Even as the U.S. has emerged from the Covid pandemic and many facets of daily life have returned to the former status quo, trends that began with Covid-era disruptions are likely to continue shaping the college admissions process for years to come. This is certainly true for the 2022-2023 admissions cycle. Below, we highlight some significant, ongoing trends that we saw in college admissions for the Class of 2027 along with what they might mean for aspiring college students in the future.
In recent years, the number of college applications has skyrocketed, which means that admission rates plummeted, sometimes to record lows. Across the board, it has become increasingly challenging to get into a top college.
In the 2020-2021, first year of the pandemic, some of the most competitive universities saw more than 150% of the applications they had received in the previous cycle. According to a recent report released by the Common App, this trend toward increasing numbers of applications remains pronounced among Ivy League institutions and at similarly competitive schools, which since the onset of Covid have seen 32% more applications overall. However, this surge in applications is truly everywhere, from the University of California to New England liberal arts colleges. In fact, as of this year, applications have increased at public universities at a larger rate (39%) than at top private schools.
Since the pandemic has massively disrupted the normal markers of competitive college admissions – test scores, grades, extracurriculars, athletics, service – many students have decided to swing for the fences. In particular, the fact that many top schools continue to waive their standardized test score requirements has led many students to aim higher than they might have otherwise, driving applications up at top schools. As a result, huge numbers of students are still being deferred or rejected in the early round, leading to a second boom in Regular Decision applications – and very low admission rates.
At the same time, while at the start of the pandemic, enrollment decreased due to the economic pressures of COVID-19, more recently, those numbers have rebounded. According to Common App data, 21% more students applied to college last year than before the pandemic, and the number of applications they submitted rose by 30%. Overall college enrollment is still considerably lower than before the pandemic, but freshman enrollment has started to bounce back.
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.
When schools shut down throughout the spring and summer of 2020, thousands of students’ planned test dates were cancelled, with little hope of being rescheduled in time. As a result, many admissions offices announced that they would not require candidates to submit the SAT or ACT as part of the 2020-2021 application process.
Some of these schools 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 anymore.
Since then, many (but not all) universities have extended their test-optional policies. Once again, they say that this is only a temporary measure, 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, giving greater weight to other variables.
During 2020, when racial justice concerns were at the forefront of everyone’s minds and affirmative action faced resurgent threats, many highly selective universities worked hard to build an incoming class that reflected the diversity of the United States.
It remains true in the 2022-2023 cycle that applicant pools are becoming in some ways more diverse. For example, compared with pre-pandemic levels, 18% more underrepresented students submitted applications. First-generation applicants rose by 22%. And reaching a rate of 33%, the growth in international students has outstripped that of domestic applicants.
However, these trends do not obviate the obstacles that many low-income and minority students face with college admissions. Overall, the socioeconomic makeup of college applicants has remained relatively stable over time.
No grades, no scores, no extracurriculars, no visits: during the pandemic, admissions officers 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.
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.
Although certain factors in college admissions have gone back to “normal,” some of the trends that began with Covid are likely to become permanent. Test-optional policies are beginning to gain traction; expect to see more and more selective colleges say they don’t need them. And even with traditional grades and scores 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 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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