One of the pieces of information you’re likely to see called out about each and every college you look at is the college acceptance rate. This is the percentage of students who apply to the college and are actually accepted.

Lots of news reports focus on college admissions rates and what they mean, how they connect to the state of higher education as a whole. But what do they really mean for you, the student hoping to apply to these schools? How should they affect your college search? Here are 5 simple ways to understand and use college acceptance rates to improve your college search.

## 1. Check the Percentage Compared To All Applicants

You’re looking at the college acceptance percentage, and it’s AWFULLY low – say, 5%. And you’re saying, “Well, crud! That means that I’m almost certainly not getting in!” And you move on. Except, that’s not how you should understand the statistic.

Elite universities often have very low acceptance rates, but that’s primarily because they have a limited number of slots for students, and so many students actually apply that the overall number accepted is just a tiny portion of those who apply. A 5% acceptance rate for a school that gets 500,000 applications still means that 25,000 people were accepted.

Is it going to be easy to get into a school with a 5% acceptance rate? No, especially not if you’re competing with all those applicants. But it’s a somewhat different proposition than it might look like at first. Not to mention, this is just as important in reverse. A school that gets 50,000 applications and admits 25,000 students is going to have a 50% acceptance rate, which looks a lot less impressive than 5%, even though the same number of students was accepted.

**Takeaway:** Keep in mind that the percentage doesn’t mean anywhere near as much without understanding the total number of applicants.

## 2. Check the Percentage Compared To Average SAT and GPA

You should be able to find a school’s average SAT or GPA for incoming, accepted students, right alongside the acceptance rate. Use that information to contextualize the acceptance rate a bit more. Let’s go back to our 500,000 applicant, 5% admission rate school. Let’s say that the same school has an average incoming SAT score of 1500 out of 2400, or an average incoming GPA of 2.5 out of 4.0. Kind of changes the meaning, doesn’t it? That 5% doesn’t look anywhere near as exclusive or impossible now, and it tells you a lot about who those 500,000 applicants are.

On the other hand, if we take our 50,000 applicant, 50% acceptance rate school, and say that it has an average SAT score of 2200 out of 2400, and an average incoming GPA of 3.6 out of 4.0, then you’ve suddenly found out that the school is either accepting the best possible students out of the applicant pool, or the applicant pool itself is filled with better students. It rather changes the meaning of the acceptance rate.

**Takeaway:** Without knowing the average incoming SAT and GPA of the school you’re looking at, you’re not going to get an idea of who exactly is applying to the school and what exactly those college acceptance rates mean.

## 3. Check the Percentage Compared to Enrollment

Colleges will often admit more students than they could possibly, actually take. They do it to ensure that they’re going to have enough students, considering that an acceptance does not equal an enrollment. But enrollment is an important number, because it’s going to say something about the number of acceptances a college doles out to understand how many of those students actually ultimately attend the college.

If we look at our 5% acceptance rate university, and imagine that only 10% of those accepted students (0.5% of total applicants) actually enroll, you now need to ask yourself – why? What’s going on here? The 5% acceptance rate alone implies that the school is pretty exclusive, but such a low level of enrollment sends another message.

Similarly, if we look at our 50% acceptance rate university and imagine that 80% of those acceptance students (40% of total applicants) actually enroll, then that implies that the students who apply to this university really want to attend. It changes your understanding of the university, how students view it, and how you should view it.

**Takeaway:** Enrollment numbers will tell you how other students see the university, and give you a clue about what else you should look in to so as to understand the acceptance rates.

## 4. Check the Percentage Compared to Tuition, Fees, and Aid

Those clues you’ve been picking up from enrollment rates, overall percentage of applicants, and so on? It’s time to contextualize them with one of the most important facets of college education: price tag.

Sticker price tuition, additional fees, financial aid, actual tuition – these are all critical no matter what college you’re looking at, or where in the process you are. But for understanding acceptance rates, they can be even more important.

A college with a high price and without much financial aid might get far fewer applicants, in general, than one with tons of financial aid and a low sticker price. That means the acceptance rates for the first college may look a lot higher than the rates for the second college. It doesn’t say anything about the respective educations being offered, then, if this is the primary cause for the difference in acceptance rates.

**Takeaway:** It’s hard to tell what the primary cause for any given acceptance rate is, of course, but looking at the costs and the financial support offered by a college can definitely give you a clue as to what those acceptance rates really mean.

## 5. Check the Percentage Compared to Other Colleges

This is what you should be doing throughout the college process, no matter what. Compare one college to another. If you noticed, I was doing this throughout all of the examples above, because no individual college’s acceptance rate will make sense unless you compare it with another. Saying that Princeton has a (hypothetical) 5% admission rate doesn’t mean that much on its own; comparing it to Harvard’s (hypothetical) 10% admission rate, and Yale’s (hypothetical) 15% rate will tell you a lot more about all of those schools, and get you to look a little deeper at why those numbers are what they are.

**Takeaway:** Assemble a list of schools and their stats before really getting into your analysis so that you can have a better idea of what it all means.