College Admissions Trends

Published June 2022

College admissions has experienced major changes in the last few years. What are the most significant trends that we are seeing at this moment that impact the application and enrollment processes?

Test Optional Schools

Test optional colleges existed before the pandemic – many liberal arts colleges such as Bates and Bowdoin have not required scores for decades. However, with the difficulty of taking standardized tests in person, most colleges decided to at least temporarily lift the requirement for submitting standardized test scores. In addition, there has been an increasing movement by universities to permanently get rid of standardized test scores due to criticisms that the tests reflect more access to resources than actual ability to succeed in college. For instance, the University of California decided to make all their campuses test blind and not even look at any SAT or ACT scores for admissions or scholarship decisions until at least 2025.

When standardized test scores are no longer required by most universities, there is even more emphasis than before on honors, activities, essays, and recommendations.

Top Colleges Receive a Surge in Applications and Applicants Have Longer School Lists

With most colleges choosing to be test optional, more students have decided to aim for higher ranked schools than in the past. Colleges at the top end of the rankings have received record numbers of applications. Harvard had 61,220 students apply for this year’s incoming Class of 2026 compared to 40,248 for the Class of 2024. At University of Pennsylvania, there were nearly 55,000 applicants for the class of 2026 compared to 42,205 for the Class of 2024.

Between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022, submitted applications through the Common Application (the main application portal that colleges use) rose by over 21 percent. See the main report here.

International applicant numbers through this portal also increased by 33 percent since 2019-2020, growing at a rate of three times faster than domestic applicants.

Before with test scores, students had a better idea of where they might land. With test optional being so widespread, this has impacted school lists to make them more extensive than before. Students end up applying to more top colleges than before as it is less predictable where they might end up.

First Generation and Low Income Students Had Fewer Applications in 2019-2020 but Increased Applications This Past Cycle

Via the Common Application, there was a 16 percent decrease in the number of applicants from these groups between November 2019 and November 2020, but the numbers recovered recently and there was an 18 percent increase in under-represented minority applications and first generation college applications rose 22 percent through March 2022. During the early days of the pandemic, remote school and not having the same access to resources as well as job losses of their families may have impacted their ability to apply.

Demonstrated Interest Can Matter

With so many applications at the top colleges, it is even more difficult for admissions officers to predict who will arrive on campus. Yield rates – the percentage of students who decide to attend if offered a place at a particular school– greatly matter to colleges. With more students applying to a larger list of schools, it is important that colleges manage their enrollment properly, so some pay attention to your demonstrated interest in order to better get a sense if you will actually attend.

Colleges have sophisticated marketing systems that track how often you open your emails from their admissions office. Make sure to click on them and read the messages! Do your essays demonstrate true passion about the school? Have you been to campus and has the university tracked that you visited or participated in any virtual events? Have you done an interview if it is optional? Are you following the college on social media?

A sample of colleges that care strongly about demonstrated interest include American, Cooper Union, Morehouse College, Syracuse, United States Air Force Academy, and United States Naval Academy. Schools that say interest is “important” include Bates, Bentley, Boston University, Brandeis, Kenyon, Lehigh, Reed, and Skidmore.

Longer Wait Lists

As a result of all these developments, colleges have longer wait lists. Yes, it is possible to get off the wait list. However, keep in mind that colleges give the option of the wait list to many applicants. If there happens to be space in the class, then they might take a student off the wait list. However, I tell students to keep in mind it is possible to get off the wait list, but not likely. Many colleges submit their enrollment information to the Common Data Set, which is a collaborative effort by higher education institutions to provide statistics to college publications. For instance, for students who applied for Fall 2021, Princeton offered the wait list to 1265 students, 1000 elected to stay on the wait list, and they offered acceptance to 150 people from the wait list. On the other hand, for Fall 2021 entry, Dartmouth wait listed 2669 students, 2120 elected to stay on the wait list, and they admitted zero from the wait list.

If you are currently wait listed somewhere, make sure to follow the college’s instructions and stay engaged with sending in updates to show your interest. However, it is important to focus on getting excited about the college you have enrolled at – and if a pleasant surprise comes along with an offer from one of your other top choices– wonderful!

Conclusion

With less emphasis on test scores than before, it is key that applicants have clear presentation and show what they will contribute to a campus through their activities, essays, and recommendations. With grade inflation happening at many high schools, admissions officers have a more difficult position of how to shape their class as it is harder to directly compare students across the world when test scores are no longer required at most colleges.

With the recent changes regarding the college admissions process, it is important to optimize your chances by presenting your materials in the most engaging way possible and creating school lists with several tiers in order to ensure each applicant has a wide range of possibilities. A student must carefully pick a list in which they could see themselves at a college and decide whether to submit test scores. At the end of the day, a student needs to carefully research their options and have a comprehensive list to end up at a college that is a good fit for their personality and interests. Families can benefit from a college admissions expert who can help navigate the new normal that has greatly changed the application process in recent years.

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