How Selective Is Too Selective?

How Selective is Too Selective?
Ruth D. Kagan

As Harvard acceptance rates drop lower each year, will high school students eventually decide it isn't worth the gamble to apply?

Each year, tens of thousands of high school seniors around the world await an email from Harvard College. Over the last five years, the number of students receiving bad news has been increasing. And those receiving good news have become rarer and rarer, as acceptance rates for the College drop lower with each passing cycle, dipping below 6 percent this spring.

As Harvard’s admission rate tumbles into the low single digits, some are wondering when—or if—the trend might reverse.

Some question whether by becoming too exclusive, Harvard and other ultra-selective colleges might eventually discourage qualified applicants from even bothering to apply. When the odds of admission are so low, the chance of seeing a “yes” in that long-awaited email might sometimes seem as likely as winning the lottery.


As the admissions office tries to cast its net wide to attract ever-more-qualified applicants, its outreach efforts encourage a vastly higher number of students to apply to Harvard than can ever be accepted.


The fastidious employees at 86 Brattle Street who must evaluate all these hopeful students’ files say that their intention is not to drive up the number of applicants when they send students and admissions officers on recruiting trips, send mailings to high school students, and make phone calls to targeted prospective applicants.

“We are not looking for more applicants. We are not looking for a lower admission rate,” said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. “But we are trying to get the best people we can get from every economic [and] every ethnic background, and as you do that, more people will be interested in applying.”

But some say that universities have an interest in convincing as many students as possible to apply, even if there are no spots in the freshman class for them.

Sandra J. Eller, a college admissions consultant in Rochester, N.Y., points out that national rankings often use lower acceptance rates and higher yields as criteria in their evaluations. Colleges that turn more applicants away rank higher in magazine listings.

“Many talented students will receive letters encouraging them to apply to schools like Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Dartmouth,” Eller said. “This can raise students’ hopes of admission, but with so many qualified applicants, the admissions decisions can be really disappointing. I sometimes find myself reminding students that schools have their own priorities. The more applications they receive, the more selective they appear.”

According to Eller, studies have shown that maintaining a high ranking in publications such as U.S. News and World Report influences alumni giving.

Fitzsimmons said the Office of Admissions tries to “hone the message” in order to keep students who are clearly unqualified from applying. But Harvard admissions, for the most part, has maintained at least one tradition. “Harvard has been hard to get into for a very long time,” Fitzsimmons said.


Admission rates have been dropping at Harvard for seven consecutive years; this year’s overall acceptance rate was just 5.9 percent.

For the first time since 2007, this year’s high school seniors had the option of applying to Harvard through an early action round. With 772 spots already filled in December, the regular decision applicants competing for the remaining acceptances in the spring faced an even lower number: a stunning 3.8 percent acceptance rate.