The Truth About Your College Acceptance Odds — What Every Student Should Know Before Stressing Out

Smiling Asian woman wearing a cap and gown holding a dipoloma

The Truth About Your College Acceptance Odds — What Every Student Should Know Before Stressing Out

Published January 18, 2024

Smiling Asian woman wearing a cap and gown holding a dipoloma

Are you nervously awaiting colleges’ decisions? Did your student already receive an answer from their top school, and it’s not what they hoped for? Before anyone starts to stress or think themselves unworthy, here’s some admissions math to consider that may change the way you look at college acceptances and rejections. 

There are roughly 30,000 high schools in the United States, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Ivy Leagues had a combined incoming freshman class in 2023 of somewhere around 21,000 students

Assuming every high school has only one valedictorian, this means that even if every valedictorian in the U.S. applied to an Ivy League school, and the Ivies accepted only Valedictorians, only 70 percent would be accepted. The other 30 percent of high test scorers with high GPAS and a well-rounded profile would be rejected.

Legacies and Student- Athletes Have an Edge at Some Schools

Except we know it’s far worse than that. Why? Because being a great student matters, but at many schools recruited athletes and legacies (aka the children of alumni) have an edge, even when they’re going up against non-legacy, non-athletes with perfect stats.

New data from Opportunity Insights, a research group at Harvard University, shows that even if their legacy status weren’t considered, legacies would still be about 33 percent more likely to be admitted than applicants with the same test scores, based on all their other qualifications, demographic characteristics, and parents’ income and education. Given the variety of sports offered at some colleges, athletes take up a relatively large number of admissions slots, too.

Most Elite Schools Admit A Relatively Small Number of Students Each Year

Roughly 3.2 million students graduated from U.S. high schools in 2023, which means there is only one spot in an Ivy League school for every 152 students. Cornell is by far the largest Ivy; the total number of applications accepted for the 23-24 school year was nearly 5,000. But most of the other Ivies had around 2,200 or fewer students accepted. “When people who work in admissions or counseling say it’s a lottery, they’re not kidding,” says David Pell, a member of our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group. “If your kid isn’t a legacy or recruited athlete, you have a very small chance of getting accepted even with the most elite scores, transcript, and extracurriculars.”

Let’s take our math a bit further. After all, there are plenty of elite national universities beyond the Ivy League. Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University all admit between 1,500-2,000 students per class. It’s not until you hit #15 in the U.S. News & World Report list of top-ranked national universities, the University of California Berkeley, that you have a big state university with a large enrollment and an incoming freshman class size of 9,700. At #21, Michigan has an incoming freshman class of 7,500. If you take the four big public universities in the top 21 national universities list, Cornell, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan have more spots for incoming freshmen than all the other 17 schools combined. 

Simply put, it’s a numbers game, and it’s far less favorable than many students think, especially when you consider that many schools like to accept a certain number of foreign students because they often pay close to the full cost of attendance. Also, public schools may not have preferences for legacies but they often give preferences to in-state students. So if you’re not in California, your chances of getting into the state schools there are far diminished. 

Going Beyond College Acceptance Rates

The bottom line is this: When a student applies to a school, make sure they look up the number of applicants and compare that to the number that are accepted. This will give them a much better idea of the likelihood of acceptance. Just looking at acceptance rates alone doesn’t always paint the same picture. Having the context of the number of applicants vs the number of accepted students can be much easier to wrap your head around. 

If a school is a long shot, that’s OK, so long as you’re also targeting safety schools where you’ll have a much higher chance of acceptance. A well-rounded college list includes reach schools, target schools that align well with your student’s stats, and safety schools where the student is likely to surpass requirements. 

At the end of the day, students want to attend schools that want them to attend as much as they want to attend. Knowing what they’re up against can get them to that finish line faster — and with a lot less stress.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

5 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Rejection from Their Top School

What Are Your Chances of Getting Into College?

Why You May Want to Keep Your College List to Yourself




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