At Corona del Mar High School, the very fine public school my younger son attends, clusters of students tend to apply to the same colleges. The kids with the highest grades and test scores may apply to different schools than those with lower grades and scores, but there’s a huge overlap in where similar candidates apply. I already suspected this was true, but I confirmed it with some simple number-crunching.
This endeavor was inspired by a comment from my son, who said he didn’t want apply to schools where “everyone else” applies. In arguing for a particular school, I checked our school’s Naviance data and discovered that if “everyone” is defined as more than a quarter of the class, he is right—everyone does apply there. This piqued my curiosity about other colleges that are popular in our community. I zeroed in on the ones I think receive the most applications from our school, and threw in Harvard, Vanderbilt and Tulane merely as interesting data points.
Click here to see the resulting spreadsheet, henceforth referred to as The List. (Note that San Diego State University was a late add at the bottom of the spreadsheet on the recommendation of a CdM guidance counselor. It belongs on The List but was not included in the number-crunching.)
The colleges on The List vary widely in selectivity, but here’s what strikes me most:
- 45% of students in the Class of 2016 and 37% of those in the Class of 2015 are attending a college on The List.
- Of those attending a four year university, 53% of the Class of 2016, and 46% of the Class of 2015 are attending colleges on The List.
- Considering there are more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, The List of 21 schools is pretty narrow.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, but rather as one explanation for the stress surrounding college admission. Students feel like it has gotten so much harder to get into a “good” college, and it has, if you define “good” as being on The List. For example, the rise in popularity of Southern Methodist University correlates with the decline in acceptance rate at USC; many students who aren’t accepted to USC opt for SMU instead. And that, in turn, increases selectivity at SMU. If our students would expand their college searches beyond this list, they’d find a lot less competition from within CdM, and possibly discover some unique and exciting opportunities.
Indeed, The Hechinger Report recently published an article noting that “with the exception of a tiny handful of extremely selective schools, getting into a good college today is easier — not harder — than many students realize.” While acceptance rates at the most selective colleges have dropped, they’ve actually risen at colleges that accept 20–40% of applicants. It’s plenty easy for students to get into college. The problem is, most of the students at our high school do not want to look beyond The List.
Nevertheless, our students fare pretty darn well in admission to schools on The List. USC has an overall acceptance rate in the teens, yet our school’s acceptance rate is over 30%. Berkeley also accepts fewer than 20% of applicants, but it’s taken 30% and 27% of our kids in the past two years. Vanderbilt is a “hot” school with acceptance rates dipping close to 10%, yet close to 20% of our students get in (some may apply Early Decision, where the acceptance rate is still around 23%). Still, I know there are many crushed dreams each spring.
Why the resistance to other colleges? I think it’s because the transition from high school to college is exciting, but also scary. Many students don’t want to go too far from home, and that limits their options within California and the West. We just don’t have the concentration of colleges, nor the range of options, found in the Northeast. (For example: colleges like University of Richmond, Lehigh University, or Lafayette College, three of my personal favorites for their educational quality, size, school spirit, personal attention, and beauty.) Those who do venture further away usually do so to attend a prestigious “name brand” school like Harvard, Vanderbilt or Michigan. Many students also like to go where their friends are going, or at least to colleges that are well-known in the community. So, I find it both interesting and understandable that CdM students apply in droves to colleges on The List. With so much overlap in where my students apply, it’s easy for me to memorize the essay prompts every year. But I’ll admit, I find it refreshing when a student comes along with a completely different list of schools that seem like the perfect fit.