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Admissions rates are falling quite dramatically, and not just at the nation’s top 10 schools. Mt. Holyoke’s overall acceptance rate dropped 15 points, from 51% in 2017 to 36% in 2019. NYU’s fell from 28% to 16% in the same two years. For a survey of some of the most significant reductions between 2017-2019 as indicated in the chart below.

comparison of acceptance rates for classes entering in 2017, 2018, and 2019

Acceptance rates also fell at Yale, Columbia, Brown, Swarthmore, Middlebury, WashU, and Wellesley in 2019, as reported by CNN in the graph of declining rates of Ivy League schools.

I know this news is hard to take. It can feel stressful to discover that even more schools are becoming highly selective, with some approaching Ivy-level competitiveness.

But I also think it’s important to be armed with the most current data in order to plan in precise ways and get the best results for your child. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the ever-shifting landscape of competitive admissions. So what can we learn? Is there a deeper lesson?

Acceptance rates at Ivy League schools are declining, CNN

One could respond to the data with renewed conviction that your child must work even harder to get good grades, increase extracurricular engagement, find leadership opportunities, do research, get an internship, play a sport, etc. Yet the latest trends in admissions (yes, there are trends over time) favor something beyond this conventional picture of high-achievement. The model has changed.

As it turns out, top universities these days are excited about students who are ready to take on the world, and take care of it. These students are not necessarily “well-rounded” but rather deeply engaged in activities, projects, and/or inquiries that signal to an admissions reader: “I’ve been practicing for the future.”

And what does it mean to practice for the future? According to Harvard’s Dr. Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, today’s teens will need the following seven skills to be best prepared for the challenges of the future of work:

  1. Critical thinking and problem-solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral and written communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

Applicants with the above qualities show themselves to be more equipped for life beyond college, in the changing world of work. And the more equipped the applicant, the more excited the admissions reader!

Focusing on your child’s readiness for the future of work will be much more useful than fretting over a checklist of qualities from an earlier admissions era.

When I think of our former student Kim, I think about how all of the items not found on any checklist propelled her to the top of the applicant pool at the University of Chicago. Now finishing her sophomore year in neuroscience, Kim wrote a stirringly beautiful Common Application essay on teaching herself the meditative art of breathing and learning to calm herself down on demand. In doing so, she shared her journey in becoming more “agile and adaptable” in the face of stress.

She also had a very compelling story about revising her high school’s Health Studies module on learning differences, which she found offensive and inaccurate due to her intimate experience caring for her developmentally disabled younger brother. Raising the issue with school administrators and partnering with them on rewriting the curriculum, Kim displayed so many of the above qualities: critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, initiative, as well as effective oral and written communication.

As you can see from Kim’s example, one need not do anything elaborate like attend an expensive summer program or build a church in an undeveloped country to make a winning impression and gain entry into a top school.

I think, too, of Eric, who truly immersed himself in his creative pursuits and remained unfazed by the popular mandate to be well-rounded. When Eric realized in middle school that he loved dance but felt like an outsider at school, he joined a dance studio in another town, entered a diverse creative community, and became a serious dancer. Eric went on to found his own dance team, produce music, make videos, and educate himself about the business side of art. What a perfect creative and entrepreneurial profile for USC, Eric’s dream school where he’s now studying film and couldn’t be happier!

Admissions readers delight in applicants who have taken on the world in one way or another. Don’t get me wrong; grades and test scores still count a great deal. But when the numbers are even, an admissions officer will favor a student displaying the social-emotional traits and soft skills listed above.

So if you’re looking for a successful pathway in this tightening field, follow Tony Wagner’s lead and help your teen develop the skills needed for the professional world. When teens show themselves to be ready for a globally competitive future, top colleges take notice.

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About the Author: Amy Morgenstern

Dr. Amy Morgenstern, affectionately known as Dr. M, is the founder and CEO of Blue Stars Admissions Consulting. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MFA in contemporary art. A former professor of philosophy, honors program associate director, and assistant to the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Dr. M brings a wealth of academic and multicultural experience to her practice.

Free Workbook for Students

Blue Stars College Planning Foundations Workbook

Start today! Go through these strategic exercises to help you sketch out your plans for all four years of high school.

  • Learn key traits important to top colleges.
  • Write your first personal narrative
  • Branch out, exploring interests and defining activities.
  • Set goals and create your 4-year college planning timeline.

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