I don't know what to believe regarding chance of admissions

I am hoping some people here with a son or daughter who went through the college application process last year can provide some guidance. We have been doing research on US News, Niche, Unigo and other sources, and there appears to be a disconnect between what different sources say are the chances of a student with a given set of grades and test scores being admitted to specific colleges or universities. I don’t know what source to trust, and given the current environment - COVID lockdowns, students deferring admissions, massive spikes in applications to highly rated schools, colleges moving away from standardized tests, and yes, the general trend for schools to base admissions on immutable characteristics rather than academic record - I don’t know if the old rules apply.

My son has a strong academic record, and he is interested in a STEM field - either Mech E or BioChem. He is pulling a 3.9 GPA UW, and is taking AP Physics, AP BC Calculus and AP Econ as a Junior. His Senior year he is scheduled to take AP Chemistry, AP Biology and AP Statistics. For electives he has focused on STEM classes like Microbiology & Genetics, Computer Programming and Engineering Design. His HS is #4 in the state (MI) and has a strong STEM curriculum. On the SATs he scored 770 math, 750 language and 6/8 essay. He is scheduled to take the ACT in June. Based on parent teacher conferences, he would receive glowing recommendations from almost all of his teachers, including his Physics and Calculus instructors.

His extracurriculars are not as strong as some other applicants, but he has not engaged in resume padding (no, he did not start an alpaca shearing club just so he could put “Club President” on an application.) He is in his third year on his school’s Robotics team (First Robotics is big in SE MI), was Varsity the first year he was eligible, and he leads a mechanical engineering team this year. He has a lot of community service with a local food bank, tutors underclassmen in math, and made NHS his Sophomore and Junior years. He has also helped a local business with product design, website design and survey design.

We started our search by building a matrix of schools based on their ranking by department in US News. We focused on schools that are within a reasonable drive of SE MI, that are strong in Mech E, BioChem and/or BioMedical E. Happily, several Big 10 schools fit the bill, and we live 1.5 hours from UofM (in-state tuition is our friend). We learned later that we were missing some great schools just because they did not offer PhDs and did not pop in our initial US News search. We have since added Rose-Hulman (more on this later). If schools still pay attention to legacies, my wife and I are alumni of Carnegie-Mellon, UIUC, Michigan State, and University of Indiana.

Below is a list of schools, along with a score for “probability of admission” based on US News and Niche “Would I be admitted” and “How do I compare” functions (since Niche allows one to enter a major, I selected “engineering” since it is more selective). A ranking of one is “almost guaranteed admission - safety” and five is “almost guaranteed rejection - reach”. These scores reflect results of Niche and US News, not necessarily what I think intuitively. Here goes nothing:
University of Michigan 2.5
Michigan State 1
Purdue 2
Rose-Hulman 2
University of Pittsburgh 2
Case Western Reserve 2
Wisconsin Madison 1
Carnegie Mellon University 3

I also ran the “match college” function at Unigo, which produced very different - and discouraging - results. According to Unigo, Purdue, UIUC, Rose-Hulman, Case Western, WI-Madison, and Pitt would all be “reach” schools with less than a 50% chance of admission. He would, however, be accepted at MSU. I knew, intuitively, that the US News/Niche results were too optimistic, but Unigo’s results were a surprise.

Based on the Unigo results, reports of applications to quality schools being up 400%, and anecdotes on forums about students with perfect grades, 1600 SATs, AP classes galore, multiple varsity letters, and a couple patents (ok, I’m exaggerating) not getting into very good, but not elite schools (think UIUC not MIT), I am starting to worry. Based on the current environment, I’ve adjusted our application strategy. First, revise expectations downward. Second, don’t assume my son will get into the school that we once considered a safety, and have multiple safeties. Third, increase the number of schools to which he applies. Fourth, apply early to the schools in which he is really interested. And finally, make the effort to show genuine interest - school visits, interviews, etc. - rather than simply use the Common App to litter the countryside with applications.

