Ivy League Admissions Landscape 2017

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Colleges have released their decisions for the 2017 school year. Seniors are making final decisions on where to attend next fall, and juniors are beginning to look forward to applying themselves. Sophomores and freshmen may or may not be thinking of college yet, but they are working hard in their classes and activities. In their own way, every high school student is preparing for the next step in the college admissions process.

For the parents of those who haven’t applied yet, there’s a lot we can learn from trends in this year’s admissions to the Ivy League schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. While most students do not aim for the Ivies, they have always been a good benchmark for trends among the most selective schools in the country.

Let’s check out some of this year’s trends:

More applicants every year

As has been the case for what seems like forever, the Ivy League schools saw an overall increase in the number of applicants.

The eight Ivy League schools received a total of 281,060 applications, an increase of 8020 from the 2016 total of 273,040. Note that this is not the total number of students who applied. That number would be much smaller because many students apply to multiple Ivies at once.

Cornell saw the highest uptick in applicants, enticing 47,038 students to apply for the fall of 2017, an increase of 2,072 from its already Ivy-leading total of 44,966 last year. This is typical, as Cornell is the biggest of the Ivies to begin with.

Among Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth had a lower number of total applicants than in years past. Dartmouth had 20,034 total applicants, down 641 from 20,675 last year.

It is no surprise that the biggest increase in applicants happened at Cornell, which has in recent years drawn more applicants than any other Ivy. Likewise, the only school where the number of applicants shrunk, Dartmouth, has historically drawn the fewest applicants.

Acceptance rates down

More applicants at schools that do not grow very fast means one thing: a lower overall rate of admission. Ivy League schools are only getting more competitive. The overall acceptance rate for Ivy League schools dropped from 8.47% to 8.11% in 2017.

Interestingly, the total number of students accepted across the Ivies is also down. This year, the Ivies accepted 22,805 students, down 324 from last year’s 23,129. Harvard (19), Penn (32), and Yale (200) are the only schools to let in more students than last year.

One might expect the schools who admitted more students to all have a slightly higher admissions rate. Yet, among the Ivies, only Yale raised its overall admissions rate, from 6.27% in 2016 to 6.91% in 2017. All seven other schools saw a lower overall admissions rate in 2017.

It seems that the demand for an Ivy League education continues to outstrip the supply that these schools can provide. This year, Yale was the only Ivy to chip away at that problem, as its inflated acceptance total is a result of two new residential colleges opening for the Class of 2021. Kudos, Yale.

Early Action and Early Decision more popular than ever 

[Editor’s note: When comparing the data for EA / ED applicants and acceptances for 2017 and 2016, we excluded the Columbia data from 2016 since we do not have its data for 2017. We believe this makes for a more accurate comparison. This will explain any discrepancies between numbers reported in this section and the above chart. We will update this article if and when Columbia’s data becomes available.]

In many schools with an Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) policy in place, applying early can increase your chances of admission. This is the case for every single Ivy League school that reported data (i.e. excluding Columbia). In 2017, these schools saw an EA / ED acceptance rate on average over 9.96% higher than their regular decision acceptance rate.

No surprise that this makes early policies very popular among Ivy League schools, some of the most competitive in the world.

With the exception of Penn, every single Ivy received more EA / ED applicants in 2017 than in 2016. Penn received exactly the same number of early applicants (a very unlikely outcome)!

This past year, the growth of EA / ED applications (8.21%) far outpaced the growth of regular decision applications (2.18% growth).

The competitive advantage of EA / ED is down

For our purposes, we define “the competitive advantage of EA / ED” as the acceptance rate for EA / ED minus the acceptance rate for Regular Decision applicants. Essentially, this shows us what kind of difference it makes to apply EA / ED.

Overall, the competitive advantage of applying EA / ED to an Ivy League school (excluding Columbia) decreased significantly, from 14.22% in 2016 to 9.96% in 2017

Only three of the Ivies saw a increase in the competitive advantage of EA / ED, meaning that applying early helped more at these schools than in previous years: Brown, Dartmouth, and Penn. Note that even though the competitive advantage of EA / ED decreased at the other Ivies, there still is a significant competitive advantage to applying early to all of these schools.

The decrease in competitive advantage may be because of the increased number of EA / ED applications relative to the total pool. While the total number of EA / ED apps submitted increased at almost all Ivies (by a total of 2,242 applications, excluding Columbia),  the total number of EA / ED apps admitted did not keep pace (increasing by only 211, excluding Columbia) from 2016 to 2017.

We will be very interested to see where this trend goes in future years. Will Ivies start admitting even more students early, or will they begin to promote their early admission policies less?

One final note on Early Decision: remember that Early Decision is binding, meaning that you must attend a school if you are accepted Early Decision. It’s easy to be enticed by the greater admissions rate, but you should only apply to a school Early Decision if it is your surefire number one school. Early Action is non-binding, so you still keep your freedom of choice if you apply Early Action.


So what can students who are not applying to Ivy League schools take away from all this?

When the Ivies get more competitive (as shown by lower admissions rates), there is a trickle-down effect. The elite students who apply to these schools become less confident, and apply to more “target” or “likely” schools, thus inflating the average SAT/ACT scores and GPA’s for these schools. So we can expect other schools to follow suit and become more competitive, as has been the trend for many, many years.

Also, more students are applying to Ivy League schools every year, but there are also more students applying to most other schools every year. This only feeds into the cycle of increased competitiveness – the applicant pool grows much more quickly than the schools themselves, so every year the amount of applicants who cannot be accepted grows.

One final word of advice: the most competitive, prestigious school is not necessarily the best fit. With colleges more selective than ever, it is more important than ever that students do their research and apply to schools that they can actually see themselves attending.

Rankings are great, and in many fields a degree from a more prestigious school is certainly a benefit when you enter the job market. Still, at the end of the day, students get from their college experience what they put into it. You should never select a school based on rankings alone – always do your research!

Want to learn more about trends in Ivy League admissions? We’ll be posting a new school-by-school breakdown every week in the coming months, digging deeper on trends in admissions at the Ivies and other popular and competitive schools.

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Any questions? Contact us today!


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