Making Sense of College Selectivity

Berea College
Berea College

Understanding selectivity is important because it can help your child as they develop a list of colleges to apply to. Your homeschooler will want to be admitted to most schools they apply to. For scholarship purposes it is helpful if they are at the top of the applicant pool at least some of the schools they are considering.

The College Board website groups colleges into different selectivity categories: Most Selective, Very Selective, Somewhat Selective, and Less Selective. Seems pretty straightforward, right?  It would seem to make intuitive sense that students should have a tough time getting into the “most selective” schools but a pretty easy time getting into “somewhat selective” or  “less selective” schools.

Let’s try an example and see if this system is as straightforward as it would seem. I’ve selected four schools which I will describe below.  The list includes one representative for each category: most selective, very selective, somewhat selective, and less selective. Can you choose which category each school represents?

Wheaton College:This top-ranked interdenominational Christian liberal arts college is located in the suburbs of Chicago. Most students live on campus and many study abroad. The ACT average range is 27-32, with nearly half (47%) of students scoring over 30.

Berea College: This small private Kentucky college has a history of educating low income students, including many who are the first in their families to go to college. The ACT average range is 22-27, with approximately 9% of students scoring 30 or above.

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale: A midsized public university.This university of approximately 20,000 students is a comprehensive university offering a wide range of programs including master’s and doctoral level. The ACT average range is 18-24, with approximately 5% of students scoring over 30.

Hope College: A Christian, small liberal arts college located in Holland, Michigan. Hope is known for its science programs and is ranked in the top 10 of students from private colleges going on to earn a PhD. The average ACT range is 24-29 with 25% of admitted students earning over a 30.

Here’s how the College Board ranks the selectivity of these colleges:

  • Most Selective: Berea College    (Average ACT 22-27)
  • Very Selective: Southern Illinois University Carbondale    (Average ACT 18-24)
  • Somewhat Selective: Wheaton College   (Average ACT 27-32)
  • Less Selective: Hope College   (Average ACT 24-29)

Wheaton, the school on the list that is typically ranked highest and has by far the highest test scores of the group, is ranked as only “somewhat selective.” The school on the list that is “very selective” has average ACT scores from 18-24, and the “less selective” school has scores from 24-29.

Hope College
Hope College

What’s Going On Here?
It appears that the College Board uses only one measure of selectivity. They don’t look at the average GPA or test scores of accepted students. They only look at what percentage of students a college rejects.  So, even if a college is accepting students who are statistically weak (low GPA and low test scores), as long as they are rejecting even more they will be ranked as very selective.

In our example the admissions rates are as follows:

  • Most Selective: Berea College: 12% admitted
  • Very Selective: Southern Illinois University Carbondale: 44% admitted
  • Somewhat Selective: Wheaton College: 65% admitted
  • Less Selective: Hope College: 82% admitted

Some colleges, such as Wheaton and Hope, are known to draw a very strong group of applicants. So, it tends to be a self-selecting sample. Students with really weak test scores typically do not to apply to Wheaton because they see that the average Wheaton students have very high test scores. Thus these colleges attract fewer, and stronger, applicants. The average rejected student may be much stronger than the average accepted student at some other schools.

To be fair, these schools may be atypical representatives of their categories. As you’d guess, Harvard is considered “most selective” according to the College Board, as are most of the other Ivy League schools and most prestigious colleges in the nation. Still, if your student plans to use the College Board to look for potential college matches, it is important to discuss selectivity with your student. “Less selective” doesn’t mean low quality or guaranteed admissions for weaker students.  Being “very selective” doesn’t mean it will be difficult for a student with a strong profile to be admitted, nor is a high degree of selectivity a guarantee a student will receive a quality education. So, as in all aspects of the college search process you need to be an informed consumer and take the time to consider where your individual student fits with the general information you will find online.


  • I don’t remember that most people cared that much about going to a big name brand college thirty years ago when I was a student. Just looking on-line, it is very hard to tell whether the Dukes or Stanfords of the world really offer a better education or more opportunities.

  • This is a very confusing area. Thanks for sharing helpful information that helps make it clearer. I was surprised to find that selectivity can very based on in-state or out-of-state applicant status. UNC is a selective school in general, but it probably falls into the Most Selective category for out-of-students, which was a surprise for our family.

Follow Us Online

Facebook – Follow for the latest in homeschooling and college admissions news.

Hettle College Consulting – consulting for public and private school students.

Enrollment Decisions of our Class of 2024!