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Elite Colleges: Does a Low Acceptance Rate Mean a Great College Experience?

Hint: Elite does NOT mean a better learning experience!

A single digit acceptance rate (the percentage of applicants that are offered an admission spot) is a sign of an “elite” institution. It means that over 90% of applicants are not offered admission, or excluded from joining the college. 

In other parts of the world, if a lot of people want something, but only a few people can get it, that usually means it’s a great product. But does a low acceptance rate really translate to having a better college experience than it would at a college with a higher acceptance rate? We argue no, it does not. 

Let’s see if data can answer this question. The list of colleges and universities below is pulled from national data on acceptance rates. We pulled those institutions with a single-digit acceptance rate for the fall of 2020.

Acceptance Rate, Institution Name

2% Hampshire College
4% Curtis Institute of Music
4% Stanford University
5% Columbia University in the City of New York
5% Harvard University
5% Pacific Oaks College
6% California Institute of Technology
6% Dallas Nursing Institute
6% Princeton University
6% University of Chicago
6% Yale University
7% Brown University
7% Massachusetts Institute of Technology
7% Pomona College
7% The Juilliard School
8% Dartmouth College
8% Duke University
8% United States Naval Academy
8% University of Pennsylvania
9% Bowdoin College
9% Northwestern University
9% Rice University
9% Swarthmore College
9% Vanderbilt University

In 2020, Hampshire College was the most selective college in America.  If you’ve never heard of Hampshire, that’s okay. Hampshire is an amazing small college in Amherst, Massachusetts, and part of the “Five C’s” including: Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and UMASS. However, in January of 2020, Hampshire informed applicants that the college’s future was uncertain, and they were seeking another college for a merger. As a consequence, many applicants withdrew from consideration, and only 13 students ended up enrolling in the fall of 2020. Thus the Hampshire data is anomalous. 

Just a little lower on this list, we find Pacific Oaks College and Dallas Nursing Institute. These were unexpected and unknown to the staff at CollegesLike. 

There are probably good reasons why some colleges have surprisingly low acceptance rates. But one should never enroll at the Dallas Nursing School over Pomona College just because there is a smaller acceptance rate. They are incredibly different animals!

Which gets to our point: colleges are incredibly different animals. While most of the remaining colleges with a single-digit acceptance rate are great institutions, they’re all a little different. In this list of elite institutions, there are: engineering schools, a military service academy, liberal arts colleges, research universities, and perhaps the finest college in the world in performing arts education. There’s a great amount of difference between elite institutions. 

Similarly, students come with different passions, talents, and curiosities. So we should be focused on the fit between the student and the college. 

The staff at CollegesLike encourage you to get over chasing elitism and instead find a college where you will be happy and can do your best work. Doing your best work in college – which includes learning about the world and yourself – are more important than acceptance rates. 

But if you really must chase acceptance rates, we think you can get a great education at Hampshire College!

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