College Consultant: Chicago "Class of 2014" is an Awful Admissions Harbinger
University of Chicago (LHOON via Flickr)
There is no question that the University of Chicago is a prestigious university that attracts some of the best and brightest high school students in the world. Founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and funded by a donation from John D. Rockefeller, the University is the crown jewel for the Hyde Park area of Chicago and a prime example of the effectiveness and quality of private liberal arts institutions across the country. Year after year, the University of Chicago stands as an outstanding, well-funded institution staffed by some of the best teachers, thinkers, and scientists in the world.
Yet, as an admissions crunch has overwhelmed Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, Chicago has remained an extremely reasonable option for high-achieving students. While the ACT and SAT averages for Chicago stretch toward the 99th Percentile, the admission rate in recent years (20-30%) has been consistent with an admission process that welcomes students who are excellent without being miraculous and wonderful without being perfect.
Harvard and Yale expect you to walk on water to get an admission letter (7% admission rates!); University of Chicago admits hundreds of students every year who stand out through their great GPAs, excellent test scores, and solid extracurricular activities. In fact, I often advise students to seek out schools like Chicago in lieu of applying to Ivy League schools because the process at a school with a 25% admission rate is fundamentally more rational and reasonable than the process at a school with a 7% admission rate. In years past, you could count on this "second tier" of quality schools to respect and value solid applications that would be pushed aside at Harvard and Yale for flashier, more "impressive" applications.
This year, however, things were different.
Chicago received approximately 13,500 applications for admission to their freshman Class of 2013, a slight increase from the previous year. For the upcoming Class of 2014, however, the University of Chicago received nearly 42% more applications, pushing the number of applicants close to 20,000. This did not bode well for the applicants: the admission rate dropped well below the norm to a measly 18%.
Students that otherwise would have been admitted were waitlisted; students that otherwise would have been waitlisted were denied outright. Chicago had so many students applying that they were given a new level of options when viewing the applications. No longer did the admissions officers need to look deeply at a student with a lower test score or a slight downturn in GPA: they had all the applicants they needed to be as picky as they wanted to be. Like it or not, some applications were thrown out that would have been considered deeply in the past, denying some students the chance to impress the admissions officers through less concrete achievements.
It's in this way that schools with extremely low admission rates enter some sort of Twilight Zone where normal rules simply don't apply. A 89th Percentile ACT Score? We've got tons above 90th! A 3.8 GPA? Too common around here. We need to see something really impressive to admit a student to Our Prestigious University and we're not seeing it from you...
If current trends continue, University of Chicago is no longer a rational place for students to apply. It's as if Harvard, Yale, MIT, and every other Ivy League school have reached a point of saturation where they simply aren't attracting more applicants at the same rate. Perhaps students, like locusts, realize that there is no more meat on the bones of these schools and they must move on. And, like locusts, they ravage the schools who are just a little bit down from the Ivies on the list, driving admission rates down ever further in their quest for a Golden Ticket.
Every student who is looking to apply to those schools "down the list" from the Ivies better get ready for the coming storm. It's going to be a nasty, drop-down, drag-out fight as schools like University of Chicago see their applicant pools swell and their admission rates drop. Solid applications won't garner much attention; excellent applications are going to be the new normal. There is simply no more room for students to be anything less than the best possible applicant the school has ever seen.