The college landscape is in a constant state of flux.
While that’s simply the nature of the beast, COVID-19 threw a cog in the wheel that called into question nearly everything in the collegiate world.
As the dust settles and we adapt to post-pandemic life, however, new trends have come to light.
Make no mistake: a strong college application will never go out of style. From that perspective, little has changed.
And yet, there are four important trends to be aware of as you visit, engage, and apply to each school on your shortlist.
1. Test-Optional Schools Are Now the Norm
Test-optional colleges have abounded over the last decade. As of fall 2021, over 65% of all bachelor-degree institutions in the United States are officially test-optional.
While this shift may seem to benefit students, some detractors believe that colleges have adopted test-optional policies to boost the exclusivity of their programs. In fact, one study at The University of Georgia found that test-optional colleges improved their applicants’ median SAT score by 26 points.
Colleges are businesses, after all.
For students, however, test-optional policies generally provide greater latitude and flexibility in how they position themselves before admissions departments. As you apply, note that “test-optional” is an umbrella term for other categories, including “test-blind” (where schools refuse to review submitted test scores) and “test-flexible” (where students can provide AP and IB exams test scores in lieu of their SAT or ACT).
If you choose to withhold your test scores, be sure to prioritize the appeal of other areas on your application, especially your essays and recommendation letters.
Click here for a full list of tips on applying to test-optional colleges.
2. “Demonstrated Interest” Deserves Focus
During the height of the pandemic, the high school class of 2020 saw a nearly 7% drop in college-going rates over the previous year.
Countless colleges around the country panicked.
As a result of this shift, schools have become increasingly protective of their reputations. They want to seem elite and exclusive so they can continue charging small fortunes to attend.
That’s why there is tremendous power in “demonstrated interest,” which effectively tells colleges how eager you are to attend their school. Universities use demonstrated interest as a bellwether of their “yield rate,” the percentage of students who accept an offer of admission.
Unsurprisingly, college admissions officers are under immense pressure to protect their yield rate. Use this fact to your advantage, and remember that admissions officers truly want you to want them.
Therefore, if you have your sights set on a particular school, let them know they’re your favorite. You can accomplish this by applying early, by explicitly stating your singular interest in your essay, or even by calling the school’s admissions office directly.
The power of demonstrated interest absolves you of the need to “play it cool” with your applications.
3. Waitlists Are Growing
College waitlists have been extremely active of late. After all, the waitlist is the last line of defense for colleges protecting themselves from declining yield rates.
At Brown University, for example, the admissions department recently accepted only 34 students from their waitlist out of nearly 1,200 hopeful applicants. For the class of 2023, 127 members came off the waitlist, while 194 students from the class of 2024 were granted acceptance from the waitlist.
While only a fraction were so fortunate this year, Brown University touted a record-high yield rate of 69%. In this case, the waitlist worked in favor of the university.
At other schools, however, the waitlist is nearly a formality before acceptance.
According to a recent study, “the number of students admitted from the waitlist rose 97% year over year from 22,223 in 2019 to 43,867 in 2020.”
In other words, the number of students who got off waitlists nearly doubled this year.
That’s good news for college applicants.
4. Applications Are Surging (Especially at Elite Schools)
The sheer volume of applications has sharply risen at colleges across the country.
Public university applications were up 11% in 2021 over the previous academic year, while private universities saw an application increase of over 17%.
Colleges in southern states saw a particularly sharp rise in applications at 22.7%, while midwestern colleges saw a 10.5% rise, and northeastern colleges reported a more modest 9.5% growth.
The competition also increased from international students, where countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil increased applications to the tune of +29%, +39%, and +42%, respectively.
This trend was especially pronounced at elite colleges and universities.
According to Jenny Rickard, President and CEO of the Common App, “Larger, more selective member institutions experienced greater year-over-year increases in application volume than smaller, less selective members.”
After all, nearly 47,000 students applied to Brown University in 2021. Harvard University got inundated with a record 57,000 applications for their class of 2025, and The University of Pennsylvania received 56,000 applications (up 34% over last year).
Given the preponderance of applications, there has also been a marked rise in early-admission applicant pools. Whereas schools like Harvard and Yale accepted 14% of early applicants in 2020, they only accepted about 8% this year.
While the competition has undoubtedly increased, we encourage you to reject the impulse to simply apply to more schools.
Conversely, we recommend that you be even more selective with the schools you pursue.
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