Getting into the nation's top schools continues to get harder, as the latest round of acceptances for the fall of 2018 has proved.

The University of Pennsylvania this week admitted 3,731 students for the Class of 2022 — just under 8.4 percent of the applicant pool, a record low for the Ivy League school and down from 9.1 percent last year.

Other Ivy League universities also set records.

Harvard proved the toughest to get into, with only about 4.6 percent of applicants accepted. Princeton came next. The New Jersey Ivy accepted 1,941 students out of a record 35,370 applications, just 5.5 percent of the pool. Last year, the school took 6.1 percent.

Yale accepted 6.3 percent, Brown 7.2 percent, and Dartmouth 8.7 percent. Cornell was the easiest of the pack — if you call a one in 10 shot easy. The university admitted 10.3 percent of its more than 51,000 applicants. (Columbia did not respond to a request for its numbers.)

"Getting into one of these institutions is tantamount to winning the lottery," said Barmak Nassirian, who formerly worked for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and now is with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Some other non-Ivy League colleges that are also highly selective proved tougher to enter, too. Swarthmore accepted 980 students, just 9 percent of applicants, down from 10 percent last year.

Stanford, which has been one of the most selective universities in the nation, announced Friday that it offered admission to 4.3 percent of applicants — 2,040 out of 47,450.  Last year, the school took 4.6 percent of applicants.

Driving the increase in selectivity are large jumps in applications at the schools, and some university officials believe part of that boost is due to higher scores on the new SAT, which may have persuaded more students to apply.

Penn saw a 10 percent jump in applications. The university received nearly 44,500 for the fall of 2018.

"With where our applicant pool is right now, we're not going to see a 10 percent increase unless something else happens," said Eric Furda, Penn's dean of admissions, citing the new SAT and its higher score range.

Nationally, students scored an average 527 in math and 533 in reading and writing out of a possible 1600 points. The scores on the old test were lower, because some of the content was different and the tests were scaled differently. Higher numbers don't necessarily mean smarter students. But the scores may have bolstered students' aspirations.

Acceptance Rates
At Ivy League Colleges

Rates are for the class of 2022. Columbia University did not provide its acceptance rate.
Staff Graphic

Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore, agreed that higher SAT scores could have played a role in the school's 14 percent increase in applications.

"From a student's perspective, if their score was higher, they may have felt based on previous data that they might have had a better chance at admission or at least be competitive in the process," he said.

Also driving the increase, he said, is an increase in students who are first in their family to attend college — nearly a quarter of Swarthmore's admitted students fall in that category — and the school's decision to allow students to self-report standardized test scores rather than pay to have them sent in, removing a financial barrier.

Because the nation's top schools have been getting more selective every year, it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause, Nassirian said.

"This is not a fluctuation. This is a trend line," he said.

It's most indicative, he said, of "the hyper-competitiveness of the anxious class."

Certainly, he said, the top schools' financial ability and willingness to provide full grants to students from needy families is an incentive.

"For some people, that alone may be worth taking a shot," he said.

A lot of the schools fill a good portion of their class with early decision candidates. Students who apply early decision commit to attending if they are accepted. Penn, for example, filled 54 percent of its 2,445 freshman class slots with early decision candidates, Furda said.

That made it even tougher on regular decision applicants.

Penn received more than 7,000 applications for early decision, a record, and that process was more competitive this year, too.

An increase in applications can mean an uptick in revenue. Penn, for example, charges $75 to apply. The school waives the fee for students with need, more than a quarter of the applicant pool, said Furda. That means, the university takes in less than $2.5 million in application fees, a relatively small number at a school that operates on a $9.2 billion budget, including its health system, and has a $12.2 billion endowment.

Furda said Penn is proud that the university extended offers to more traditionally underrepresented students. One out of seven students accepted are the first in their families to attend college. Fifty-three percent of the pool identify as students of color, the school said.

Of the accepted students, 175 are from Philadelphia.

Admitted students must notify the colleges by May 1 whether they will attend.