College Admission: Tough Times For Girls?

Students gather for community and conversation on the Quad at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR USN&WR
Jeffrey MacMillan for USN&WR
The University of Richmond, like many small liberal arts colleges, has its roots in single-sex education. The campus, which sits on a picturesque 350 acres of woodland a few miles outside the Virginia state capital, was once two schools: Westhampton and Richmond colleges, on opposite sides of a small lake.

The campuses merged around the turn of the 20th century, creating the coed institution that exists today. The delicate balance between men and women at Richmond has always been a tricky thing to manage.

These days, the student body is 49 percent male and 51 percent female, a ratio that the college insists is determined by the availability of on-campus housing. Maintaining that equilibrium, however, means rejecting many more female applicants than male ones. In the past decade, female applicants have faced an admissions rate that averages 13 percentage points lower than that of their male peers just for the sake of keeping that girl-boy balance.

"From a philosophical standpoint, we've really discussed the benefits of keeping it about equal," says Marilyn Hesser, a senior associate director of admissions at Richmond. "The board of trustees has said that the admissions office can go as far as 55-45 [women to men]." Male and female applicants have test scores that are virtually the same, she says. "Was [the male applicant's] high school GPA a little lower? Perhaps."

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A thumb on the scale. The University of Richmond is not unique in its effort to keep the number of men and women enrolled roughly equal in the face of a dramatically changing pool of applicants. Nor is it the school where the gap in admissions rates is the most pronounced. Using undergraduate admissions rate data from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in its rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10 years many schools have maintained their gender balance by admitting men and women at drastically different rates.

The schools that are most selective - think Harvard and Princeton - have so many applicants and so many high achievers that they maintain balanced student bodies naturally by skimming the cream of the crop. But at other colleges, maintaining gender equity on some campuses appears to require a thumb on the scale in favor of boys. It's at these schools, including Pomona, Boston College, Wesleyan University, Tufts, and the College of William and Mary, that the gap in admit rates is particularly acute.

What does this mean for applicants? For girls, making the cut might come down to something as simple as the expected field of study. As an admissions officer from a small Midwestern liberal arts college puts it: "God help the female English majors who apply to this school." On the other hand, women hoping to study engineering will find themselves at an advantage at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which over the past decade has admitted women at a rate that is 17 percentage points higher than the rate for men.

Boys will be boys. Male applicants, meanwhile, are often at an advantage-so much so that college counselors have begun advising some boys to "emphasize their maleness," says Steve Goodman, a longtime independent college counselor. He encourages male students to submit pictures or trumpet their sports activities "anything to catch an admissions officer's eye."

Some colleges, like Lake Erie College in Ohio and Husson College in Maine, are making extra efforts to attract male applicants by creating football teams. Others are emphasizing hands-on learning and reaching out to all-male high schools. Common recruiting practices like writing personalized notes or having alumni call interested students are not as effective at landing students with a Y chromosome, schools have found.

A word of caution, however: Trying to second-guess which aspect of your application will most appeal is risky. What if the school needs students just like you? What's especially dangerous is trying to game the system by showing interest in a major only for the better admit rate-feigning interest in the physical sciences if you're a woman, say. At some schools, if you're accepted into the engineering school, for example, it's almost impossible to transfer into the liberal arts college. In the end, counselors and admissions officers say it's better to be honest on your application and get into a school that wants you rather than conceal your true intentions.