• Julie Simon

Selective College Admissions—Why Yield Matters


“I don’t understand college admissions. The decisions all seem so arbitrary.”

“I know students with lower GPAs and standardized test scores who were admitted and I wasn’t. I’m so confused.”

These comments are all too familiar after early application results are released, and this year was no different. I understand that selective college admissions decisions can seem arbitrary, and sometimes, even downright unfair. However, when we’re talking about a selective college receiving tens of thousands of qualified applications, who gets admitted goes beyond the quality of the student’s application.

When I began working in the admissions office at the University of Michigan in 2002, our office received a manageable 25,000 applications. Fast forward to 2021 and that number skyrocketed to more than 79,000.* And it’s important to note the vast majority of the applicants are qualified for admission. Here’s a few notes about the applicants for the U-M 2021 incoming class:

  • 33.4% of students had a perfect GPA of a 4.0

  • 70.2% of students submitted an SAT score between 1400-1600

  • 87.5% of students submitted an ACT score between 30-36

As applications have doubled, tripled, and in some cases quadrupled, at the nation’s most selective colleges, the decision process has changed dramatically. No longer is admissions simply an art. It’s much more science-based—data science—to be specific.

How Do Institutional Priorities Affect Admissions?

Selective colleges have the ability to choose which qualified applicants are accepted based on their own institutional priorities (e.g. geographic diversity, recruited athletes, first generation students, etc.) They also must admit to all academic schools/majors, and enroll a balance of full-pay students to offset those who need financial aid. They can choose to admit those with the most competitive academics, or they can choose to admit the students who they believe are likely to enroll. And lastly, they want to admit as few students as possible. Why? Because that’s the sign of an elite institution—a low admit rate and high yield rate (those admitted who choose to enroll).

What is Yield Modeling?

Colleges now use complex algorithms to assess who to admit based upon a student’s likelihood to enroll if admitted. So what goes into some of these yield algorithms? You might be surprised to realize it has very little to do with academic or extracurricular accomplishments. It includes factors such as:

  • Zip code

  • Past enrollment rates from your high school

  • % of students with your GPA/test scores who have enrolled previously

  • Family income

  • Parents highest level of education

  • The colleges your parents and siblings attended

  • Attendance at campus programs (e.g. tours, student panels, interviews, etc.)

  • Applicant’s engagement with the admission office including opening, reading, clicking on email links and following social media accounts

How Does This Affect My College List?

While what you choose to do inside and outside of the classroom is a critical component of the admissions process at highly selective colleges, it's important to understand that other things that aren't about you personally play a crucial role as well. This is why we often stress the need to look beyond the Top 40 rankings—to explore colleges where students have amazing experiences and successful outcomes—like Colleges That Change Lives. In the end, we want our students to have a variety of options. And then, the ball is in your court, and you get to be the one to determine which crazy algorithm you will use to decide which college is for you—thermal physics research opportunities, the preeminent drone racing team, or the frequency of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in the dining hall—the choice is yours!

* https://obp.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/pubdata/cds/cds_2021-2022_umaa.pdf

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