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College Admission Trends Over the Last 10 Years

harvard college admission trends

The college admissions process is constantly changing, and the process today is different than it was 10, or even five, years ago. Understanding college admission trends, changes, and what influences them is important when preparing to apply to college. Here’s how college admissions has changed over the last 10 years, and how it affects students applying to college today.

Grades Are More Important Than Ever
According to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admission Report, grades are the most important factor colleges consider when evaluating applicants. 82% of colleges place considerable importance on grades in college prep courses, up from 76% in 2006, and 52% weigh grades in all courses heavily, holding steady since 2006. At the end of the day, students are in college to learn, and colleges aim to admit students who can handle a college course load and graduate on time.

What does this mean for applicants today? Simple: You need to keep your grades up. Don’t assume that an impressive activity list, awards, and stellar essay will make up for poor academic performance. While colleges will look at context for grade drops, like students taking on more responsibility at home, an illness, or other factors, it’s important to maintain an upward grade trend to be competitive in the admissions process. If you’re struggling with your grades, try to identify the problem and seek help. Maybe you need to take a lighter course load, or seek tutoring for certain subjects.

Class Rank Declined Significantly
These days, striving to be at the top of your class is more of a personal achievement than a factor that matters to college admissions officers. Currently, only 15% of colleges place considerable weight on class rank, down from 23% 10 years ago and 36% 20 years ago. Class rank can provide additional context for admissions officers in regards to students’ academic performance and accomplishments, but it offers little insight into how students fit it in on a college campus or if they’re ready for a college course load. This admissions factor has declined the most in importance over the last 10-15 years.

What does this mean for applicants today? Being your school’s valedictorian doesn’t mean you’re a shoo-in. Don’t focus so much on how you compare to your classmates. Rather, focus on how your applicant profile compares to the profile of admitted students at your top-choice colleges. If you want to be top in your class set it as a personal goal, but don’t neglect your other college prep goals thinking that class rank alone will get you accepted.

Colleges Looking More at Demonstrated Interest
One college admissions element that has risen to prominence over the last 10 years has been demonstrated interest. 20 years ago a college’s consideration of demonstrated interest wasn’t even tracked, but recently 20% of colleges said they place considerable importance on demonstrated interest, up from just 7% in the early 2000s. Currently, demonstrated interest is the one of the most important factors colleges consider, behind grades, strength of curriculum, test scores, and essays. Why is it important? Colleges want to admit students who want to attend – not students applying just to apply. This is important to colleges so they can manage their yield – the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll – which impacts everything from tuition to other things like courses offered and other services available to students. Yield has become harder for colleges to predict over the last 10 years, so demonstrated interest has become more important as colleges work to calculate how many admitted students will enroll.

What does this mean for applicants today? Showing your interest in your top-choice colleges can go a long way toward helping you gain admission. Visit, connect with the admissions office, and, more importantly, articulate in your application exactly why this college is a great-fit for you. Informed interest, or the level of knowledge a student has about a college, shows a school that you’ve done your research and you’re serious about attending. This can give you an edge over other applicants that have strong profiles but may not have put as much thought into their applications.

Test Scores Still Important, But More Colleges Going Test-Optional
Currently, 58% of colleges place considerable importance on college entrance exam scores, down slightly from 60% 10 years ago, but up from 48% 20 years ago. Both the SAT and ACT have undergone major changes over the last year or two, and the effectiveness of the tests’ abilities to predict college success has come into question over the last 10 years. While college entrance exams are still an important part of the admissions process, there are a number of colleges that have moved toward the test-optional movement over the past few years.

What does this mean for applicants today? You have options. Taking a diagnostic of the SAT and ACT is important in order to determine which test is better suited for your abilities, but if you struggle to reach your goal score on either exam, there are a number of colleges that place little or no emphasis on test scores. It’s important for applicants to start test prep early in order to prepare for the exam that’s the best-fit for them, but also to know when to consider going the test-optional route.

Recommendations Carrying Less Weight
Teacher and counselor recommendations are important to giving context to a students’ applicant profile and some insight into who they are inside of the classroom, but with teachers and counselors working with hundreds of students each year, admissions officers realize that many times students don’t have the opportunity to forge strong relationships with recommenders. Only 14% and 16% of colleges place considerable weight on teacher and counselor recommendations respectively, down from 20% and 21% 10 years ago.

What does this mean for applicants today? Focus on gathering compelling recommendations that add context and substance to your application. Recommendations may not carry much weight alone, but when viewed in the context of your overall application, your interests, and specialty, a stellar recommendation can help an admissions officer better advocate for acceptance for you. Begin fostering a relationship with your college counselor early on, and get recommendations from teachers relevant to your academic interests. If you’re applying to an engineering program, seek recommendations from your science or math teachers.

More Students Applying to More Colleges
With the ease of the Common Application and the rise of other mass-application alternatives like the Universal College Application and the soon-to-be-launched Coalition Application, it’s easier than ever for students to apply to college. According to NACAC, 70% of colleges have reported year-to-year application increases in 10 out of the last 15 years. This is interesting, because the number of high school graduates has plateaued in recent years. So how are colleges getting more applications if there are fewer students eligible to apply? Students are applying to more colleges than ever before. 32% of applicants applied to seven or more colleges in 2013, up from 22% in 2008. The ease of applying to multiple colleges, plus the fear of declining admission rates, has led students to hedge their bets and apply to several colleges, hoping that a higher quantity will lead to better chances of acceptance to at least one school of choice.

What does this mean for applicants today? Focus on quality, not quantity, when building your college list. You want to apply to great-fit schools where you’ll be successful and happy, not a bunch of “fall backs” so you can rack up acceptances. If you apply to a smaller number of great-fit colleges and put more thought and effort into that limited number of applications, you’ll have a better chance of gaining acceptance than if you just haphazardly applied to a large number of schools. The more colleges you apply to the less time you’ll have to work on each application, so aim to submit a reasonable number of well put together applications that really show who you are as a student and how you will contribute to the campus community.

Knowing how to use the latest college admissions trends and changes to your advantage is important when applying to college. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors has extensive experience working directly in admissions offices, and know how the latest college admissions trends affect students chances of admission to their top-choice colleges. For more information on how IvyWise can help you reach your college admissions goals, contact us today.