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Most Students Accepted to First-Choice College

Every fall a new group of high school seniors gears up for a college search and faces the hype of media headlines about competitive college admissions. I have excellent news for anxious families. An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA indicates that 76 percent of first-time college applicants are accepted by their first-choice college. That number has not changed significantly since 2007. So while more people than ever are applying to colleges, it also remains true that most find the opportunities they seek. 

In addition, longitudinal research shows that attending an elite college is less influential in a person’s life than his or her own student behavior or the ability to connect with professors. Economists Alan Krueger, at Princeton University, and Stacey Dale, at Mathematica Policy Research, have studied income patterns of people who entered college in 1976 and 1989. In their latest report, released in 2011, students with similar SAT scores had similar earnings, regardless of whether they attended an elite school. The pattern continued for decades.

Meanwhile, a 2014 Gallup survey of 30,000 college graduates asked respondents about how much they enjoyed their jobs—a trait that previous research has correlated with overall life satisfaction. The most productive students had graduated from a wide variety of colleges. The factors that turned out to be most correlated with success were connecting with college mentors, engaging in extracurricular activities and investing in academic projects.  Those who reported “deep and experiential learning” were twice as likely as others to report strong engagement with their work after college.

One source of panic is the buzz about acceptance rates being lower than 10 percent at Ivy League and other prestigious schools. The frenzy has grown so much that some were taken in when Frank Bruni recently wrote a satirical column for the New York Times saying that Stanford University had a 0 percent acceptance rate for this fall. The crux of this joke is the relationship between low acceptance rates and high desirability. Indeed, measures of selectivity often contribute to a university’s position on various lists that rank schools. The idea is that the “best students” are at the “best schools.” This joke illustrates how absurd our ideas have become about what constitutes “the best.”

No single school—no matter how elite—can be globally deemed “the best.” What really makes a college experience “the best” is determined by how well a specific educational environment serves the needs of a specific student. This is why at The Bertram Group we focus on helping candidates build an awareness of themselves and find the right “fit.” This is what empowers students to feel deeply embedded in their coursework and community. Making meaningful connections between personal interests and a larger community is what helps students eventually convert that college experience into a career plan and lifelong goals. 

As we head into the thick of college application season, also remember that schools want students as much as students want schools. No college can survive without a freshman class. Approaching this process with perspective—and a sense of humor—makes it much more enjoyable!

Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors, and plans both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at