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13 Things You Never Knew About College Admissions

A new book offers uncommon insights about college admissions.

Who gets into college? Who gets into the most elite colleges and universities? Is the process fair? If not, what would make it fair? These and other fundamental questions about college admissions are addressed in a new book, Who Gets In?: Strategies for Fair and Effective College Admissions, from Harvard University Press. Author and Professor Emerita at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Rebecca Zwick, has had a long and distinguished career studying educational testing and college admissions.

Informed by interdisciplinary research and theory, as well as a study of 13,000 students who have been followed over time starting in high school, Who Gets In offers a far-reaching discussion of the key issues. The research-based conclusions challenge some of the proposals for improving college admissions that seem intuitive and that have been widely-touted by other esteemed scholars and public intellectuals.

Harvard University Press
Source: Harvard University Press

Here is a sampling of 13 things you may never have known about college admissions, documented in Who Gets In?:

  1. How hard is it to get into college? “Getting into college in America is remarkably easy. We have over a thousand community colleges, most of which take all comers, and more than half of our four-year institutions have admission rates of 75 percent or higher.”
  2. How hard is it to get into Harvard or Stanford? “In 2016, Harvard’s admission rate dropped to an all-time low of 5.2 percent, still a bit more generous than Stanford’s 4.7 percent acceptance rate.”
  3. Who is making selection decisions other than college admissions committees? “…some of the most significant selection processes occur before the candidate even decides to apply. One of these is self-selection.”
  4. Which factors do colleges weigh the most? “Academic performance in college preparatory courses has been consistently rated as the top factor in admissions decisions since 1993…Class rank, however, has declined in importance over the years.”
  5. Have SAT tests always had a bad reputation when it comes to diversity? SAT tests are often criticized as unfair to students who are poor or members of stigmatized racial or ethnic groups, but in the early 20th century, “the SAT served as a gateway to elite colleges for applicants who didn’t fit the Ivy League profile.”
  6. Are there more men or more women in college? “In 2014, 57 percent of U.S. undergraduates were women.”
  7. What does the Supreme Court say about affirmative action? “…in cases spanning more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has yet to offer a comprehensive, unambiguous ruling on the legitimacy of race-based preferences in admissions.”
  8. What did colleges use before the current SAT? The first SAT was “administered by the College Board in 1926 to about 8,000 students.” It included 315 questions to be completed in 97 minutes. It replaced “a weeklong battery of essay tests.”
  9. How much does SAT coaching help? Based on an earlier version of the SAT, on the average coaching improves Verbal by 6-9 points and math by 14-18 points, on a 200-to-800 scale. But it is not just with admissions tests that some students get paid help—some get help with the entire admissions process.
  10. How much does it matter whether you have a family member who attended the college where you are applying? At most top U.S. colleges, “legacy” applicants, who have family members who attended the institution, are admitted at the rate of about two to four times that of non-legacy applicants.
  11. Is it true that colleges favor applicants whose relatives might make big-time donations? “Development admits” are applicants whose family members have the potential to contribute large sums to the institution. They get an advantage in admissions that can be the equivalent of having SAT scores 300 to 400 points higher than they actually have.
  12. If a recruited athlete, a person from an underrepresented minority, a legacy applicant, and an applicant who did not fit any of those first three categories all had the same SAT scores, who is most likely to be admitted? The person most likely to be admitted is the recruited athlete, and the person least likely is the student who did not fit any of the categories, according to a 1995 study of 19 elite institutions.
  13. Doesn’t the preference for recruited athletes increase diversity? “Contrary to stereotypes, recruited athletes are less likely than their fellow students to be from underrepresented minorities or from low-income families, because participants in ‘rich person’ sports, such as crew, sailing, lacrosse, and fencing, get an edge along with football and basketball players.”


Zwick, R. (2017). Who gets in? Strategies for fair and effective college admissions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.