You have questions—we have the answers.
For the past year, the college admissions process has been changing on the fly to adapt to the restrictions and inequalities imposed by the pandemic. The Class of 2021, who have borne the largest share of this disruption, are now hearing back the results of their application efforts. While we do not know the final tallies on who was admitted, schools have begun releasing information about their applicant pools, which reveal some interesting trends.
Understandably, our families of juniors and sophomores, who face a confusing array of potential options for their college admissions process as schools and others adapt to Covid, are asking what this year’s results tell about the changes ahead for their students.
Most admissions staffs have systems in place, built through trial and error over decades, to evaluate applicants and select a viable pool of students who will accept admissions, so the school meets its target class size. As one admissions officer recently described it, they were all “flying blind” this year, with many students missing test scores, GPAs unreliable due to changing grading systems, and activities and sports canceled. Even reliable indicators of student interest, like a scheduled campus visit or in-person interview, were not there to guide their decisions.
For future classes, some continued disruption is expected, but many of these indicators are returning to their previous reliability. Students are taking admissions tests regularly now, schools are grading everyone again for the most part, and sports and activities are restarting in the coming months.
Test-Optional Increases Selectivity for Some Schools
With the social-distancing restrictions in place over the past year and the inability of the test providers to deliver reliable test opportunities, many students in the Class of 2020, and to some extent the Class of 2021, had issues securing SAT or ACT test dates or taking tests they did schedule. To alleviate the potential inequities this situation created for many applicants, most schools went test-optional for the Class of 2020 and 2021, and many have indicated they will extend this policy to the Class of 2022 and 2023.
The policy seems to have had its intended effect. Based on data from the Common Application, a widely used application used by nearly 1000 schools, the number of applicants stayed relatively stable at a little more than 1 million, but each student submitted one additional application on average, for a total of more than 6 million applications. These included a 20% increase in applications for first-generation students.
The winner of these additional applications appears to be very selective schools, some of which had to extend their application review periods to handle the surge, high-visibility liberal arts colleges, and top-tier state schools.
Common App reports that selective schools saw a 17% increase in applications. Harvard led this increase, up 42% to 57,000 applications for around 2,000 slots. While it admitted 5% of applicants in 2020, that will drop to around 3.5% this year.
But Most Schools Are Not Awash in Applicants
Big schools benefited versus smaller ones, with large schools (>20,000 students) seeing a 16% increase and small schools (<1,000 students) seeing a 4% decline. This is troubling because 1 in 5 of these smaller schools are already struggling with enrollment and financial viability. During 2020, several schools closed or merged with other institutions. Others are reducing degree programs and athletic teams, shedding campuses, or going entirely digital.
These statistics played out locally, with the University of Maryland reporting a record 50,000 applications for the incoming class, up nearly 50% from 32,000 in 2020. If class size stays the same, that swell would drop the schools admission rate down to 8.6% from 13.3%. On the other side, the Loyola University Maryland, a small private liberal arts college, was reporting a 10% drop in applications early last month. Like other schools in its position, Loyola is innovating how it reaches and interacts with candidates and being more flexible to fill its classes, creating great opportunities for students from many schools.
Enrollment Declines Continue
Across the board, the pool of students enrolled at U.S. schools continues to shrink according to data from the Student Clearinghouse, putting additional pressure on many to fill their incoming classes. Undergrad enrollment in 2020 dropped by 560,000 students, or 3.2%, and followed a similar drop in 2019. This total includes students enrolled in community colleges, which have served as feeder schools for many smaller state colleges and universities. With community colleges reporting record drops in enrollment, some schools will be under further financial pressure in future years because of these missing transfer students.
Test Scores Are Still Valuable
While 77% of Common App applicants last year submitted SAT or ACT scores with their applications, only 44% of applicants submitted scores this year, reflecting the difficulties many continued to face in taking a test. Many of our students in the Class of 2021 faced test cancelations or rescheduling in the spring and summer, but most were able to take one or more tests in time to submit their scores. While we advised some students to take advantage of the test-optional opportunity, we believe most students benefited from submitting their test scores to the schools to which they applied, especially those with competitive programs.
Schools have said they continue to use the scores for admissions decisions, and they are very reliant on the student data submitted with the tests to help generate potential applicant pools for future classes. While many indicate they are studying staying test-optional for the long-term, most say they still want the tests and the data they provide, even if they do not make it a requirement to submit an application and pay the fee.
Applicants Have the Advantage Right Now
Bottom line: while selectivity is increasing at a small subset of schools, students applying in the coming cycles will be well sought after by most colleges and universities, and many schools will be more accessible as they compete for applicants’ limited attention and resources with new technologies and admissions processes.
To take advantage of this, students should start their research early, be willing to consider a diversity of schools, and maximize their options by being an active participant when engaged with schools: ask questions, see what they are offering, weigh the costs versus benefits of each school’s offer. The real cost to you is not what is on the sticker, but what is on their offer letter. Like most expensive purchases, the price is negotiable if you know how to ask.
Students and parents should also be sure to capitalize on the opportunities that technology is offering to explore and meet with schools that would have never been on your visit list in the past, both near and far. We often espouse the benefits of Maryland schools, and the mid-Atlantic is home to many great colleges and universities large and small that are not in College Park or Charlottesville.
And when you find schools you like – let them know it every way possible. Visit their websites and blogs, read their emails, attend Q&As and Open Houses, and interact with their social media posts. Each of those data points will be registered by the schools and will be incorporated into their consideration when your application is reviewed. Remember, they are flying blind right now in many ways, so every signal helps put you on their radar.
College Application Workshop
Be ready to apply to more than 900 schools in just one week
Early-Bird Rate ends April 9 - Save $150