What Is "Yield" in the College Admissions Process?

Admissions Officers Worry About "Yield" Constantly. So Should You.

High School Students
High School Students. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The idea of "yield" is probably not something you're thinking about when applying to colleges. Yield has nothing to do with the grades, standardized test scores, AP courses, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities that are at the heart of an application to a selective college. That said, yield does connect to an important but often overlooked piece of the admissions equation: demonstrated interest.

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First off, let's define "yield." It is not related to the usage of the word with which you are probably most familiar: giving way to something (as you do when you yield to oncoming traffic). In college admissions, ​yield is connected to the agricultural use of the term: how much of a product can be produced (for example, the amount of corn a field produces, or the amount of milk a herd of cows produces). The metaphor may seem a bit crass. Are college applicants like cows or corn? On one level, yes. A college gets a finite number of applicants just as a farm has a finite number of cows or acres. The goal for the farm is to get the most produce from those acres or the most milk from those cows. A college wants to get the highest possible number of students from those in its accepted applicant pool.

It's easy to calculate yield. If a college sends out 1000 acceptance letters and just 100 of those students decide to attend the school, the yield is 10%.

If 650 of those accepted students choose to attend, the yield is 65%. Most colleges have historical data to be able to predict what their yield will be. Highly selective colleges tend to have much higher yields (since they are often a student's first choice) than less selective colleges. Many colleges are constantly working to increase their yields and thus increase tuition revenues.

Colleges find themselves in trouble when they over-estimate the yield and end up with fewer students than predicted. A lower-than-expected yield results in low enrollments, canceled classes, staff layoffs, budget shortfalls, and many other serious headaches. A miscalculation in the other direction--getting more students than predicted--can also cause problems with class and housing availability, but colleges are much happier to cope with those challenges than enrollment shortfalls.

The uncertainty in predicting yield is precisely why colleges have waitlists. Using a simple model, let's say a college needs to enroll 400 students to meet its goals. The school typically has a yield of 40%, so it sends out 1000 acceptance letters. If the yield comes up short--say 35%--the college is now short 50 students. If the college has placed a few hundred students on a waitlist, the school will begin admitting students from the waitlist until the enrollment goal is achieved. The waitlist is the insurance policy for achieving desired enrollment numbers. The more difficult it is for a college to predict yield, the bigger the waitlist and the more volatile the whole admissions process will be.

So what does this mean for you as an applicant?

Why should you care about the calculations that go on behind closed doors in the admissions office? Simple: Colleges want to admit students who will choose to attend when they receive an acceptance letter. Thus, you can often improve your chances of being admitted if you clearly demonstrate your interest in attending a school (see 8 Ways to Demonstrate Interest). Students who visit a campus are more likely to attend than those who don't. Students who express specific reasons for wanting to attend a specific college are more likely to attend than students who submit generic applications and supplemental essays. Students who apply early are also demonstrating their interest in a significant way.

Put another way, a college is more likely to accept you if you've put in a clear effort to get to know the school and if your application shows that you are eager to attend.

When a college receives what is called a "stealth application"--one that just appears with no prior contact with the school--the admissions office knows that the stealth applicant is less likely to accept an offer of admission than the student who has requested information, attended a college visit day, and conducted an optional interview.

The Bottom Line: Colleges worry about yield. Your application will be strongest if it is clear that you will attend if accepted.

Sample Yields for Different Types of Colleges
CollegeNumber of ApplicantsPercent AdmittedPercent Who Enroll (Yield)
Cal State Long Beach55,01931%25%
UC Berkeley61,71718%37%
University of Georgia18,45856%48%
University of Michigan46,81333%40%