A Contrarian College Admission Guide
Getting an excellent college education is easier than you think. You just have to redefine excellence
as quality of teaching instead of prestige.
BY GAETAN “GUY” LION
College admission is an anxiety-ridden process millions of senior high schoolers go through every
year. Many of them vying for the ultimate prize: an acceptance letter from a top-notch school. This
prize is getting harder and harder to get. This is due to demographics. The senior high school
graduate population has grown by 20% since the early nineties (or from 2.5 to 3.0 million), while
enrollment at the top schools has not grown. Also, high schoolers are becoming increasingly grade
and test competitive by boosting their academic performance by enrolling in SAT prep courses and
hiring private college counselors. Thus, the pool of nearly perfectly qualified applicants has grown
significantly. As a result, the top schools have become increasingly selective. Their respective
acceptance rates are steadily declining. Acceptance rates are already approaching the single digit for
Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. According to the book ‘The Early Admission Game’, written by
Avery, Fairbanks and Zeckhauser, even applicants with near perfect SAT scores (average 1580 or
2370 on current scale) get accepted at surprisingly low rates at the top Ivies (Harvard 32%, Princeton
41%, Yale 60%). Thus, many alumnae who went to such top schools a couple of decades ago would
not be accepted today.
Students have responded to the schools increasing selectivity by sending more applications. In prior
decades, students often sent no more than two or three applications when the acceptance rates at the
top schools were much higher, and when the numbers of strong candidates, as measured by SAT
scores, were far fewer. Now, the recommended minimum to send is six applications. But, many
students send in twelve or more in part due to the increasing convenience of the application process.
The Common Application format and online application are technological improvements used by
many colleges that have further boosted the number of applications students send.
But, sending more applications does not necessarily improve your odds because of “clustering” or
applying to different schools with identical selection standards. For instance, the Ivy League
uniformly uses the same Academic Index scoring. This suggests that if you are rejected by Cornell
(the Ivy with the highest acceptance rate), it is a waste of time applying to the other seven Ivies. They
will reject you as well. Thus, all the Ivy League rejection decisions are extremely highly correlated to
Cornell’s rejection decision.
Unfortunately, the increasing number of applications sent by students and the top schools declining
acceptance rates represents a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The more selective the top schools
become, the more applications they receive, the increasingly more selective schools become. This
system has become an irreversible vicious cycle. It is making for some really disgruntled and
overworked admission officers, and equally disgruntled rejected applicants often with near perfect
If you are an excellent student, and you are hell bent on going to a top school, there are four simple
things you can do to increase your chances substantially.
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First, practice for the SAT (or ACT) and SAT IIs extensively. Take several practice tests. And, even
enroll in a SAT prep course. Third party studies have found that such courses have boosted students
SAT scores by nearly 70 points on average. At the margin, this can make a whole lot of difference.
Regardless of whether you take a prep course or not, take the SAT (or ACT) twice as schools will use
your higher scores. When you figure that the average SAT score at most Ivies is much above 1400,
you need all the help you can get.
Second, apply to your top school choice through their Early Admission program (either Early
Decision that is binding or Early Action that is not binding). Early Admission will significantly boost
your chance of being accepted. Experts indicate that applying through an Early Admission program
is the equivalent of boosting your SAT score by 100 points (150 points on current scale). Observing
the data covering the 1999-2000 academic year from the book ‘The Early Admission Game’ this rule
of thumb is pretty good. For instance, at Princeton, Early Decision applicants with an average SAT
of 1435 were accepted 33% of the time, pretty much the same rate as regular admission applicants
with an average SAT of 1535. However, only 9.5% of regular admission applicants with an average
SAT of 1435 were accepted. Thus, by applying early, students with an average SAT of 1435 more
than tripled their chances of getting accepted from (9.5% to 33%). ‘The Early Admission Game’ also
indicates that in 1994-95, Princeton admitted 30% of its freshman class through Early Admission.
Another 45% of the freshman class consisted of students belonging to various admission-favored
groups (alumni children, athletes, minorities, and foreigners). Thus, regular students applying
through regular admission represented only 25% of Princeton freshman class. This stresses how
critical it is for regular students to apply through an Early Admission channel when considering an
Third, don’t apply to where all your school buddies apply. If you have several friends who are all
straight A students just like you, and are all applying to Yale, you are better off applying to Princeton.
