How the Hunger Games Explains This Year's Low College Acceptance Rate


It is now mid-April, which means that colleges have reviewed all their apps and made their decisions. This year, cceptance rates once again dropped across the board; Harvard, for instance, had an all-time low of 5.9%. 

Cue freakout. While college seniors should not have a nervous breakdown over these results, they are cause for concern. As a result, next year’s fearful high school seniors will apply to many different colleges to ensure their chances of getting in somewhere, hopefully to at least one big name college on the level of the Ivy League. What they probably don’t know is that this frantic “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to applying to college actually drives down their chances of getting into the school they desire.

This is all part of a vicious cycle. Prestigious colleges are still accepting nearly the same number of students as they always have. It’s not Harvard and Stanford that have changed; it’s the world around them. 

Remember a few weeks ago, when The Hunger Games opened to tune of over $152 million at the box office? That is the highest grossing movie opening of all-time for non-sequels. That sounds too good to be true, and of course it is: Once you adjust for inflation, it becomes clear that no movie today can even approach Gone With the Wind’s box office numbers. A similar process can be applied to college acceptance rates. Sure, this year Northwestern University accepted only 15% of its applicants, but they also received an all-time high of 32,065 applications. Last year, the acceptance rate was 3% higher, but there were also fewer applications. In fact, according to a Northwestern press release, this year’s number of denied students exceeds the number of applications from two years ago. Like Hunger Games, there are now more people who are applying to top colleges (the common application online makes it easier to apply), but this doesn't mean the college process has gotten more competitive. 

There is a solution, but it requires a change in the way we look at colleges. There’s no way that students who apply to a dozen different colleges actually want to go to all 12 of those universities.  they're just worried they won’t get in anywhere else. And, society tells students they need to go to a brand name school in order to be successful. But, this is one of the reasons they won’t get into most of those schools. Last quarter, I took a class co-taught by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who doubles as a specialist in education economics. His theory is that when admission officials look at an application, it’s very easy for them to tell whether that student really wants to go to the school or not. If the passion isn’t evident, that application’s chances of success obviously drop dramatically.

The way to fix this problem is for students to identify a handful of schools they’re really passionate about, and apply to only those. They can still maintain the three levels of applications (safety schools, target schools, and reach schools) but they should try to apply to only one or two in each category, rather than three or four. They should make visits and do research, not only on academics but also intangibles that are important to them: Where is this school located? Is it a nice campus? What are the people like? It’s impossible to say whether students should base their college decisions on academics or parties, because the value of those differs from person to person. If a vibrant social life is important to you, factor that into your decision. If you only apply to schools you’re passionate about, that will shine through and your chances of getting in will increase. And not only that, but your college experience will be much more rewarding.

I applied to about 10 different colleges, including some Ivy League schools. That was too many schools. I only got into three of them, and after matriculating at Northwestern, I realized that it had been the perfect place for me all along. I’m from one of Chicago’s western suburbs, so Northwestern’s Evanston location was far enough away from home that college was a different world, while still being close enough that it was no problem at all for me to stop by at home on a weekend. More importantly, Northwestern students struck what I found to be the perfect balance between working hard and relaxing. And of course, there’s the Medill School of Journalism, the best possible place in the world for me to study the subject I’m passionate about. I should have done a better job assessing where I actually wanted to go to school, and realized that I only had to apply to a handful of schools to get into the one I really liked.

The die is cast for the college classes of 2016, but next year’s applicants should take note: quality, not quantity, is what matters here.