Getty / Jim Rogash
Nearly 40,000 people applied to Harvard this year — experts say it's harder than ever to get into elite schools
by Abby Jackson
Harvard College received 39,494 applications for the Class of 2021.
That's the most applications in the history of the school.
The ever-increasing number of applicants at elite schools elicits the question of whether it's more difficult to get into elite schools today than ever before.
Former Ivy League admissions directors have some potentially unsettling news for college applicants: Yes, it is.
"Admissions have gotten more and more competitive in the past decade," Angela Dunnham, a college admissions counselor at InGenius Prep and former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, told Business Insider via email. "In addition to the sheer number of applicants applying, the expectations for candidates have increased."
The steady uptick of college applicants, especially at elite schools, is stark, driven in part by the emergence of Common App, which allows students to apply to many schools at once.
Take, for example, an article in the Harvard Crimson about the acceptance rate for the class of 2000. "The class was chosen among a pool of 18,190 applicants, making Harvard's admission rate a paltry 10.9 percent — the lowest in College history," The Crimson wrote at the time.
Twenty years later, the authors of that story are likely to be aghast that the acceptance rate has spiraled ever lower. With more than double the applicants, about 95% of students who applied to Harvard were rejected last year.
The graphic below compares admission numbers across the Ivy League for the class of 2020. We won't know the acceptance rate for the Class of 2021 until the spring.
In addition to the sheer number of applicants which make the field appear more competitive, the academic credentials of students are also becoming more impressive, in part due to the increase in international students who have begun to flood US colleges and universities.
"I met a Korean freshman who scored a 2400/2400 on the SAT, after taking it once," Dunnham said. "She also was conducting impressive research and loved debate."
However, there may be reason to view this lowering acceptance rate with some skepticism, Cat McManus, a counselor InGenius Prep and a former assistant dean and regional director at the University of Pennsylvania, told Business Insider via email.
Selective colleges may have ballpark figures they hope to achieve (and not surpass) when it comes to the percentage of an incoming class that can be comprised of international students, McManus explained. The increase in international applicants, therefore, while it may drive down the overall acceptance rate, likely has less impact on US applicants than is sometimes believed.
"The rise in the number of international applicants to the most selective institutions in the US has inflated the number of overall applicants, as well as, in some cases, the GPA and testing profiles, which makes schools appear more selective from a purely statistical standpoint," McManus, who was also an admissions officer at Princeton, said.
And while in many cases it looks like GPA and standardized test score averages are increasing, some of this should be attributed to the test prep era, which is ubiquitous in the college admissions process.
"Whether applicants are actually 'stronger' is tough to say," McManus said. "There is also a lot of essay 'help' that goes on, both domestically and internationally."
Still, while the increase in students utilizing test prep to boost scores doesn't necessarily mean these applicants are inherently stronger students than they were a decade ago, it does mean that average test scores are inching up, potentially harming students who don't have the means to pay for extra help.