4 scattered thoughts about college admissions [#50]

Got my first university decisions! Somewhat exciting.

4 scattered thoughts about college admissions [#50]

Hey all. This week was rough — I did well on my midterms, but I opened my first & second decision letters and I was rejected by Rice and deferred by MIT. It's certainly tough. But I do have 12 other universities and I'm hoping for some good results in the next few months.

College has kinda taken over my life for the past few months. So I figured I'd write kind of a rambly post about my thoughts on the craziness that is college admissions! Hope you enjoy.

1. The Supply & Demand perspective

In the past 30 years or so, the demand for admission to a top-tier university has skyrocketed. But the supply of admission at top-tier universities have remained relatively constant. You don't have to be an economist to understand that these two factors result in continually declining admission rates. But why has demand gone up so much, and why has supply stayed so constant?

1a. Demand

There are multiple factors that contribute to the continuing rise in demand for elite universities. These are the two prominent reasons:

  1. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the internet didn't really exist, so high school seniors had to (gasp) fill out all of their applications by hand. If a student wanted to apply to another university, they would have to rewrite everything — their biographical information, their essays, their extracurriculars, etc. and send them all in the mail. Submitting an additional application today takes considerably less time with the help of the Common App, so it's no surprise that seniors think: "Oh, what the heck. It'll take me about an extra hour and a $75 application fee to submit an application to another college. I might as well submit an application to Yale and Duke even though I wasn't originally considering it." More applications = higher demand.
  2. Many high school students increasingly see elite universities as their ticket to success. This is unsurprising — America tends to emphasize excellence, individuality, and hard work — and a lot of students feel pressure from their parents or society to perform, perform, perform. Get into that top-ranked school. Get excellent grades all the time. The whole thing reminds me of the Encanto song Surface Pressure (great song btw!). Some students even go as far to "shotgun t20s" — aka apply to most or all of the top 20 schools in the US. Again: more applications = higher demand.

1b. Supply

Here are two reasons why I think supply has remained constant:

  1. Colleges have this funny thing called endowment, which is basically a long-term investing fund (read: big pile of money). People give money (or assets) to the college, and then the college invests that money to generate a consistent return. Harvard has an endowment of $50B, which (1) is a bonkers amount of money and (2) is categorized under 501(c)(3), which means it's basically exempt from federal income tax. Let's say Harvard invests all of its $50B into an index fund, which generates a return of 8% per year. Let's also say inflation is 2% per year. At the end of the year, they can take out $3B ($50B * (8% - 2%)) from that endowment and still have the same amount of money (when adjusted for inflation). So by the power of investing and compound interest, Harvard makes billions per year. As a general rule of thumb: if you're a college, and you're making a ton of money from endowment donors, there's really no incentive to change anything about your school. Why would you increase the size of your undergraduate class when that might diminish the prestige of your diploma? (Thanks to my dad for introducing me to endowment.)
  2. Universities have no incentive to increase their enrollment, because it might hurt their prestige and rankings. Generally speaking, a university is better-ranked if it has (1) a lower acceptance rate; (2) higher test scores and grades; (3) more successful alumni. Because elite universities are already taking from the cream of the crop, increasing their class size will (on average) decrease the impressiveness of their undergraduates and increase the acceptance rate. Why would a university gamble prestige and rankings for just a little bit more tuition money?

1c. Conclusion

Unless something drastically changes in the next few years, acceptance rates will continue to drop (and tuition will continue to rise). It's already been happening for the past 30 years. I, personally, am not excited for a future where the acceptance rate for Harvard is 1%. We'll see what happens.

2. Game Theory!

In the game of college admissions, everyone is a player. (Even the universities.) There's a surprising amount of game theory happening, so let me dig into it.

2a. Different Types of Application

In terms of undergraduate admissions, there are broadly four types of admission. (Well, five if you count rolling admissions. But the key to rolling admissions is to apply as early as possible, and there isn't really much else to it.)

  1. Early Decision (ED): if you are admitted to the university you apply ED to, you are contractually obligated to attend. Best for a university you would really be happy attending.
  2. Restrictive Early Action (REA): if you apply to a university, you can't really apply to any other private universities. But you aren't contractually obligated to attend if you get accepted.
  3. Early Action: you apply before a certain date (typically November 1st). It's basically the same as Regular Decision, except you get higher chances.
  4. Regular Decision: you apply before a certain date (typically January 1st, and you aren't contractually bound by anything.

2b. Yield Rates

The yield rate for a college is the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll in a particular college or university. So if University X admits 1000 students and only 400 choose to enroll, that's a 40% yield rate. Colleges will do a lot to increase their yield rate because it's so closely tied to rankings. Here are a few common scenarios:

  1. Universities tend to give applicants who apply ED a huge boost (for some: 2-3x) in their chance of acceptance. This is because the university knows that if they accept that student, they will almost certainly choose to attend. This is reassuring for universities because it keeps their yield rate safe.
  2. Universities also do something evil called yield protection. If a certain applicant is extremely qualified for many top-tier colleges, a university may choose to reject that applicant, even though the college would love to have them as an undergraduate. The reason: the university knows the applicant will likely be accepted to and attend a more prestigious school. If the university accepted that applicant, they likely wouldn't attend, which would hurt the school's yield rate.

2c. Apply Early!!!

There is almost no reason to apply Regular Decision to a university if they offer Early Action. No reason.

  1. You get slightly better acceptance rates (sometimes). It's debated whether Early Action actually raises acceptance rates, but applying early should never hurt.
  2. You get results back earlier. In some cases, if you get into University X which you really like, you don't have to apply to Universities Y and Z. Plus, it's nice to have acceptances early in senior year so you don't have to stress in the second semester.
  3. You spread the college application workload out. If you wait till January 1st (the typical RD deadline) for most of your universities, you have to grind during Christmas break, which is not fun.

3. Who are the experts?

The college application process is really surreal. You spend months of your life working on every part of your application... and then admissions officers spend 10-15 minutes nonchalantly skimming your application while drinking a cup of coffee. A few weeks later, you get a decision in your portal — and it's typically either an acceptance, rejection, deferral, or waitlist. You get basically no other information — it's wild.

I like to think that each college's admissions office employs a certain mathematical function. An applicant puts in their application (input), and weeks later, the applicants gets back their decision (output). Every college has a different function, based on prestige, diversity requirements, GPA minimums, whatever. Sure, the functions are similar: they encourage high test scores, GPA, and good extracurricular activities. But what does the actual function for a college look like? That's the funny part: no one knows. That's why it's nearly impossible to predict whether a student will be admitted into a prestigious university.

There are a lot of self-proclaimed "admissions experts" out there. I honestly think only a few of them are actually experts. Because anyone can give general advice on how to improve an application. But no one actually can guarantee admittance to an elite university, and everyone is subjective when reviewing an application.

4. r/ApplyingToCollege

Turns out this subreddit is really funny and relatable. Some of the top posts of all time are literally so funny. Here's my personal ranking:

  1. I tried to kiss my interviewer! Are my chances ruined?
  2. My theory: Stanford doesn't exist. Let me explain why.
  3. I just received a super important email - all 2025/2026 college applicants for any college MUST READ
  4. "we regret to inform you..."