Common App data through March 1 shows that the number of college applicants has more or less held steady this year, but the number of applications submitted increased by 11%. That means students applied to more schools this year than in past years. Which brings up the topic of yield.

Yield is the percent of admitted students who enroll at a given college. While selective colleges broadcast their acceptance rates, yield is what they really focus on. That’s because yield drives selectivity. Think of it this way: If you have 1,000 slots to fill in your freshman class and 25% of those who are admitted enroll, then you need to admit 4,000 students to fill 1,000 slots. If your yield is 50%, then you only have to admit 2,000. If it’s 75%, then you only need 1,333. Let’s say that in each of the above scenarios, the college gets 8,000 applicants. In the 25% yield scenario, the school needs to admit half of applicants. If the yield increases to 50%, their acceptance rate is 25%, and admitting less than half of applicants makes a school “selective.” The school with 75% yield accepts just 16% of applicants, which would put it among the most selective colleges.

Having a high yield allows a school to be more selective. This is why early decision is popular: the yield on ED is close to 100%. If you’ve ever wondered why sports are such a big thing at selective schools– MIT has more student-athletes than Alabama, for example– it’s because athletes are similarly high-yield, typically committing prior to being accepted.

Schools go to great lengths to understand, manage and improve yield not only to be more selective, but also to ensure that they enroll enough students every year. And the pandemic, online school, fears of more competitive admissions, test-optional admissions, admission deferrals from the class of 2020 and so much more have wreaked havoc on yield projections this year. While Colgate, for example, is thrilled to see applications double this year, it is no doubt also aware that those applicants have all applied elsewhere, too, and thus might be trying to figure out how many of the incremental applicants are likely to enroll if offered admission. In fact, applications are up an average of 15-20% at the most selective schools, public and private, and despite all the big data initiatives around enrollment management, many seem to be rather in the dark about whom to admit and how many. How many more applicants does a school need to admit if not only they but all their peers got at least 20% more applications than in a typical year? This is particularly challenging at schools whose size is limited by physical constraints such as dorm capacity.

Why do you care that many schools don’t know how many students to admit? This likely mismatch between admissions offers and acceptances means two things for applicants:

  • If you get waitlisted at your top choice, it may be worth taking your spot on the waitlist.
  • At many schools, accepted students may have far more negotiating power than in a typical year. If a school finds itself short on enrollments in late April, it may have some incentive to sweeten offers to students who have not yet accepted. After all, a student paying $5,000 less annually than initially offered is still worth more than an empty desk or dorm room. So if your scholarship package at your top choice school isn’t what you need it to be, you might benefit from an appeal, or from delaying acceptance and checking back in mid- or late April to see if additional dollars are available.