What Does College Selectivity Mean?

What does it mean to label a college as selective, most selective, or very selective? How does that relate to other labels like target, safety, and reach?

Selectivity is a shorthand way to discuss colleges in terms of their admissions rate. Admissions rate is the ratio of students who apply to a college compared to students who were admitted (usually reported as a percentage). Admissions rate often says more about how well known a college is than how good the education or experience will be. It can also be drastically affected by factors like an increase in the number of colleges students apply to, trends in applications from international students, or college notoriety (schools often rise in popularity after winning sports championships or admitting a famous student). Selectivity is not a synonym for quality. 2/3 of colleges admit more than half of the students who apply. This can include a number of quality institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges and excellent value public universities.

A selective college admits fewer than half the students who apply. This means that any college with an admissions rate of 50% or lower could be considered selective.

Because selective could include a public college with a 50% admissions rate or a private college that turns down 95% of applicants; many books and advisors try to use more specific labels. One website might use selective, very selective, highly selective, and most selective; while another might use moderately selective, very selective, extremely selective, and most selective. There isn’t an industry standard on what these labels mean.

I sometimes use most selective to refer to the type of college that is turning down the vast majority of applicants, even though they are highly qualified students. In practice this label would include colleges that admit 15% or fewer of the students who apply — or to turn it around, colleges that turn down 85% or more of applicants. When working with a specific student, I would be more likely to label colleges like this as Wild Card schools, to convey that even for a highly qualified applicant, there is a great deal of chance involved in these applications.

It’s also worth taking a moment to consider how many colleges we are talking about when we use selective labels. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, around 20% of colleges would fall into the overall selective category that admits fewer than 50% of applicants. When we look at the type of colleges that students attend, we can see that 21% of first-time freshmen enroll in selective colleges and 65% attend colleges that admit 50-85% of applicants. Simply put, most colleges in the US admit most students who apply.

The breathless articles about how hard it is to get into college are often really writing about admissions at a very small number of colleges that are enrolling a very small number of students. The colleges that admit fewer than 25% of applicants enroll around 3% of the students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the US; colleges that admit fewer than 10% of applicants enroll under 1% of undergraduate students in the US [College-Admissions Hysteria Is Not the Norm, The Atlantic, April 10, 2019].

Instead of relying on squishy categories that use selectivity as the main criteria, I help students put colleges into categories like High Chance of Admission, Medium Chance of Admission, Low Chance of Admission, and Wild Card (which is unlikely, even for the most qualified applicants). This system considers not only the average admissions rate of each school, but also the student’s profile relative to the profile of admitted students, as well as other factors like state residency, that can affect admission.

I use these terms instead of Target, Reach, and Safety, because I have found that labeling a school as a Safety or as a Reach school tends to influence how positively a student views the college. It is challenging for a student to resist viewing admission to a Reach school as a more positive outcome than admission to a Safety school – regardless of how high quality the student outcomes may be. For this reason, I avoid using these terms and encourage students and families to also use other labels. 

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