their game. Yes, things have changed but in the last 30 or so years, you need to have been fairly strong to get accepted.
ndful of weaker legacies but it’s not like the early 20 th Century.

I think it’s harder to get into selective colleges than it was years ago because the number of colleges and spaces in the freshman classes therein have remained relatively static while the number of high school students and applications have increased. Some of the ridiculous single digit acceptance rates are attributable to numbers of applications: as they increase the acceptance rate goes down, no matter how qualified or unqualified those applicants may be. However, as the population of the US has grown and with the introduction of significantly more international applications as well as the push for more and more diversity in class make up, it is definitely more difficult to gain acceptance to selective colleges.

You might also find this thread interesting.


Thanks for the link. Some data, though, could be interpreted as contradicting your claim.

The challenge with making such absolute statements is that someone will prove you wrong. So let me say as a recent grad, it’s harder to get into an Ivy League school than stay in. ?

My classmates and I joke all the time that we probably couldn’t get into our HYPS school today based on what we read and experienced as our kids prepared to apply to colleges. However, if we peel the onion, and knowing the background of many of my classmates and their post college accomplishments, I think we are just as qualified as any current student. The admissions rate back then was 20-25%, but that was driven by much fewer applications (no Common App and you had to type or hand write each unique application), not lower standards. What is probably true is instead of picking from 2,500 qualified “finalists” back in my day, that number is 10,000 today.

Kind of off topic, but I think one of the solutions to reducing application anxiety and the crazy unproductive stuff that goes on is to reduce the number of applications any one student can submit to a number less than 10. It would force every family to think more carefully and spend more time finding match and safety schools and less time and resources would be expended on “lottery” approaches to reach schools. The admissions decisions and process at highly selective schools would also be less random as AO’s are processing fewer app’s and making final decisions on a smaller pool.

Low acceptance rate tells you about popularity and desirability of a school. They get to pick some of the best from different pools and make a talented and diverse cohort. They also pick many less deserving applicants for institutional reasons.

That doesn’t mean all of their students are exceptional in everything. If someone got in because he is an Olympic wrestler, he won’t suddenly become great in academics. If someone got picked because they were the only decent first generation affirmative action applicant from rural Georgia, it doesn’t mean they are going to be more successful than Asian valedictorian from Austin, who wasn’t considered because they already accepted as many Asians from Austin they wanted.

If a Saudi oil tycoon’s son was accepted for his father’s $20 million donation, it doesn’t mean he is as good or any better than rejected fantastic applicants from Arabian peninsula.

I’ll talk more about the opposite. The high acceptance rate does not mean a very high achieving student won’t get a very high quality education at that school. The degree and the end goal have a lot to do with it. The state can dictate to their state institutions that they want them to have a high acceptance rate to give their state students a great chance to go to college even if they may have come from a high school or area with a lower quality education. Those kids often take the remedial classes and work their way into the “mainstream” college. Meanwhile very smart students are taking classes with other very smart students in honors courses, honors sections, or programs that are very competitive.

My son chose a school with a higher acceptance rate because he loved the department in his major, the opportunities, the study abroad programs, the honors college, and the atmosphere of the college. He has excelled, he is in vet school with students from the lower acceptance rate colleges and so far has done as well or better than they have. He feels his background is as good as any of those students.

So the answer is it depends, it is not the main factor. We did not look at it other than to be sure he didn’t have a list consisting only of low acceptance schools. Turns out he just didn’t like those schools for good reasons that had nothing to do with their acceptance rate, his test scores or grades. I feel people look at numbers way too much instead of actually looking at the student, the school, the goal, and the department for fit and cost.

Harvard has a graduation rate of 97%. That means that, at very least, 88% of the students in the bottom 25% of Harvard’s accepted students are graduating successfully. Based on the data from the Harvard, 85% of the students who are, academically, at the top 10% of the Harvard applicants are rejected.

So, the success rate of the top 10% of Harvard applicants at admissions is 15%, but the success rate of the bottom 40% of applicants at graduation is 88%.

Ergo - it is MUCH easier to graduate from Harvard than it is to be accepted.

Since, based again on the Harvard lawsuit data, the majority of these bottom 40% of applicants were heavily hooked, it is not even as though they were picked because of hidden intellectual depths which were revealed by the perception of the AOs.

There is no doubt about added value of studying with a highly selective and multitalented student body. Obviously, college’s wealth of resources, established reputation and alumni connections are added bonus.

Also beyond doubt that a high achiever would do good at any school and find success (if he kept working hard) but an elite school sure can give him an added boost.


  1. The odds of someone saying that are tiny.
  2. If they do who cares? You can only get into a college at the point in time when you apply.
  3. Please stop worrying about what others MAY think or MAY do at some point 20+ years in the future. It is a waste of your time and energy.

AGAIN…focus on your current situation.

2. That is a very good point.
3. Exactly.

Thanks for your reply…

No offense to happytimes2001, but that does seem insensitive and elitist for you to say that.

There was someone on CollegeConfidential who said this, I think it sums it up well:
"EyeVeee, having seen their apps, they aren’t the intellectual top XXX. They’re mortals. They’re kids. This idea that top grades, some awards, etc, makes them superior is off. It drives the narrative. People want to be able to say their kids go to Yale or Stanford, eg. This idea that makes them ‘special,’ just for being admitted.

It’s an honor, sure. A nice win. But then the real work starts. You make your future. Or not."

You are NOT extraordinary simply because you attend an Ivy League school. Frankly, that notion is laughable. You are distinguished if you do, but ultimately, what you do in your career is MUCH more important.