Back to Rose-Hulman… our son is going there for a HS STEM program this summer where he lives on campus and works on a team project like designing or bridge or building a hovercraft under the supervision of a professor. We are looking at this as an internship where he can see if he wants to attend the school, and they can see if he would be a good fit there. So far, we have been very impressed with RHIT, and if he likes it after this Summer it would become his top choice.

So, I am reaching out to parents with kids who went through the application process under the current crazy conditions to get a feel for what is really happening. Any guidance would be welcome.


Increasingly Worried Dad


Does your high school use Naviance or something similar? That is going to be the best place to start because it will show you where your kid compares with other students from his school. It won’t show who was a recruited athlete or who needed significant financial aid but it will give you an idea if his grades and test scores are in line with other accepted students.

IMO, you can’t go by what Niche or US News says. My D was “told” by the College Board’s college match that some Ivy League schools were matches and other highly selective sub-20% schools were safeties. Um…NO. It doesn’t work like that at all.

The few things I would keep in mind is the admission rates for various engineering and CS majors is always lower than the general published rate. In terms of legacy status, you need to look at each school. Some consider it a bump only in the ED round, some consider only undergrad. Any school where he would need significant financial aid, or merit aid, to make it affordable is a “reach” unless it is an auto admit situation.


Whatever rated UIUC as “2” (low match?) must not realize that ME and BME are two of the most selective majors there (along with CS). UIUC does admit students to alternate majors or DGS (general undeclared), but students who enroll as such and want to change into ME or BME (or CS) must earn a 3.75 college GPA just to be eligible to enter a competitive admission process to get into the major.

Wisconsin over-admits engineering students and then weeds them out with college GPA requirements substantially higher than 2.0 to stay in the major.

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First of all, don’t lose hope because your son does indeed have a strong record. You are also fortunate that you have two fine choices in state with Michigan and Michigan State.

Second, the increase in applications and lower acceptance is largely just an increase in noise except at the very top end. The percentage of strong students does not change each year, and to a large extent those same strong students end up where they should regardless of the number of applications to a school and regardless of covid.

Does your school have Naviance? If so, take a look at the scattergrams and see where your son fits relative to recent students that have applied. I expect that about 80% of similar kids get accepted to Pitt for example.

You didn’t specify class rank, but if within top 10%, kids from our local school with similar credentials get accepted to places like CMU (except for School of Computer Science), Vanderbilt, Rice, and yes, Michigan. Places like UIUC and Ga Tech just seem more random. From our school, UIUC deferred the student who was accepted to CalTech, and Ga Tech deferred a student that was accepted to Harvard, Stanford and MIT, but accepted a student considerably lower.

Would your son be happy at Michigan State? If so, then you have found a high quality safety. Perhaps add one more for safety and then you can work on a set of match and reach schools. I definitely recommend applying Michigan EA, and if you get a positive decision in December, that sets a great floor to build upon for RD if you choose.


I’ll check with our son’s advisor if they use Naviance. They are a highly rated school that is well run, so I’d be surprised if they did not.

I realize that the admission rates for engineering or CS programs are lower than less demanding majors. That is why I chose “engineering” in the Niche comparison. At CMU, the general admission rate is 15%, but computer science is only 5%.

Fortunately, we will not need financial aid, so that should help. (We started saving and investing for education when our sons were born.)

Another relevant variable is residency status for public universities. This will work in our favor for UofM and MSU, but hurt is at UIUC, Purdue and Wisconsin. Our residency in MI will likely help us with regional private schools like RHIT and Case Western, which might want to attract students from farther away. If I went to HS in Pittsburgh, I would never have been recruited or admitted by CMU.

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  1. Am I the only one who paused at AP Chem & AP Bio for autumn of Sr Year? Is typical in your son’t school? he won’t have had either class for at least a year, they are very time intensive APs- and he will be doing college apps. No matter how much you hope / expect that a lot of app work will be done over the summer, what actually happens will almost certainly be less than that- and even ‘completed’ essays need to be given one last polish before submitting. Our lot were always told to expect the college app process to be about the work of one more class.

