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College Admissions Trends, 2020-2021

Suffice it to say, 2020 was an unusual year. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that the 2020-2021 cycle was an unusual one for college admissions! In such an unprecedented year, there were some big changes and some scary numbers—but also evidence of emerging trends, ones that are unlikely to disappear as the pandemic year of 2020 recedes into history.

Below, we’ve highlighted some of the most significant trends that we saw in the college admissions cycle for the Class of 2025. Despite revealing themselves in a unique year, they are all likely to continue shaping the college admissions process for years to come.

A Record Number of Applications

The most obvious change this cycle was the one splashed across headlines: “A Rough Year in College Admissions,” “Why Seniors Are Getting So Many More College Rejections This Year,” “College Admissions Especially Competitive During Pandemic,” and more. Across the board, this was simply one of the most challenging years ever to get into a top college.

At highly selective schools, the number of applications for the Class of 2025 skyrocketed, which meant that admission rates plummeted, some to record lows. This trend was most pronounced among the Ivy League institutions and at similarly competitive schools, where some universities saw more than 150% of the applications they had received in the 2019-2020 cycle. However, this surge in applications was truly everywhere, from the University of California to New England liberal arts colleges.

What caused these record-breaking numbers of applications to particular schools? It wasn’t more students applying to college overall; indeed, the economic pressures of COVID-19 actually led to an overall decrease in enrollment this year, as students were forced to defer or take leave. Rather, as the pandemic massively disrupted the normal markers of competitive college admissions – test scores, grades, extracurriculars, athletics, service – many students decided to swing for the fences, while uncertainty meant they may also have applied to more schools than usual.

In particular, the fact that top schools waived their standardized test score requirements led many students to aim higher than they might have otherwise, driving applications up at top schools. As a result, huge numbers of students were deferred or rejected in the early round, leading to a second boom in Regular Decision applications – and record-low admission rates.

Test-Optional Here to Stay?

Standardized test scores have been the subject of intense debate for years now. Both the SAT and ACT have gone through numerous changes in response to their many critics, trying to make the tests more fair, more inclusive, and more accessible. And despite some high-profile defections, the tests have remained an application requirement at the vast majority of schools.

Until last year, that is. When schools shut down in March 2020, and stayed closed throughout the rest of the spring and summer, the SAT and ACT lost the testing centers that administer their exams. Thousands of students’ planned test dates were cancelled, with little hope of being rescheduled before November 1 early admission deadlines.

Faced with losing either Early Decision applications or standardized test scores, universities almost uniformly chose to retain the former. Over the course of the summer, one admissions office after another announced that it would not require candidates from the Class of 2021 to submit the SAT or ACT as part of the application process.

Many schools insisted that this was a one-year, temporary policy. Others, however, had clearly been on the fence about these tests for a while and used this opportunity to drop the test requirement altogether or to implement two- or three-year test-optional pilot programs. Some even announced that they would become test-blind, meaning that students would not be able to submit standardized test scores for consideration at all any more.

To complicate matters further, because the pandemic isn’t over, many (but not all) universities have extended their test optional policies for another cycle. Once again, they say that this is only a temporary policy, but even if many of them do ultimately reinstate the testing requirement, this extended lapse is likely to decrease the importance of test scores in the admissions process, at the expense of other variables.

More Underrepresented Students Applying

During a year in which racial justice concerns were at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and in which affirmative action faced resurgent threats, many highly selective universities worked hard to build an incoming class that reflected the diversity of the United States.

More than half of the applicants offered admission to the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, self-identified as a person of color, while Harvard University admitted a substantially higher number of African-American students than it had the previous year. Top schools also admitted more first-generation college students than ever before and gave out more financial aid, which in part reflected the major economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last fall, some had predicted that the Class of 2025 would be (in the words of the Columbia Daily Spectator) “wealthier and whiter” than ever, due to the larger circumstances of this cycle, particularly the demographics of the Early Decision cohort. Instead, many top schools sought to round out the diversity of their classes in the Regular Decision round.

However, despite these trends among the most accomplished students in the nation, it was also true that overall college enrollment dropped last year, as many lower-income students were forced out of their programs or decided not to apply due to financial reasons. While the Ivy League may be seeking to change the profile of its classes, that trend does not obviate the obstacles that many low-income and minority students faced with college admissions writ large this year.

Greater Emphasis on Holistic Evaluation

No grades, no scores, no extracurriculars, no visits: admissions officers last year were deprived of almost all the usual metrics for evaluating students’ profiles. As a result, admissions offices did everything they could to decipher students’ characters instead.

Indeed, “character” was the watchword of the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, as colleges emphasized repeatedly that they didn’t care that the sports season was cancelled, that a student received only Pass/Fail grades, or that a summer lab internship couldn’t happen. Instead, they wanted to hear about students’ values and commitments, their authentic selves.

The onus on such intangible qualities was heightened by the pandemic, but this emphasis on service, leadership, community engagement, and authenticity is not likely to go away in the near future. Top colleges receive enough academically qualified applicants to fill dozens of classes; what distinguishes successful applicants is their personal character.

Now, what exactly “character” means remains elusive for colleges—and for the students trying to impress them. Nevertheless, even as the pandemic recedes, it seems clear that students who have pursued their passions, engaged their communities, and deeply considered their place in the world will be seen as stronger college applicants for many years to come.

Looking Forward

Just as we don’t yet know exactly what form the world will take when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we also can’t predict exactly what will change in college admissions. It’s very likely that at least some things will go back to “normal,” that some colleges will reinstate testing requirements and have more traditional grades to consider and that students will be able to participate in extracurriculars and share them with colleges.

At the same time, though, some of these changes are likely to become permanent. Test-optional policies are beginning to gain traction; even when the tests become available, expect to see more and more selective colleges say they don’t need them. And even when traditional grades and scores are back on the table, students’ engagement and service will almost certainly remain extremely important to admissions officers.

Lastly, remember that colleges don’t like uncertainty any more than students do! For that reason, you can safely expect binding Early Decision programs to continue to confer a significant advantage for applicants. Similarly, if you fail to visit campus (once they reopen) and/or to make the most of any formal opportunities to learn about a school, you’ll be less likely to gain admission, as colleges prefer to admit students who make clear that they intend to attend.

Still not sure what these trends mean for you as a future college applicant? Spark Admissions can help you navigate these rapidly changing waters and maximize your chances of getting into your dream school. Schedule a free consultation today to learn more!

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