School

U Michigan

UC Berkeley

Ohio State

U Wisconsin

U Texas Austin

% in top 5%

75%

66%

49%

49%

47%

# in top 5%

5200

4200

3900

3900

3800

It’s not too surprising that the University of Michigan is at the top of this list, right? But who would have guessed that they would have more top 5% math students in their freshman class than Dartmouth has total for all undergrads, and that number 2 would have almost a thousand students fewer? Or that numbers 3 and 4 would be Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin!

The University of Texas rounding out the top 5 is little surprise. All, as you’ve probably noticed, are state universities.

Numbers 6 through 10 are also all state schools.

Purdue

U Washington

UCLA

Rutgers

Texas A+M

45%

49%

58%

46%

31%

3600

3400

3400

3400

3300

And here are the other 16 schools:

U Florida

UC San Diego

U Illinois

New York U

Cornell

UNC Chapel Hill

U Virginia

Georgia Tech

Virginia Tech

UC Irvine

U Minnesota

U Southern California

U Maryland

Boston U*

Indiana U

U Pennsylvania

49%

53%

35%

47%

80%

59%

65%

77%

31%

43%

36%

71%

52%

67%

25%

88

3200

3200

2700

2700+

2600*

2500

2400

2400

2300

2300

2300

2200

2200

2100

2100

2000

Don’t overlook that all but five on this list are state universities, and that all but Cornell and Penn are frequently used as “safety” schools but have higher numbers than many of the universities that are often preferred.

So if you know a very bright, hard-working student who feels like they have to “settle for” Purdue because they were turned down by Northwestern and Notre Dame, point out to them that they’ll have as many top 5% math students in their freshman class at Purdue as the other two universities have when put together.

Purdue (3600)

vs

Northwestern + Notre Dame (3600)

No need for disappointment if it’s the University of Maryland instead of Georgetown or Johns Hopkins, either. Maryland has as many freshmen with math scores in the top 5% as the other two combined.

University of Maryland College Park

2200

vs

Georgetown + Johns Hopkins*

2200

And Rutgers beats out Princeton and Penn put together.

Rutgers

3400

vs

Princeton + Penn

3200

You get the point. Schools that are a bit–or perhaps even quite a bit–less selective than those that students may have as their number one choice will have many students who are just as bright and hard-working as they are. Whether it’s UC Santa Barbara or the University of Washington instead of Stanford; the University of Texas instead of Rice; Ohio State, Illinois or Indiana instead of Vanderbilt, Northwestern or Notre Dame; or Florida, Georgia or Georgia Tech instead of Duke; the notion that attending a slightly less selective school means going to college somewhere that there won’t be lots of other students who match up well with you intellectually is simply not true.

With regard to the ability level of their students, the distance between the most selective colleges and those just behind them in selectivity is nowhere near as great as many people think. And the same is true all the way down the list of selectivity to those who accept everyone who applies.

It’s a continuum with significantly overlapping layers, not a pyramid with discrete steps.

‘Safety’ schools know what to do with extremely capable students. Their top students, those who in many cases applied to and barely missed being admitted to a more highly selective college, need classes that are taught at a level that challenges them. And they get them.

How do we know this?

Well, it would be a huge scandal if they didn’t, right? Journalists would be writing about the lack of adequate preparation available at ‘second-tier colleges’. Employers would be complaining about the dearth of strong applicants from anywhere other than the top schools. Students and parents would be extraordinarily unhappy at the money wasted on an education that didn’t prepare them for the jobs their lucky peers who attended colleges with better-known names were getting. Transfer applications would be through the roof, with students who had a phenomenal first year at a less selective school trying once more to get into one with bigger name recognition.

Everyone would be talking about this, and there would be a movement to correct the situation. But that’s not happening. Why? Because schools that are a bit less selective are very capable of taking those who barely missed getting in somewhere else and giving them an education that prepares them well for a successful and happy career.

There are close to 3000 4-year colleges in the US, and our many very bright, talented, hard-working, all-around awesome kids can look significantly deeper than, and are very capable of being happy and well educated at more than, the top 1-2% that many assume should be their sole focus.

They should be looking for schools that meet their individualized criteria and putting together a list based on the proverbial ‘best fit’, not on a one-size-fits-all overall rankings score or fear of not meeting the expectations of family or friends.

Footnotes: 1) I used the 2019-20 Common Data Sets where possible, because the data for years after that are thrown off by the Covid pandemic; for Ohio State and Johns Hopkins, I used data from 2018-19 and 2015-16 respectivel, because these were the most recent years I could find where SAT scores were required. 2) NYU did not provide test scores for 100% of their freshmen, nor is it obvious how much overlap there is between those who submitted SAT scores and those who submitted ACT scores. I’ve listed the number with SAT math scores at or above 700, and will update the totals to include those who submitted ACT scores when they get back to me with this number. The final number will likely be significantly higher than what is currently listed. 3) Schools I’ve marked with an asterisk next to the school name do not require test scores from all applicants; however, scores are reported for a very large percentage for each. Their numbers may be a bit lower than reported. 4) Cornell didn’t provide the percentage of its students who submitted ACT scores who had 30 or above, so I’ve estimated this for them. I’ll be happy to correct this if they give me the percentage, but I don’t anticipate it changing their total by much or their place in the list at all. 5) None of the above affects the point of this exercise at all.