This is because schools are uncomfortable accepting a large number of students from the same high
school. And, in certain cases ten or twenty applicants from the same school may be too much.
Fourth, focus on the quality not the quantity of your applications. And, remember to not fall into the
trap of “clustering.” It takes a lot of mental energy to prepare a strong application customized to a
specific school and do the related follow up work. You don’t want to dilute that mental energy over
too many applications. Otherwise, the quality of your applications will suffer. And, you will become
overly stressed and distracted where even your GPA may suffer. That is the last thing you want to
But, even if you are an excellent student who has a long shot at being accepted at an Ivy League
school (it’s always a long shot), there is another road to a superior college education that may be just
as promising and a lot easier.
To follow this road less traveled, you need to reframe what is educational excellence.
Conventionally, selectivity drives college rankings. The lower the percentage of applicants accepted
the better the school ranking. However, this traditional benchmark only measures the quality of the
student body. It does not measure the quality of the teaching. To measure the quality of teaching one
should focus on graduation outcome. What happens to the college graduates? What % of them move
on to graduate schools? Business school? Law school? Med school? What % of them move on to
earn PhDs? Following our road less traveled, we will now assume that high selectivity (low
acceptance rate) is not a positive, but instead a negative. We are interested in finding good schools
where common mortals (with high intellect) can actually get in.
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Our objective is to find a set of schools with high acceptance rates and high percentage of graduates
moving on to graduate schools. Thus, we are looking for schools that are much easier to get in than
the Ivies, but that may be superior to some of the Ivies in terms of teaching performance as measured
by percentage of graduates going on to graduate school. Given that these two forces (higher
acceptance rate and higher percentage going on to grad school) seem to be pulling in opposite
directions, is it truly possible to find schools that meet both criteria? Yes, it is.
Just as a reference, many of the top schools don’t have such a high percentage of their graduates
going on to graduate schools. Here are a few examples: Stanford (35%), Cornell (32%), Brown
(35%), Yale (28%). You can obtain this data from the Princeton Review website. Several Ivies did
not disclose such data at all. Was it because their respective figures were not so hot?
Searching for schools with both high acceptance rates and high percentage of graduates going to
graduate schools, you come up with less known schools. These include: St. John’s with a 80%
acceptance rate and 75% of its graduates going on to graduate schools, Birmingham Southern College
(90% acceptance; 65% going to grad school), Reed (55%/65% respectively), Emory (49%, 60%),
Agnes Scott College (73%/53%), Hendrix College (83%/46%), and Austin College (78%/45%)
among others. All these schools have an acceptance rate that is a high multiple of the Ivies, yet have
a percentage of its graduates going on to grad schools that is sometimes 50% or more higher than
some of the Ivies.
High acceptance rate does not mean lower IQ. Most of the schools mentioned have an academically
strong student body with average SAT of 1900 or higher. These SAT levels are higher than most of
the best public schools in the nation. Loren Pope, author of ‘The Colleges that Change Lives,’
considers St. John’s and Reed the two most intellectually demanding colleges in the U.S. bar none.
He and other higher education experts have high regards for all the institutions mentioned above.
Thus, there is nothing that is academically “easy” about these schools associated with higher
acceptance rates. You may end up doing more papers, more verbal presentations, more theses, and
more research in such schools than you would do in some of the Ivies as an undergraduate.
How can relatively unknown schools with high acceptance rates deliver a superior education? First,
these schools have a much higher acceptance rate because they are far away from the East Coast
establishment that has a monopoly on higher education name recognition. If you take two schools
that are identical in every respect including a 1900 average SAT for its entering freshman class, but
one school is on the East Coast the other one is not. The school back East will have an acceptance
rate of typically 44% meanwhile the other one (not on the East Coast) will have an acceptance rate 20
percentage points higher or around 64%. I derived these estimates by conducting a regression
analysis using 90 relevant schools located all over the U.S. including a fair sample on the East Coast.
Why are acceptance rates so much lower in the East Coast? It is really prestige more than anything.
