School

U Michigan

Purdue

UC Berkeley

UC Los Angeles

U Texas Austin

% in top 5%

70%

43%

62%

59%

41%

# in top 5%

4800

3800

3800

3800

3400

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 over a thousand students fewer? Or that number 2 would be Purdue!

UC Berkeley and UCLA are little surprise in the third and fourth slots, nor is the University of Texas rounding out the top 5. All, as you’ve probably noticed, are state universities.

Numbers 6 through 9 are also state schools, with NYU being the first private school at number 10 (please see footnotes at the bottom of this page for explanations of the asterisks and plus marks next to some school names and numbers):

Ohio State

Rutgers–New Brunswick

U Florida*

UC San Diego

New York U

39%*

46%

49%

53%

48%*

3400

3400

3200

3200

3200+

And here are the other 29 schools:

U Wisconsin

U Washington

U Illinois

Cornell

UC Irvine

Texas A+M

Georgia Tech

UC Davis*

U Virginia

U Southern California*

U Maryland College Park

UC Santa Barbara

U Pennsylvania*

U Minnesota

Brigham Young U

U North Carolina–Chapel Hill

Indiana U

Arizona State*

U Georgia

Boston U

Clemson

Virginia Tech

U Notre Dame

U Colorado Boulder

North Carolina State

U Pittsburgh

Northwestern

Northeastern U

Penn State

44%

45%

36%

79%

45%

23%

75%

38%

62%

71%

51%

45%

88%

34%

32%

44%

25%

19%*

32%

61%*

41%

25%*

76%

23%

35%*

38%

83%

44%

16%

3200

3200

2700

2600*

2600

2600

2400

2400

2300

2200

2200

2200

2100

2000

2000

1900

1900

1900

1800

1800

1700

1700

1700

1600

1600

1600

1600

1400+

1400+

Don’t overlook that most on this list 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” Boston University because they were turned down by Harvard and MIT, point out to them that they’ll have more top 5% math students in their freshman class at BU than they would have had at either of the other two universities, both of which are among the most selective on the planet.

Boston University (1800)

vs

Harvard* (1500) or MIT (1100)

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

3300

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 2020-2021 Common Data Sets where possible. Where there is an asterisk next to a school’s name, I used the most recent CDS available from a previous year. 2) NYU, Northeastern and Penn State 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 the colleges get back to me with these numbers. The final numbers for these three schools will all likely be significantly higher than what is currently listed. 3) According to US News, schools I’ve marked with an asterisk next to the percentage 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.