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College Admissions Trends for 2011: Strategies to Gain Admission in the Most Competitive Times

As college commencements end across the country and we head into those sultry summer months, it’s important to note admissions trends and the best strategy for getting into your top choice college. The admissions market is tough for competitive colleges, but families who plan prudently can increase their odds of gaining admission to the best schools.


1. 2011 Was the Most Difficult Year on Record for Getting into College.

Even as the absolute number of students of college age begins a gradual decline, applications reached a new high in 2011. It is not unusual for students to now apply to 10, 20, or even 30 colleges. Bulging domestic American applicant pools have been bolstered by a surge of international applicants. Institutions as diverse as Brown, Michigan State, and William and Mary recorded increases of 10 percent, 13 percent, and 23 percent in international applications respectfully. Not surprisingly acceptance rates at the Ivies continue to plunge with Columbia accepting 6.9 percent and Harvard 6.2 percent of applicants in 2011. The daunting odds of getting into the most elite national universities have convinced many families to submit applications to the best state schools, and elite liberal arts colleges as Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore with commensurate increases in high quality applicants.

2. College waiting lists are expanding more than ever.

Admissions wait lists are expanding rapidly at many institutions, but applicants beware. At some institutions, the wait lists are used to appease legacy families, and high schools with which they have a close relationship. Few students from these lists make it into the freshman class. In 2010, Colby College in Maine, a top twenty-five US News and World Report national liberal arts school, placed 934 on the wait list and only took 21. Moreover, Johns Hopkins University, a national university power-house admitted a grand total of 1 student from its wait list of 3,667 students, and the University of Vermont accepted 218 of the 3,456 students relegated to the wait list.

3. Southern and urban universities are becoming more popular destinations.

Southern or mild climate destinations as Emory (Atlanta), Wake Forest (North Carolina), Vanderbilt (Tennessee), and the University of Southern California have become popular schools for students who want to bask in the sun. Cold weather urban universities as Boston University and Fordham in New York City have also witnessed a surge in applications contributing to a more competitive admissions process.


As admissions odds for the most elite institutions increasingly resemble the lottery sometimes, what is the concerned family to do? A few basic initiatives beginning early in a student’s high school career will help increase your chances.

Step One: Starting in 9th grade with a focus on achieving a high GPA, students should take selective Advanced Placement and honors courses (or enroll in an IB Program if your school permits). It is also important to display a sustained multi-year commitment to a few extracurricular activities in which students can exhibit leadership.

Step Two: Draw up a list of colleges to research and visit no later than December of a student’s junior year when PSAT scores are available.

Step Three: Get some test prep and begin planning for either or both – the SAT and ACT exams. Contact Top Test Prep to learn more about how you can prepare for these exams.

Step Four: Visit at least 5 colleges in the spring of a student’s junior year and include back-up schools in the itinerary.

Step Five: Finalize the college list and complete any visits by October of the senior year. This will also provide you with the option of applying early decision (binding admissions) or early admissions (non-binding) to a favored institution, thereby increasing your admissions odds. The University of Virginia, Harvard, and Princeton will be reinstituting an early admissions program in the fall of 2011 rejoining the club of competitive institutions who use this strategem to attract their strongest candidates. If a student’s standardized test scores are not stellar, keep in mind that over 830 schools no longer require the submission of SAT’s and ACT’s. They include Wake Forest, a highly regarded national university, as well as Middlebury and Bowdoin, numbers 4 and 6 respectfully among national liberal arts college in the US News 2011 rankings.


Competition is no longer limited to America’s shores and college admission is no exception to this long-term development. Fatalists would throw up their hands in despair. Proactive families, however, will relish the opportunity and take the concrete steps to ensure that the next generation of students is prepared for a fast moving and dynamic international environment in which a quality college education will be at a premium.

David Dickson is on the college admissions counseling team for Top Test Prep.

Top Test Prep offers private tutor programs and test prep for students applying to top schools. For more information, call (800) 501-7737.

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