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A Statistical Edge: Why You Should Apply To Many Top Colleges


One of the myths that many families have been told is that your chances of getting into an elite college don’t improve no matter how many of them you apply to. There is some truth to this statement if you are not academically qualified for an elite school. But if you are academically qualified to attend an elite college, then this is horrible advice. And in fact, in either case, statistically, you are much better off applying to as many elite colleges as you can, provided you have the time to put in quality applications. And the number that you can demonstrably show interest in. We find this especially true in today’s hard-to-predict college environment, where luck certainly plays a role in your how application fares. But don’t take our word for it, let’s look at the statistical table that backs it up.

First, let’s make some simple assumptions to prove our point. In our scenario, let’s assume that you are academically qualified to attend an elite college based on your GPA, course rigor, and test scores. We define “qualified” simply as you have an SAT score that puts you in the 50% of matriculated students at the colleges. Depending on your demographic, you might have to adjust this mid score up or down, but let’s just assume you are absolutely average. For example, if the middle 50% range of SAT scores is 1520 to 1560, then you have a 1540. We know, it’s simplistic but hear us out.

Next, let’s assume that every elite college has a 5% acceptance rate in the regular round and the same middle 50% SAT scores. We know this isn’t perfect math because acceptance rates and SAT ranges vary, but it’s remarkably close among the top schools.

Given these assumptions, you’ve got a 5% chance of getting accepted at any one college where you are qualified as an “average” applicant. So, how would you fare statistically based on how many elite schools you applied to? Let’s take a look:

How Likely Are You to Get Into One of the Top 20 Colleges if you Apply to All?

What these stats  show is that if you are truly qualified to get into an elite college with a 5% chance of acceptance, then applying to even just five schools will give you a 22% of getting into one of the five. Applying to ten top schools will give you a 40% chance of getting into one, and applying to all twenty schools will give you a 64% chance of getting into one. With these stats, is it any wonder we ask kids to apply broadly to the top tier of colleges if prestige is what they are seeking?

Now, we know that this is far from a perfect science when it comes to an individual. And that even as a qualified “average” applicant applying to the Top 20 colleges, you still have a 1 in 3 chance of getting rejected from all 20 schools. We also know that it is hard to apply to 20 schools with high-quality applications and that this is simply not possible for some students. Putting in twenty bad applications likely takes your chance of admission down from 5% at any one school to something much lower.

But, assuming you are qualified, and assuming you are able to put in the time to apply well to twenty colleges (and are willing to invest the application fees), why wouldn’t you do it? Considering all of the work you’ve put in over years of high school to get great grades in hard courses, score highly on the SAT or ACT and dedicate yourself to extracurriculars, this seems like a worthwhile investment.

Tim Brennan
March 11, 2022
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