It is like asking why German cars have such a reputation and cost so much more than Japanese cars,
even though Japanese cars earn better quality ratings and have at least a five year technological lead
(hybrid and cell fuel engine) over their German counterparts. It is just the way it is. Like the Andre
Agassi ads use to say “image is everything” and the East Coast has the image. As a result, the East
Coast is deluged with competitive applicants, while the rest of the country is not. But, does “image”
have much to do with undergraduate teaching quality? No. Do the higher acceptance rates outside
the East Coast represent a great hidden opportunity for students seeking a quality education? You
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How come such schools send a higher percentage of their students to grad schools? The answer is
that these colleges are “teaching” schools. They all have low student to faculty multiples. The
majority of their resources are focused on undergraduates. The professors’s vocation is teaching
instead of research. And, they are under no pressure to “publish or perish.” These schools are very
good at integrating various mode of learning including learning through internships, jobs, conference
classes with active student participation. Sometimes, they even use a near gradeless system. Grades
are kept confidential and submitted for transcript to graduate schools. But, students do not know or
share their grades with one another. So, students are not pressured by any grade competition, but
instead become superior and eager cooperative lifelong learners. Students know exactly how to
measure their performance through the detailed written and verbal feedback they get from professors.
As a result, these “teaching” schools often offer a very different academic environment more
conducive to learning than their more renowned Ivy League counterparts.
The Ivies by contrast are “research” schools focused on research and related commercial and
government contracts and grants. They further reinforce their brand name by hiring a most highly
paid Nobel prize winning faculty who is considered a “rainmaker” of contract dollars within a profit
making enterprise. Loren Pope in ‘Looking Beyond the Ivy League’ mentioned that John Hopkins
was getting 20 times more revenues from R&D than from undergraduate tuition. It also was getting
11 times more revenues from defense contracts than from undergraduate tuition. The revenue mix at
other “research” schools is probably similar to John Hopkins’. Thus, from an economic incentive
perspective, undergraduates are merely third class citizens at “research” schools. And, the related
teaching quality of undergraduate courses inevitably suffers.
Nevertheless, it is hard to break with tradition. Doesn’t the graduate from an Ivy League earn a
significant premium in the market place over his lifetime? There are countless studies supporting
this. After all, the Ivies capture the top 1% or so of the undergraduate students. These top achievers
are bound to earn a lot more over their career than the remaining 99%. But, it is not so simple.
Jay Matthews in his book “Harvard Schmarvard” refers to a study by Stacy Dale, who found no
difference in earnings between those students who had gone to Ivy League schools and those who had
been accepted at those schools but had chosen to go elsewhere. In other words, she did not compare
the top 1% to the other 99% like all the other studies who were really comparing apples and oranges.
Instead, she extracted from a much more precise data set a pool of students with equal talent who had
access to the Ivies. She even found some indications that students who had applied and been rejected
by the very selective colleges were doing just as well twenty years later as those who had gotten in.
She named this phenomenon "The Steven Spielberg Effect." Indeed, Steven Spielberg was rejected
by several of the top university film schools in Southern California. He graduated from a no name
school. As they say, the rest is history. Thus, Stacy Dale in her study concludes that it is not the
selectivity of the school that one attends, but the character, talent, intelligence, and drive of the
student that really matters. The Ivies distinguish themselves by "whom" they teach, not by "what"
they teach. Given that the author, Jay Matthews, is a Harvard graduate himself, he has instant
credibility regarding his revisionist insights about the Ivies.
Keep in mind that the Stacy Dale study focuses strictly on “undergraduates.” There is no doubt a
Harvard MBA will earn much more than an MBA from a lesser school. This is a fact supported by
hard data from business school rankings. The point Stacy Dale and Jay Matthew make is that
whether you earn your undergraduate degree from an Ivy League or not does not make any difference
if your drive and intellect is not so different from the ones of an undergraduate Ivy League student.
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Think about it. Let’s say you have a consulting firm, and you are considering two candidates for an
open position. They both have an identical background in most respects. They both have an MBA
from Stanford. But, one has a BA from Brown; the other has a BA from Reed. Does the Ivy “image”
at the undergrad level make a difference in this case? Most probably not. I would bet the same
would hold true in other fields such as Law, Medicine, and Science. In terms of market value
differentiation, the Ivy League image earns a significant premium at the Masters level, but not at the
The less well-known schools we have mentioned have excellent access to graduate schools including
the Ivy League and other top-notch schools. How come? Such undergraduate students have received
an excellent education often supported with many papers, theses, research projects, and verbal
examinations. In other words, their mode of learning and testing has often replicated the environment
of some of the most challenging graduate school programs. Similarly, such students’ academic
preparedness will extend to strong performances on graduate entrance examination tests whether the
GRE, GMAT, or LSAT.
