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Do Girls Have to Try Harder to Get Into College?

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Over 60 per cent of the high school seniors who applied to the College of William and Mary for freshman admission in 2007 were women but women made up only 52 per cent of that fall's incoming class. Does that mean that women applicants had a harder time winning a seat in William and Mary's Class of 2011?

Statistically, they clearly did. A male applicant's chances of winning admission to William and Mary last fall were about 1 in 2.5. A female applicant's chances were about 1 in 4.

When William & Mary officials were asked by a reporter for the campus newspaper about this, they defended their selection process as fair, pointing out that all admits had comparable SATs, GPAs, and other qualifications. It's not as if the College had systematically accepted male applicants with B averages while turning away women with A grades. All applicants were held to the same standards. Admissions were fair in that sense.

But girls who worry about admissions stories like this have a legitimate point, too. Maintaining gender balance in enrollments when applicant pools are unbalanced implicitly ties individual admissions outcomes to gender. If you have a larger pool of female applicants and a smaller pool of male applicants applying for roughly the same number of seats, it's going to be harder for individual female applicants to win admission. That's a dynamic that leaves many female high school seniors feeling that they have to try harder than their male peers do to win a seat in their target schools.

The root of the problem is that women make up an increasingly disproportionate share of college applicant pools and student bodies alike. Nationwide, women make up around 57 per cent of enrolled college students. That's almost 3 female undergrads for every 2 male undergrads.

This imbalance presents a dilemma for colleges. If they practice "gender blind" admissions, they're bound to wind up with a disproportionately high percentage of female students. Most schools are reluctant to do that because past experience has shown that once a school passes a certain point in gender ratios, applications from both men and women drop off.

Women applicants might take some comfort in the fact that boys do not enjoy any special consideration in admissions at the very top schools. It's hard to get accepted to Harvard, no matter which gender you are. These schools have such high applicant-to-opening ratios that they can afford to ignore gender in their admissions decisions. If they simply admit the best applicants they are statistically likely to wind up with a class that is roughly half women and half men.

Women might also take some comfort in knowing that they have an edge over men at certain schools and in certain fields. A female high school senior with a strong interest in engineering will probably have an easier time winning admission to a competitive technical school than a similarly qualified male classmate would. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Vice President for Enrollment told a reporter for the local paper that, given a case where two applicants' profiles were completely equal in every way except for their gender, the diversity the woman applicant would bring to the school would make her the more attractive candidate.

The best advice we can give female applicants is to follow the same advice we're giving everyone only more strictly: start your college applications early, apply to an appropriate number and range of schools, and prepare each one of your applications carefully.

The best approach any college applicant, female or male, can take to today's competitive admissions environment is to put their concerns about admissions statistics and the wider applicant pool to the side and to focus on their own, unique, individual situation. In the end, admissions committees select applicants as individuals, not as representatives of a demographic cluster. You'll maximize your chances of getting the admissions outcomes you want by looking at yourself the same way.

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