What Makes a College Highly Selective

Lyn Jutronich

By: Lyn Jutronich

Many TV shows and movies feature high school characters vying for admission to the most prestigious colleges: Yale (Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, Beverly Hills 90210*); Stanford (Orange County); Princeton (Risky Business); Harvard (Modern Family).

And since “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” (Oscar Wilde), I can verify as an admissions advisor that real high school students crave an acceptance to a prestigious college as much as their fictional counterparts do.

But why? Most applicants don’t really know why they want to go to Harvard. When I ask, they answer “because it’s Harvard!” or “I’ve always wanted to go there!” Often, students don't know what differentiates one Ivy League school from another, or get confused when I tell them Stanford doesn’t have a pre-business major.

To be fair, all the “top” schools are going to offer excellent academics, but the educational atmosphere is as much about the student body as the faculty. Most if not all the students are motivated scholars who care deeply about learning.

The attraction is often simply about the prestige, as well as the (real or imagined) advantage graduating from one of these colleges can give you, including networking opportunities. Rankings also play a part, with the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings being the most famous and revered.

What Makes A College Highly Selective

However, the “yield” (what percentage of accepted applicants actually matriculate) is what really matters, at least to the colleges themselves. Yield is how many/what percentage of students offered admission accept the offer (a.k.a. matriculate).

As you can imagine, the highly selective colleges have an inverse relationship of acceptance and yield rates. Here are some sample acceptance rates versus yield rates for name brand colleges (according to the schools’ websites):


Note that I only used private colleges for this exercise, as public schools’ data will vary between in-state and out-of-state students.

I chose USC and Notre Dame not only because they are bitter rivals (and well-known, respected colleges), but also because I wanted to show that one school can have a lower acceptance rate but also a lower yield than another school.

This phenomenon often happens due to self-selection - the students who apply to a college like Notre Dame often have very specific reasons why it’s a top choice for them and therefore will likely attend if accepted, OR due to the home state of the college having a strong public college system. California students often apply to USC as well as many University of California schools, the latter of which are quite strong.  And since UC tuition is half of USC’s, the decision often is based on financial reasons.

Speaking of the UC schools, here is the comparative data for each campus (caveat: this is for total applicants, so the numbers will differ for in-state and out-of-state):

UC acceptance rates for freshmen 2020 (yield rate from 2019) (data from https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/freshman-admissions-summary)**


Most students who apply to one UC apply to several UCs, and most students who apply to one top-tier private university apply to several top-tier private universities. As such, the number of acceptances does NOT indicate unique students. Therefore, colleges have to admit enough applicants to fill their freshman classes (knowing that some/many students won’t end up matriculating), but not so many that they don’t have room. Admissions committees will use historical yield rates and other factors (including waitlists) to achieve this magical balance point.

What does this mean for you or your child as an applicant?

Mostly, it means that you should choose your “reach” schools for a real reason and make sure that reason is evident in your application. And, as always, make sure your college list is balanced (safety, match, reach)!

*Fun Fact:

I was a student at Yale when Andrea Zuckerman, the fictional character from 90210, was applying. My friends and I had weekly watch parties for the show, and I’ll never forget when Andrea said something like “I want to go to Yale, where the students discuss literature and government policy,” to which one of my friends added, “who actually sit around and watch 90210.”

**An important note from the UC website where I got the data:

“Please be cautious in drawing conclusions from this information. The numbers are useful only as a general guide to selectivity and not as a predictor of your chances for admission to a particular campus. These figures are preliminary, as of June 2020. Some campuses admitted students after that date, which may affect their statistics. In addition, keep the following in mind:

  • Data for several colleges on a campus are grouped together, which masks the differences in the degree of competition for admission among them.
  • Some campuses and colleges admit students directly into individual majors, and the degree of competition among majors may vary widely.
  • The data reflect the selection process for fall 2020 applicants. The selection process may vary from year to year; therefore the results may differ significantly.”