The quality of education of smaller less well-known “teaching” colleges is further supported by their
often superior PhD productivity. Many of these colleges have sent students onward to earn PhDs at a
greater percentage of their respective student body than have the Ivy League schools. This
conclusion is supported by the ongoing data gathered by the Weighted Baccalaureate Origins Study.
Based on the most recent data from this study, of the top ten schools in PhD productivity only three
are household names (MIT, University of Chicago, and Yale). The majority consists in the smaller
“teaching” colleges often referred to as liberal arts colleges we have been talking about. Reed is a
steady top three contender within this list. St. John’s is closing in on the top ten. And, many other
small liberal art colleges such as Kalamazoo, Swarthmore and others are doing really well too.
If college rankings were based more on outcome or ‘output’ data (% of graduates going on to grad
schools, and earning PhDs) instead of ‘input’ data (acceptance rate, SAT range, etc…), the public
would have a much different picture of who are the top players in college education. Some of the
unfamiliar school names we have mentioned would come to the forefront. And, the Ivy League
would lose some of its luster.
On one hand, it is too bad the American public is kept pretty much in the dark regarding this more
meaningful ‘output’ data. On the other hand, it represents a great opportunity for these who know
where to look for and get a first class education at schools where they can get in.
Going for the “teaching” schools we mentioned does not prevent you from also using your Early
Admission card on one of the prestigious “research” schools. The Early Admission strategy has very
little implication for the mentioned “teaching” schools since their acceptance rates are so much higher
to begin with. You just have to watch out that if you apply under the binding Early Decision status at
one of these prestigious schools, is that really the school you intend to go to. Prestige and a good fit
can be different.
Nothing in this article detracts from the fact that going to a prestigious school is just about always the
best bet at the postgraduate levels. You will not ever read a study showing that a large sample of
students who were accepted to Ivy League Business schools, but decided to go to lesser institutions,
ever fared as well as the Ivy Leaguers. This is because the top corporations looking for the top talents
will recruit at the top business schools and be willing to pay top compensation. So, in this situation
there is a direct link between top schools and higher compensation.
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But, what we want students to keep in mind is that it is not the end of the world if they don’t get in at
such prestigious schools at the undergraduate level. To the contrary, many students may end up
getting a superior undergraduate education elsewhere anyway. In turn, this may maximize their
chances of getting into a top graduate school later on, when it really makes a monetary difference.
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List of schools with both high acceptance rate and high percent of graduates going to graduate school.
Acceptance to grad
1St. John's College Santa Fe NM 80% 75%
2Birmingham Southern Birmingham AL 90% 65%
3Reed Portland OR 55% 65%
4Emory University Atlanta GA 42% 63%
5U of Rochester Rochester NY 49% 60%
6Whitman Walla Walla WA 50% 60%
7Macalester College St. Paul MN 44% 60%
8U of Puget Sound Tacoma WA 72% 55%
9Agnes Scott College Decatur GA 73% 53%
10Willamette Salem OR 83% 53%
11Miami University Oxford OH 74% 52%
12Whitworth College Spokane WA 73% 50%
13Hendrix College Conway AR 83% 46%
14Austin College Austin TX 78% 45%
15Centre College Danville KY 78% 41%
16Scripps College Claremont CA 58% 40%
17U of the South Sewanee TN 71% 38%
18Millsaps College Jackson MS 87% 35%
Average 69% 53%
The main source of data was the Princeton Review (both its books and website).
The schools mentioned above all have acceptance rates that are far higher than the ones of Ivy League
schools and similar prestigious schools. However, these schools typically send an equal or often
much greater percentage of their graduates to graduate schools. Within this list of schools, only the
University of Rochester is located on the East Coast. As suggested within the essay, all the other
schools listed would have far lower acceptance rates if they were located on the East Coast. These
schools represent a great opportunity for any good students seeking an excellent college education
providing an excellent access to graduate schools (including the top ones).
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. With some research, you can find many other schools with
this fortuitous profile (high acceptance, high percent going to grad school). A very good data source
for conducting such research is the website of Princeton Review, including their books and college
guides. The information is out there. It just takes a bit of work. But, it is so rewarding. No one
should drive themselves crazy anymore to try to get in an Ivy League school. You can get often just
as good an education at other schools where you actually can get in! And, later you may have just as
good a chance to go to a top graduate school.
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