  2. Your son is a very strong candidate for any engineering school- but you are right to be cautious: there are a lot of very strong candidates! Usually on CC long-time posters are trying to keep people from unrealistic optimism- but it’s also important not to sell your son short. What will tip him for admissions at the ‘reachier’ schools is fit, and the way to figure that out is for him to spend a lot of time researching the actual programs. He will get a good degree from any of the places that you listed (and many more besides), but figuring out the ones that suit his personality / preferences / interests will help him target the best ones for him. RH has a distinct vibe which is different the UMi, for example, which is different than UIUC. Start with MechE vs Biomedical/BioChem: the structure of some programs suits undecided students better than others. Some schools are notably stronger in one or the other of those areas. Etc.

  3. Practicalities: get the budget clear first. No point getting excited about a program & finding out it is unaffordable. Also, the Common Data Set is your friend: you can learn a lot about who gets accepted and what funding is available. For example, if he likes a school that is otherwise unaffordable, but gives generous merit aid, and his stats are well in the top 25% of the accepted student range, (data for both is in the CDS) it might be worth applying.


My wife went to undergrad at MSU, but she was also accepted at UofM. She was turned off by the poor condition of buildings and number of students with Che Guevara T-shirts and open toed sandals in Ann Arbor.

We would much rather our son attend UofM than MSU, because it has a much stronger reputation nationally and would give him more options. If he knew he wanted to stay in MI and work for the auto industry, MSU would be fine, but that is not the case. If he opts for BioChem rather than Mech E, we would be interested in MSU’s Honors Science program.

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Lots of good questions -

Given the information you shared, I think your son will do quite well.

My impression is that he will be admitted to the large majority of the schools on your list. I say this considering the difficulty of his major. My advice, however, would be for him to quickly enhance his outside of class activities. If he is too busy, don’t bother with the ACT. His 1520 is more than fine. He may not pull U Michigan and Carnegie Mellon, but he also might. Very hard to be definitive with schools at that level from just a post.

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Regarding the majors, he may want to pay attention to the post-graduation career prospects of the different majors.

Median pay levels from College Scorecard of graduates in each major who received federal financial aid:

Major University of Michigan Michigan State University
Biochemistry $28,055 $38,018
Biomedical engineering $71,015 N/A
Mechanical engineering $76,070 $75,936

I am a ‘21 parent and just want to wish your family good luck. It seems like you have a good strategy. I recommend starting on essays very early, like in June. If you have a solid safety choice that is rolling, it’s nice to get that super early. Also highly recommend early round, ED if right for your S and EA too. ED was very powerful last cycle and RD was rough for many, including very high stat kids.
Finally, some would disagree but my S applied to a high number of schools - including many 2019 stat targets - and is attending one of the last schools added, where a lower percentage of TO were accepted. S (STEM) was rejected or waitlisted for some 2019 stat targets according to the program we used, Niche, etc. TO has made all of the sources you mention less predictable but I suspect the ‘22s will have it a little better than the ‘21s.

OP, if your kid’s high school is #4 in Michigan, I would be surprised if it doesn’t have Naviance. Naviance has it’s flaws, but I found it to be a useful tool during the college search and application process. Also, one thing to keep in mind about CMU - it strives to maintain a 50/50 male to female ratio but receives a lot more applications from males than females. As a result, it’s harder for males to get in. You can check out the numbers on the Common Data Set.

The pay for biochem majors seems really low for a rigorous STEM degree. Does that median include those who are in grad school and living on a TA stipend? Something must be driving that number down artificially.

Biological science majors produce high volumes of BA/BS graduates every year, many of whom were pre-meds or other pre-health students who did not get into their desired professional schools. I.e. lots of supply compared to employer demand for such graduates.

Look up a college in College Scorecard and/or its own career survey if available. You will most likely find that biological science majors to be near the bottom end of post-graduation pay levels at the BA/BS level.

That makes sense. All the biochem majors in my circle went to med school, vet school, nursing school (RN-NP), dental school, etc.

First off, I think you have a good list and your son will see a lot of acceptances.

We used the school’s common data set to look at their acceptance rates and then dug deeper for my D’s major and the out of state/instate differences.

