Dartmouth Admissions Strategy

McNutt Hall: Home to Dartmouth's Office of Admissions

McNutt Hall: Home to Dartmouth’s Office of Admissions (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Ivy Day – for any unknowing readers – is the name of the day when all eight Ivy League institutions release their decisions, and it reminds me of a quote from Apocalypse Now, but slightly adjusted: “I love the smell of [incinerated childhood dreams] in the morning…”

Every year, tens of thousands of the best and the brightest high school teenagers finally have their chance, which for three years (or more if you have helicopter parents) they have been preparing for, to apply to their childhood dream college. Most of those dream colleges are Ivies, and most of those kids are crushed, rejected, and denied by those Ivies. However, because we are being so honest, we should look at the numbers and the facts to see how Dartmouth is stacking up to our peers and our past.

Good news, my fellow elitists, our acceptance rate for the Class of 2021 was the lowest since 2013, at 10.4%. This number is slightly misleading, however, as the College’s early decision acceptance rate was 27.8%. The College received 20,021 applications for the Class of 2021, a more than 3% decrease in the number of applications from for the Class of 2020, but it received 1,999 early-decision applications, a nearly 4% increase compared to the Class of 2020. While our acceptance rate is decreasing overall, it is important to note that we are following the trend of many other institutions in accepting more students early-decision.

Many colleges have adopted the practice of accepting more students in the early-decision round of admission in the last decade or so. The most extreme example of this move is American University. In 2009, American University’s acceptance rate was 53.2%, a similar rate as the previous few years. A year later, the acceptance rate had dropped nearly 10% to 43.5%. What caused this drop? At this point, it seemed to be caused by a combination of factors, including increased number of applications, increasing popularity of AU’s early-decision II policy, and most importantly a higher rate of admission for students applying through both early-decision routes. The acceptance rate of AU stayed around 43% from 2010 to 2014, and their early-decision acceptance rates was around 70%. In 2015, however, the regular decision admissions rate dropped by almost another 10%, to 35%, and its early-decision rate increased to 76%. Finally, in 2016, AU admitted a mere 25% of students, placing them in the most selective 1% of universities in the United States. As one would expect, based on the trend outlined thus far, AU’s early-decision acceptance rate rose to a far less threatening 85%.

With an ever-growing emphasis on selectivity and rankings, and a reinforced association of academic prestige with low acceptance rates, it is obvious why colleges and universities are willing to pull out every trick and marketing strategy possible to lower their acceptance rates. Historically, the Ivies have relied on marketing and branding to successfully raise the number of applicants and thus lower their acceptance rates to maintain their domination of single-digit acceptance rates. Other colleges, such as the University of Chicago and Tulane University, have removed their application fee, hoping that without any financial cost to apply more students would submit applications. The rise of “early-decision II” has enabled second-choice schools like Wesleyan University, Bowdoin College, and New York University to effectively attract students who were rejected from their dream school in early-decision or early-action rounds and to bind those students into attending when admitted, with a yield close to 100%. Many lower tier schools have had high early-decision acceptance rates for years, but more recently not only have those schools raised their early acceptance rates ever higher, but upper tier schools have begun to do the same. Most recently, this trend has even penetrated the Ivy League, with Penn, Cornell Brown, and Dartmouth all increasing their early-decision acceptance rates over the past six years. With Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford pushing the low acceptance rate competition to new lows, the other Ivies have felt the pressure to keep up, turning to the early-decision method to lower their acceptance rates at a faster pace than their marketing campaigns could ever accomplish in the short term.

While the early-decision strategy does make sense to lower acceptance rates, there are consequences that arise from it. The most often discussed issue with early-decision is that it notoriously favors students from prep schools, the Northeast, athletically competitive high schools, and wealthier backgrounds, as well as students with parents who are alumni. Early-decision, and its “benefit” of a higher acceptance rate, seems to favor the already privileged students, while lower income students from adverse backgrounds and lower tier high schools battle it out in the fiercely competitive regular decision round of admission. This point is valid, but it should be noted that an upward trend in early-decision acceptances has occurred simultaneously with an upward trend of student diversity. Though that parallel does not necessarily speak to the ethics of raising the early-decision acceptance rate, it does not seem to be detracting from top tier institutions’ diversity initiatives.

Lower acceptance rates are not the only benefit of more early-decision acceptances. Due to its binding agreement, early-decision admission attracts students who know enough about Dartmouth to declare that it is their first choice. The result is a larger number of students who want to be here, and were at some point previously exposed and are somewhat acquainted with the culture and traditions of Dartmouth, and will likely stay here for their entire undergraduate education. It is worth noting that with fewer students transferring out of Dartmouth, our transfer acceptance rate—already among the lowest in the nation—would become more selective. But statistics aside, it is easy to see that having more students on campus who are choosing Dartmouth because they have some semblance of connection to it, rather than just choosing it because it was the “best” option available or the most accommodating financial aid package, would be good for the College.

With the traditions of the College constantly being subverted by radically dissident students, this admissions strategy serves as a sort of self-preservation. Students of the College ought to want to be here, and increased early-decision admission ensures that more students will arrive in Hanover with a pre-existing connection to Dartmouth. The backlash against the old traditions of Dartmouth is not new, but it is has only grown in size and absurdity in recent years. With resistance to these invading ideals waning, those of us remaining who still have a deep-rooted love for the College must find some way to counter. Despite the infectious nature of these treasonous ideals, the College—unfortunately—cannot use amputation as a treatment. As nice as it would be to expel those among us who stand against the College’s traditions, Dartmouth is an institution that has always respected and welcomed free-speech, so that is simply not an option. But, what if we could decrease the presence of these traitors, while simultaneously increasing the number of students who see a more idealized view of Dartmouth as the reality? Problem solved. This is not far-fetched either, as the College is already doing it, knowingly or not. Early-decision admission by nature will have this effect. While it may not be a massive, sweeping change, it is quite likely that as our early-decision admission rate increases, the respect and love for the traditions and culture that define our College will also grow.

It is rare that an institution of the caliber and prestige of Dartmouth should take advice or adopt the strategies—especially admissions strategies—of lesser colleges and universities; however, the case of early-decision admission is one of those rarities. While the Ivy League normally sets the trend, for once it is the Ivy League that must follow the trend. But, there is never shame in making the right decision, even if other colleges and universities have already been practicing this early-decision strategy for over a decade. The benefits of early-decision speak for themselves: lower acceptance rates, more loyal students, higher four-year retention rate, lower transfer acceptance rate, and perhaps the best defense of our traditions. While Dartmouth Admissions is often criticized, it deserves favorable recognition for its decision to adopt this strategy.