March is madness for high school seniors. Each year, seniors mark March as the final month in the agonizing wait for college decisions. Early application timelines mean the admission process is blessedly over for some. But many still wait, even as stakes soar and odds seem to dwindle. UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, received nearly 45,000 first-year applications this year, the 14th consecutive year of record numbers. Is it harder and harder to get into college? 

Hold for more jaw-dropping statistics: UCLA, the nation’s most popular university, just reported more than 135,000 freshman and transfer applications; NYU received more than 84,000 first-year applications. DukeDartmouthYaleTufts, and Brown announced record applicant numbers. Admit rates at elite institutions are falling, even as perceptions grow that a college degree is a baseline prerequisite for future economic viability.  

High schoolers hear the hype; such pressure pushes intensively, inexorably, into their school days and college dreams. Surveys of 100,000 students at high-achieving public, private, parochial, and charter high schools, conducted by the Stanford University-affiliated organization, Challenge Success, reveal college admissions is a perennial top stressor. To compete, kids labor to churn out awe-inspiring (and, they hope, admission-worthy) transcripts and resumes. They populate online message boards, anxiously posting test scores and GPAs, and asking others to “chance” their odds at top institutions.  

Is their angst warranted? Is a spot at a prestige school the life-altering opportunity students believe it to be? 

Not so, says Challenge Success, in a recent white paper emphasizing “fit” over rankings. The evidence is clear: There’s no significant relationship between school selectivity and quality of learning. School status isn’t linked closely with graduates’ well-being or later job satisfaction, either. Attending a selective school does confer “modest” financial advantages, says Challenge Success; such benefits are most evident for first-generation and underserved college students. 

If college selectivity isn’t a strong predictor of success, what is? Engagement — how much students invest, right where they are. Engagement, according to Challenge Success’s review, leads to greater knowledge, competence, creativity, and curiosity. Effective engagement can include internships or mentoring, even projects and extra-curriculars. College major and ambition also matter, and so does time on task. Study, study, study in college, wherever you go, and you’ll do better. Don’t, and you probably won’t.        

Some changes are coming. New college rankings will provide greater institutional accountability. US News & World Report’s 2019 rankings weight student factors (scores and class standing) less. Institutional outcomes (including retention and graduation data) matter more. Admit rates are out. Social mobility metrics are in. These measure how well institutions do at graduating low-income students. Now that would be an indicator of life-altering opportunity. 

More college applicants? That’s a good thing, says Challenge Success co-founder Dr. Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education — but a “fear-based mentality” clouds the application process. Misperceptions abound. Students must be perfect and apply to a bunch of schools just to get in somewhere; only certain schools are worth attending. “All of those things are myths,” she says. “There’s actually a college spot for every person who wants to go to college.”   

Really, there are only 100 to 200 schools that are considered highly selective, and “literally thousands of four-year institutions,” Pope notes. Students should look beyond rankings, which still are flawed, and focus instead on fit — how well institutional attributes and offerings align with their passions and proclivities.  

“There are multiple fits for everyone,” Pope says, adding about the college decision process, “It’s not like finding a soulmate.” 

Thank goodness for that. It’s timely reassurance for the weeks of waiting ahead. 

 Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.