Why it's harder than ever to get into an elite college

Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
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U.S. college enrollment may be on the decline, but for those applying to America's elite colleges, the admissions process is "more cutthroat and anxiety-inducing than ever," the New York Times reports.

For the second year in a row, Stanford University was tougher to get into than Harvard, accepting just over 5 percent of its latest applicants. It's the lowest acceptance rate among America's top colleges and lower than its 5.7 percent acceptance rate last year.

According to the Times, Harvard and Yale accepted about 6 percent of applicants, while fellow Ivy League institutions Columbia and Princeton accepted approximately 7 percent. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago each accepted about 8 percent.

Those rates have been shrinking. In 2005, Harvard accepted 11 percent of its applicants. The same year, Stanford accepted 13 percent.

The reason? Prospective students are hedging their bets and applying to more top schools, forcing those schools to reject a greater percentage of applicants in the deluge.

“Kids see that the admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” Bruce Poch, former admissions dean at Pomona College in California, told the paper. “So they send more apps, which forces the colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”

Another reason: Electronic applications and widely used forms, such as The Common Application, have made it easier for bet-hedgers to apply.

The Times report is not exhaustive, since admissions rates for many schools have not been released.

And, as The Washington Post points out, the rates are often misleading. Waiting lists are typically not included in the initial calculations. And colleges define applications differently. Some only count those  "that have all required elements in a file — essays, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation," the Post notes. "Others essentially count anyone who starts the process and pays a fee."

Still, it's a useful, if imperfect, metric that helps answer the most common question that college admissions counselors get: What are my chances?

Lowest preliminary acceptance rates at top U.S. schools, 2014
• Stanford University: 5.1% (2,138 offers; 42,167 applications)
• Harvard University: 5.9% (2,023 offers; 34,295 applications)
• Yale University: 6.3% (1,935 offers; 30,932 applications)
• Columbia University: 7.0% (2,291 offers; 32,967 applications)
• Princeton University: 7.3% (1,939 offers; 26,641 applications)
• Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 7.7% (1,419 offers; 18,357 applications)
• University of Chicago: 8.4% (2,304 offers; 27,503 applications)
• University of Pennsylvania: 10.0% (3,583 offers; 35,868 applications)

[Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times]

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