Have Ivy League Acceptance Rates Changed?

It isn’t easy to get into Ivy League schools. This isn’t shocking news, but just how hard it has become to get into these schools can be surprising, especially compared to the recent past. Acceptance rates have dropped precipitously across the Ivy League, leaving students to strive ever harder for a place.

In this article, we’re going to go over the numbers; showing you just how much acceptance rates at Ivy League schools have changed in the last 20 years. We’ll explain what these numbers mean, and then discuss why acceptance rates changed the way they did. These numbers may seem disheartening, but we’ve found that understanding a challenge is the first step to overcoming it, and we hope this article gives you deeper insight into the challenges of college admissions.

The Change in Ivy League Admission Rates


Here is the admissions data for all eight Ivy League schools, giving the overall admissions rate. Year refers to the fall of the acceptance cycle, so the bottom row is the admissions data from the most recent round of applications.



Here is the same information represented graphically:


So what do all these numbers actually mean?

The first and most obvious conclusion is that admissions rates at Ivy League schools have gone down significantly over the last 20 years. While most people know this on some level, the actual size of the drop is quite remarkable. Between 2002 and 2019 (I’m leaving 2020 out for a minute, for reasons I’ll explain), admissions rates were, on average, cut in half. Cornell saw the largest drop, from over 30% acceptance to just over 10%, while Princeton saw the smallest, from 10% to 5.6%.

2020 then brought even greater drops, showing the largest drops in acceptance rate across the board. It is as of yet unclear how much this will impact future admissions rates, and how much was a temporary dip caused by the pandemic, so the value of 2020’s data for an overall analysis is questionable. That said, the overall trends which emerge in the previous years are still enough to draw solid conclusions from.

While logic states that acceptance rates cannot fall forever, it remains to be seen when they will stabilize. Prior to 2020, acceptance rates had slowed their descent and appeared to have reached a plateau, but the pandemic and the disruptions which resulted threw that into flux again.

Understanding Why

Seeing that acceptance rates have dropped so much in 20 years is only the beginning of the picture. The next question is: Why? Why has it become so hard to get into Ivy League schools?

There are numerous factors at work, which complicate the answer. We will go through each in turn, and try to explain how each impacts the overall admissions rate, and how it, in turn, affects your own chances for admissions.

The Number of Applicants

The simplest but least satisfying answer is that admissions rates have gone down because the number of applicants has increased. There are several factors driving this increase, however:

We’ll discuss each of these factors in turn.

Universities themselves have driven some of the increase in applicants, especially among top-tier schools. This drive has come in the form of increased outreach to schools and students, from admissions officer visits, packages in the mail, flyers, emails, and more. This has caused many students to believe that applying to top-tier schools is worth it, even if they cannot realistically expect to get in.

This has been compounded by the ease of applying to colleges in the digital age. Filling out a series of forms on the Common App and pressing “submit” is far less arduous than writing everything out multiple times by hand and sending it through the mail. While each school still has its own supplemental essays and questions, even these are all organized by the Common App, making applying to multiple colleges incredibly practical. Thus, the overall number of applicants has also been greatly bolstered by students sending out applications to many schools.

While the number of high school students has remained relatively constant, increasing numbers are going on to college, increasing the competition for spaces at top schools. It remains to be seen how this trend will continue in the future, however, as many schools are beginning to see drop-offs in the number of applications, though the top schools are still seeing increases.

Why Colleges Want More Applicants

Overall, the number of applicants has trended upwards because colleges have made it easier for students to apply, while simultaneously going to great lengths to encourage more students to apply. While the reasons for this are complex as well, the most straightforward reason for this behavior is the college rankings.

While all colleges care about their ranking to some extent, top colleges often care an outsized amount (even though they pretend not to) and work hard to maintain or improve their position. A higher ranking means more prestige, more donations, and often more applicants as well, while a drop in rankings can raise questions about the quality of the institution.

It is important to note that the rankings do not actually measure the academic quality of an institution; it’s unclear if there’s even a reasonable way to do so across fields and disciplines. That said, many parents, students, and counselors still place a lot of weight on the rankings, so schools in turn compete among themselves to be the highest-ranked.

While there are a lot of factors considered in the rankings, one of the easiest for schools to manipulate is admissions. By increasing the competition and selectivity of their admissions process, colleges are able to admit ever more accomplished and qualified students, and thereby increase their overall ranking in two metrics at once. Thus it is in many school’s best interest to increase the number of students who apply, even among those who may not be qualified, just to increase the number of students they reject.

This may all feel disheartening, but do not fret; while it seems like the competition has gotten much stiffer among top colleges, the number of qualified students applying has stayed roughly the same. This does not mean that it will be easy to get in, merely that the published admissions rates do not tell the true story of your chances of acceptance.

Final Thoughts

It’s common knowledge that it’s harder than ever to get into top colleges, but seeing the numbers laid out in front of you puts these trends into a starker perspective. While this is not the fault of students, it is still up to them to face this challenge.

The prospect of this is stressful for many students, which is an entirely reasonable reaction. One of the best ways to improve your chances of admissions is by understanding the process and having help along the way. If you would like our help on your college admissions journey, schedule a free consultation. We’re always happy to help students get into the school of their dreams.

Wendy Y.
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