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The Most Important Thing to Know Before You Apply to College

School is finally out and that means I am reviewing students' college lists on a daily basis. While I know better than anyone that a student's essays, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation are often the reason they get admitted to college, they have to have the objective pieces in place to be competitive for those essays, extracurricular activities, and letters to make a difference.

When reviewing a college list, I look at the student's transcript through junior year, their senior year classes, and any test scores they have available at this point. But I also look at one more data point that is the ultimate influencer on whether I keep a college on a student's list or remove it.

The college's acceptance rate.

The college's acceptance rate is the most telling data point when it comes to building a college list. Not all students look at acceptance rates, or if they do, they are often looking at an outdated one.

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For example, if I do an internet search on University of Tampa, the Wikipedia summary shows up on the right hand corner of my screen. It indicates that University of Tampa's acceptance rate is 50%. Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong. After contacting the university directly, I learned that this year's acceptance rate was 27%. That is a big difference compared to what independent guides, blogs, and resources indicate. That means University of Tampa is almost a "highly selective" university. But if a student doesn't have accurate data when compiling their college list, they would never know. In fact a high-achieving student might assume that University of Tampa is a "target" or "likely" college for them, when in fact, it might be a "reach" college in the end.
If you want to find the most up-to-date acceptance rate for a college, go straight to the source: the college itself. I first check the admissions website to see if it provides the acceptance rate for the most recent freshman class. Tulane University already updated its acceptance rate for this year's admissions cycle. Are you sitting down? It's 8.4%. The acceptance rate for Tulane has dropped precipitously over the last several years. It was often referred to as a "likely" college for many back in the day. Now, it's one of the most selective colleges in the country. Admissions is not "likely." In fact, it's very unlikely in the end for most students.
Not all colleges will put the acceptance rate right on the admissions website, though. You usually can still figure it out on your own. Go to the college's most recent Common Data Set. Scroll down to Section C: First-Time, First Year (Freshman) Admission and you will see the number of applications the college received and the number of applicants it admitted. You can do the math yourself and quickly find out a college's acceptance rate. Keep in mind that the Common Data Set is a year behind, which means that the data will be a year old. While student-friendly policies in college admissions move at a snail's pace, college acceptance rates change dramatically in one year. Therefore, I often call a college's admissions office directly. If I am able to speak to an admissions officer, I usually can get them to share what their acceptance rate was this year.
Unfortunately, though, there are a growing number of colleges that refuse to provide any data on acceptance rates. Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and other highly selective colleges indicate that providing this information will lead to more stress on the students. But students need to know this information. Without it, they will blindly apply to colleges without realizing how competitive these schools are. And not getting into the colleges on their list is a lot more stressful than knowing an acceptance rate before they apply. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear about a valedictorian only getting admitted to their "likely" college. This happens when students don't know how selective the colleges that they're applying to are or simply cannot access this information even when they try.

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Don't rely on outside sources for the most important piece of data you need to build a well-balanced list.
The college's acceptance rate is a moving target. But getting your hands on the most recent percentage will make a difference in your college list and outcomes. For those colleges that hide this information from students, shame on them. If colleges aren't willing to be transparent about the most essential data point a student needs in this process, what else are they hiding?