At a college workshop that I conducted recently in San Diego, I asked the dozens of parents in attendance to guess what percentage of high school seniors got accepted into their No. 1 college.

“Six percent,” blurted out one dad. Before I could process that lowball answer, a mother across the room chimed in, “Two percent?”

It's no wonder that families are so stressed about college when they believe that only a tiny fraction of teenagers get into their dream school. I blame a great deal of this pessimism on the media, which seems to cover college admission news the way they might cover a sporting event. Journalists focus on the winners, which in their minds are the elite schools that do, in fact, reject nearly all comers.

The rejection rate for Harvard, for instance, is 6 percent, and for Princeton, 8 percent. But folks, the students who attend these schools represent well under one-quarter of 1 percent of college-bound teenagers. The vast majority of teenagers in this country don't even have these kinds of impenetrable schools on their radar.

Which brings me back to my original question. How many students get into their No. 1 school? The percentage is actually 76 percent. It isn't nearly as hard to get into college as you and your clients might have assumed. And that is certainly good news for all those families who believe that their child has to be nearly perfect to win acceptance letters.

I pulled the first-choice figure from a new survey of college freshmen from across the country that UCLA conducts each year. The number of teenagers who got into their first-choice school did drop slightly, from 78.9 percent in 2010 to 76 percent for freshmen who started college in September. But that's still a high number.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 1966, provides a fascinating inside look at the behavior and beliefs of college freshmen. This year's survey suggests that students are having a more difficult time paying for colleges as the prices continue to rise at a pace well beyond the inflation rate. At the same time, freshmen seem more tolerant on social issues, while they seemed to be slightly more responsible in their academic pursuits.

Here are some highlights of the survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which polled nearly 204,000 freshmen. The data was statistically adjusted to reflect the current population of 1.5 million full-time college freshmen.

Financial Realities

Fewer freshmen said they received grants or scholarships to attend school. Last year 73.4 percent received awards, but this year the number dropped to 69.5 percent.

Award amounts also declined this year. Slightly less than 27 percent of students received an award of at least $10,000 compared with 29.2 percent in 2010.

A slight majority of freshmen (52.5 percent) said they had to borrow to attend college.

Among freshmen, nearly 21 percent of students estimate that their parents make $150,000 a year or more. Eighteen percent of freshmen estimate that their parents make less than $30,000 a year.

Close to one out of four college students (23.7 percent) had a father who had earned a graduate degree, while 19.8 percent teenagers had a mom with a grad degree.

Academic Behavior

The number of students who studied six hours or more a week in high school was 39.5 percent versus 37.3 percent the previous year.

The vast majority of high school students (71 percent) took at least one Advanced Placement course, versus 67.9 percent in 2009. More than one out of five college-bound high school students (21.7 percent) took five or more AP courses.

A third of the students studied only two hours a week or less during their senior year in high school.

American teenagers don't lack self esteem. Almost 71 percent rated themselves as either in the top 10 percent of students or above average in their academic abilities.

During a typical week in their senior year, nearly 30 percent of freshmen did no reading for pleasure.

College Admissions

Fifty-five percent of college freshmen decided to attend a school that was 100 miles or less away from home. Only 14 percent of students picked a school that is located more than 500 miles away.

The No. 1 reason (63.7 percent) that students cited to explain why they had selected their college was because the school had a “very good reputation.” Only 18.2 percent said that a school's ranking in national magazines was “very important” in their decision.

Social Outlook

An unprecedented 71.3 percent of freshmen indicated that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, which represents a remarkable 6.4 percentage-point increase from 2009. Support for single-sex marriage is high among liberals (99.3 percent), but 42.8 percent of conservatives also supported the right.

Political Identification

Among freshmen, 27.6 percent are liberal, 20.7 percent conservative and 47.4 percent describe themselves as “middle of the road.”


Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a college consultant, author and speaker. She writes three college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch, U.S. News & World Report and