In an increasingly data-driven world, there seems to be a statistic for almost everything. That’s especially true in college admissions as schools drill down into various data points when selecting incoming classes. For prospective students, that means an opportunity to see how they stack up to prior admitted cohorts.
Colleges typically list profiles of admitted classes on their websites, with common information such as total applicants, acceptance rate, standardized test scores, class rank and average high school GPA. The information available may vary by college, with some offering more granular details on their most recent class admitted.
“I think now more than ever, people are looking for data because they can’t visit colleges during the (coronavirus) pandemic,” says Monica Inzer, vice president for enrollment management at Hamilton College in New York.
“In some ways, that’s been a great equalizer for students who can’t visit because of financial reasons, geography, travel or availability. Everyone is looking at college the same way. Much of it is happening online with virtual visits, but also evaluating the data,” Inzer says.
Why Admissions Statistics Matter in the College Search
Regardless of how much information a college makes available, prospective students will likely find useful data points that will help them compare their academic profile to prior classes and understand their odds of admission. Experts say that using admissions statistics can help students shape their college search.
“I think as students are starting to look at colleges, they should be thinking about ‘is this a school where I have a reasonable chance of admission?’ And that’s going to vary depending on the school,” says Maria Laskaris, senior private counselor at Top Tier Admissions in Vermont.
She notes that some schools with low acceptance rates will be difficult to get into regardless of how qualified an applicant is, but using admissions data can help students develop a list of target, reach and safety schools — colleges where prospective students will be competitive, aiming high or likely to get in.
As Victoria Dimock, a premier college counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based education consulting company, explains via email, looking at admissions data can help students “manage expectations” about the schools they can get into.
“It is important that students become aware of their chances of admission at a given college or university so that they can build a balanced list of colleges and universities to apply to rather than spending all of their energy solely on reach schools or in some cases, what we would call “out of reach” schools,” Dimock says. “By looking at admissions statistics one can determine the average quantitative profile of an admitted student, which one could compare themselves to.”
Key admissions stats to zoom in on include the middle 50% of SAT or ACT scores for admitted students, middle 50% of the GPA of admitted students and admit rates for early decision or early action applicants, experts say.
From there, students can get a general sense of whether a school is within range or a long shot. While landing in the 50th percentile for test scores and GPA may help students understand that a school is within reach, Laskaris adds that students with higher marks in the 25th percentile will likely have better odds of admission at that college.
With many colleges going temporarily test-optional due to students struggling to take the SAT or ACT during the COVID-19 pandemic, applicants may want to take testing data with a grain of salt, admissions pros say. Many colleges are not requiring testing data on applications, so prospective students should look to college admissions pages for a school’s specific policy.
Students should also examine data points beyond GPA and test scores to understand other aspects of campus life and whether a college will be a good fit, says Eric Sherman, a master college admissions counselor at IvyWise.
“Less obvious data like student retention rate, average class size, popular majors, and the percentage of students who live on campus can be signals to students and families about the fundamental elements of the academic and social experience at a particular school,” Sherman wrote in an email.
Where to Find College Admissions Statistics
Considering that every college is a little different, students should be aware that class profiles and other such data are sometimes parked in different places on college websites, but is most commonly found on admissions pages.
“Most colleges try to make this information as available as possible,” Inzer says.
She adds that if the information isn’t clearly available on an admissions page, prospective students should conduct a web search using the college name and terms such as “class profile,” which should turn up the information they’re looking for.
Another way to find admissions statistics is to look up a college’s Common Data Set, Laskaris says. “If students are really into statistics and data and really want to dive a little bit deeper, most colleges will make their Common Data Set available to the public. You have to access them through the institution, usually the institutional research page on a college’s website.”
Inzer adds that the Common Data Set offers a chance to explore college data “in an unvarnished and consistent way.”
If the Common Data Set is not easy to find on a college’s website, then prospective students should simply search for the institution’s name alongside the keywords “Common Data Set.”
Applicants should know that while admissions statistics are part of the Common Data Set, that’s only a fraction of the information that can be found there. Other commonly listed details include average financial aid packages and percentage of financial need met, academic offerings and policies, student-to-faculty ratio and campus housing numbers.
College applicants can also turn to U.S. News college profile pages to see survey data on acceptance rates, testing, GPA and more, and also to compare how they stack up against admitted students using the U.S. News College Admissions Calculator.
When to Look at College Admissions Statistics
Rather than looking at admissions data when they’re stressing about an acceptance letter, students should seek out this information early, admissions experts say. But just how early? For ambitious students set on going to a top school, it makes sense to look at this information as early as freshman year of high school so that they know what elite colleges expect and start preparing to apply.
But Sherman cautions students to avoid falling into “the common trap of trying to predict what they think that colleges want to see rather than pursuing their authentic academic and cocurricular pursuits. While this is tempting, it has a counterproductive effect when the college process begins in earnest later in a student’s high school career.”
Junior year, when a college search is in full swing, may be a more appropriate time to evaluate admissions data, some experts say.
“Usually, I think these data are most helpful when students have a bit more of their academic record under their belts in high school,” says Laskaris, noting that having data on college admissions in hand will help students understand where they stack up.
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