Why Elite Colleges Struggle With Admissions

Why is Carnegie Mellon’s admissions yield so low?
George Anders for Quora
George Anders, long-ago econ major, dabbled in everything from Dostoevsky to statistics.


Yields at many elite schools such as Carnegie-Mellon, Reed, Mt. Holyoke, etc. are falling because of what amounts to a queueing theory nightmare at the super-elite schools (Harvard, Stanford, etc.)

Let’s take a moment to review the overall U.S. college admissions landscape right now. There are perhaps 40,000 students a year who have SAT composites of 2180 or better, and then another 40,000 whose life stories, GPAs, etc. are so compelling that they are clearly worthy contenders for slots at the super elite (SE) schools

When the SE schools had admissions rates of 16% to 25%, it was a rational strategy for worthy contenders to apply to two or three super-elite schools that they really liked, and then to round out their application portfolios with two or three schools that were deemed safer choices.

But then a variety of changes made it easier to apply to a lot of schools, even as family pressure to get into an SE school intensified. So prime candidates began applying to 10 schools or more. This boom in applications actually did not make the system work better. It made everything worse … in a variant of the problems that arise when too many cars stream through the on-ramps of a major freeway and create super-saturation of the available driving lanes.

Now we’ve got schools such as Harvard and Stanford getting 40,000 applications plus … and offering acceptance letters to only 5% to 6% of applicants. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lo… Admissions officers acknowledge that the top 5,000 to 10,000 applicants all are amazing students who would be fine additions to the campus. Alas, there aren’t enough slots for everyone. So the final sifting of candidates is agonizing for the admissions office — and an utter mystery to outsiders.

What students and their parents can see is that the odds of admission to any particular SE school are getting worse every year. Applicants deal with this by doing something that’s individually rational but collectively awful. They start applying to even more schools! The result: schools like Carnegie-Mellon become the sixth choice — or 17th choice — of many great students who ordinarily wouldn’t apply to CMU, because it isn’t a perfect match for what they want to study.

chance-717501_640Because the very best applicants are anxious to get into SOME elite school, they widen their efforts to a grotesque degree. The admissions offices at CMU and its kin are in the awkward position of needing to move first to resolve this impasse. So they courageously offer admission to the high-school superstars with 20 applications in play, inviting the artificially low yield ratios that will ensue.

Medical residency programs suffered from a similar problem years ago, with med-school graduates bombarding too many programs with too many applications because everyone’s application-dispersing strategy was making it harder for anyone to target their primary choices with much hope of success. Eventually this was resolved with a clever matching system that has since been refined by economist Alvin Roth. Here’s a nice Wikipedia entry on his work: Alvin E. Roth. Note that he ended up getting a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

We aren’t quite at the same stage of needing a matching system for elite college applications, but it’s getting close.

Looking for a rational way to choose selective private colleges and public Ivies?  Do You want to increase the chances of admission to any of the colleges of your choice?  Call/text 610-212-6679 or email Stephanie at Access College and Career Consultants, stephanie@accessguidance.com

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