College Admissions Calculations: Understanding the System Behind Acceptances and Rejections

Every spring, the trials and tribulations of college admissions become national news.

It’s no wonder, too. This is a process involving millions of applicants from across the United States and around the world, competing for a limited number of seats and financial aid dollars. There are a variety of looming factors that coalesce behind the scenes to determine where a student is admitted — grades, SAT and ACT scores, guidance counselor recommendations. Not understanding how these elements work together can leave students feeling frustrated or cheated.

Yet, by doing some math, students can comprehend how these factors may affect their chances of getting into college, allowing for clearer expectations from the application process.

GPAs and Test Scores

Let’s consider some numbers. In 2010, approximately 3.2 million students graduated from U.S. high schools. According to a study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress a year earlier, the average high school grade point average (GPA) of graduating seniors was about 3.0 on a 4.0 scale (equivalent to a B). Of these high school graduates, only 2.1 million students (62 percent) enrolled directly in college.

Think about that for a second. The exact numbers are hard to pin down, but it seems safe to assume that a huge proportion of those moving on to college would have higher GPAs than those who don’t. This isn’t just a gut reaction — higher GPAs understandably correlate to higher probability of college enrollment. What does this mean? If you remove from our national GPA the 38 percent of graduating seniors who don’t enroll directly in college, it’s likely that the majority of students applying to college have GPAs significantly above 3.0.

I regularly have conversations with students and parents who assume that an A/A- GPA in high school will get students into the country’s most competitive colleges. While such grades are commendable, they aren’t as rare as most people think; in fact, talk to admissions officers at elite universities and they may tell you that a 4.0 GPA (or better!) is the norm.

Related: The Importance of Your GPA in College Admissions

Students who achieved a high GPA but did not get into the school of their dreams often point to their SAT or ACT scores as the cause. A few more calculations explain why straight A’s do not guarantee 99th percentile scores on these tests: The top 20 percent of SAT or ACT scores number around 300,000 a year for each exam, so far fewer students achieve a high standardized test score than achieve a high GPA.

There are only 38,000 seats at U.S. News and World Report’s top colleges, which is somewhat more than 10 percent of those 300,000 high scoring SAT/ACT takers (for those of you keeping score at home, that is less than 2 percent of the high school seniors entering college). Unfortunately, this means that not every student with good grades and a high SAT or ACT score will be accepted into this handful of highly selective schools.

Related: What Admissions Officers Want in a College Applicant

Guidance Counselors

Applicants may bemoan the lack of personalized attention or advice provided by college counselors. While these reactions are real and disappointing, running through some additional calculations reveals why students may feel this way.

These counselors are, on average, serving more than 450 students each, and more than 50 percent of public high schools do not even have a dedicated college counselor. Unfortunately, this means that guidance counselors often don’t know every student well enough to offer individualized advice and write personal recommendations to accompany college applications. Counselors could probably do more to master the ever more powerful technological resources at their disposal, but we can and should push our schools to properly staff guidance offices.

You can search Noodle's listing of private guidance counselors in your area.

Number of Applications

Some guidance counselors and high schools seek to limit how many schools students apply to — some in order to cynically improve the acceptance rate for their students (fewer “reach” applications mean fewer rejections) — while parents and students are justifiably trying to increase the number of applications to create more chances for their kids to get in to earn merit or need-based financial aid.

According to a 2012 NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counseling) report, more students are submitting an increasing number of applications, as more than 30 percent of students now apply to at least seven schools (up from 9 percent a decade before). The irony, of course, is that the more applications that go out, the lower the acceptance rates, since there are now more competitors for the same number of spots.

Related: Did You Get In? An Etiquette Guide for College Admissions

International Students

While some may feel threatened by the increasing amount of international students taking seats at American universities, the reality is that many foreign students are in fact paying their full tuition, which means their attendance is actually subsidizing more classrooms, teachers, and even financial aid budgets for U.S. universities — not to mention that these students contribute intellectual, cultural, social, and global perspectives our college communities need in the 21st century.

A Limited Scope of the Applicant

While it can be frustrating to think of admission officers reducing students to a GPA, standardized test score, and padded activity resume — they don’t have much choice, considering each admissions officer is now reading more than 600 applications a season (almost double the number from five years earlier). Record numbers of applicants mean they can be even more selective.

But let’s face the scariest of all these mathematical realities for a moment. Approximately 58 percent of students who start a four-year degree finish in six years, only 31 percent of those who start a two-year degree finish in 3 years, a shocking 60 percent of students enrolling in college are recommended for remedial classes (of which only 30 percent of those will ever get a degree), and the country has almost $1 trillion of student loan debt outstanding.

What To Do

Even though these numbers are deeply concerning, there is still hope. In his article “Relax, Getting Into College Has Actually Gotten Easier, Noodle CEO John Katzman explains that while it’s more difficult to get into one good school than it used to be, your chances of being accepted into a top school are actually higher.

This may seem hard to believe when you consider the above or when you take a look at the acceptance rate of the Ivy Leagues, some of which are below 10 percent. Yet, many of the traditional top schools, like Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and Tulane, have added seats to their undergraduate classes, while larger universities, such as NYU and UCLA, have joined the ranks of these excellent schools. In the end, there are 55 percent more seats at top colleges than there were 30 years ago. See a visual representation of this in Noodle’s infographic on getting into college.

Finally, even if you don’t get into any of the colleges you apply to, which is highly unlikely, there are still measures you can take. Read our article What to Do If You’re Rejected From All Colleges You Apply To.

It may feel like acceptance rates around you are sinking, but don’t despair. You can still get into a great school if you work hard and understand the application process.