Naviance was only slightly helpful because it didn’t break out intended major and like your son, my D was looking for engineering.

CMU is the reachiest on the list and I don’t know if they give a legacy bump (but their common data set will have that info).

Being instate for Michigan will be a big bump.

Purdue (where my D goes) takes a lot of out of state applicants and I think they would be a match for your son. They like seeing the AP math and science courses (especially Physics C) and the heavy tech electives. They want kids who have had some engineering exposure in HS. They will also like hearing about his summer program at Rose. That will all work in his favor.

UIUC will be tougher from OOS for engineering as already noted by other posters.

Show Case Western the love. They are big on demonstrated interest.

RH, Pitt, and Michigan State should be safe.

If your son ends up liking RH this summer and the smaller school, take a look at Olin and maybe Rochester (similar to Case). If you’d like any Purdue specific info, let me know :). My D is a junior co-op chem e in honors college.


Seems like a good list. Two in-state options are great to have. I’m assuming MSU is a safety. If he gets into Michigan I’m not sure any of the other schools on the list would be a huge step-up in prestige. MSU wouldn’t be bad. Go there, do well, and go to a top school for grad school with the money saved.

I see you’re a CMU alum. Would he like that atmosphere?

Your son’s stats are fine. Take the ACT and move-on. Spend the time on essay’s. Don’t take them lightly.

You have ME and Bio as possible majors. What if he wants to switch? How easy is that to do at each school on your list? Assume that transferring to engineering is more difficult.

Be sure to apply to all the Honors programs at the large state universities. They can have nice perks like early registration. Can be worth its weight in gold at large schools.

If he likes Case be sure to show demonstrated interest. Maybe add Ohio State for variety and they might offer merit. What about Georgia Tech or Rice?

A few comments.

(1) If you look at the Common Data Sets for the respective schools – as several of the other posters suggest – Section C7 tells you the general weight that the school gives to both academic and non-academic admission factors, including legacy status (“alumni/ae relation”). Sections C9-C11 give statistical information about test results results and GPA for admitted students. This information is for the university as a whole, but it may provide a crude measure for estimating admissions chances – understanding, of course, that engineering students will typically have higher GPAs and test scores than other applicants (at least in a university that offers a broad range of academic disciplines).

(2) Regarding U of M, the following comments were valid as of 2017-18 when my son was an OOS applicant.

 (A)  For admissions purposes, U of M recalculates high school GPA by disregarding any + or - on a letter grade, so that B+ is a B (3.0) and A- is an A (4.0).  So if your son has more B+s than A-s, that will work to his 

disadvantage; and U of M gives more weight to academic GPA than test scores, according to its CDS.

 (B)  When I was scouring the U of M forum here on CC, there was a frequent poster who went by the handle "Alexandre" who was very knowledgeable about U of M; and I sent him several PMs, which he always answered with very useful information.  If "Alexandre" still posts on the U of M forum, then you might try sending him a PM with questions that are specific to U of M.

Sorry about the format here; I don’t know what happened. (My computer is acting up a bit.)

This is good advice! My only caveat would be that his top priority right now should be finishing the semester with super strong grades and scoring highly on his AP exams – both of these will be much more important to his applications than trying to improve on a 99th percentile SAT score (which he has several more opportunities to do later, if he really wants).

If he’s feeling well-prepared for both of those things and also has the time/energy to take the ACT, fine, but since it’s around the same time as the AP exams it’s worth taking a hard look at how much he can handle at once. Compared to the SAT, the ACT is more time-pressured, includes a wider range of Math topics, and has a Science section (really just reading graphs and figures, but it can take some getting used to). I’m sure he’d adapt fine with a little practice, but right now his time is much better spent focusing on his classes and studying for APs!


Ucbalumnus, we realize that if he went for a major in one of the physical sciences like BioChem he would need to pursue a graduate degree to truly be marketable. If he opts for BioChem we’ll look into combined undergrad/masters programs. RHIT has a Four Squared program where you earn a BS and MS in 4.5 or five years, depending on how many classes you place out of.