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2024 College Admissions Trends and Insights from the Experts

It’s important for college-bound students to stay up to date on the latest college admissions trends. With the 2023-24 admissions cycle underway, now is an excellent time to reflect on recent updates and keep an eye toward the future.

2023 continued the trend of tremendous change that affected almost every aspect of college-bound students’ lives — including the college admissions process. Rising application numbers, lower admissions rates, test-optional policy updates, and the gutting of affirmative action have had a profound impact on college admissions.

Throughout the college admissions process, doing your due diligence is essential. The more students know about the process, the better prepared they will be to make decisions that align with their needs and goals. The IvyWise team of expert counselors has compiled a list of the top admissions trends that students should have on their radars throughout 2024 and beyond.

Early Application Numbers Increase

Overall, early applications to some of the most highly selective schools have increased for the 2023-24 admissions cycle, sustaining a trend that we’ve seen over the past several admissions cycles. One notable exception to this is Harvard, which has seen a 17% drop in early applications — a four-year low.

Students who apply Early Decision or Early Action often have a statistical advantage over students who apply Regular Decision. Why? Colleges and universities help maintain or improve their yield rates by accepting more students in the early rounds. IvyWise counselor Tasha advises that “college applicants should seriously consider having an early application strategy and including Early Decision in that strategy because it is likely to be advantageous.”

Test-Optional Persists for Now

After a slow but steady climb for several years, the number of schools shifting to test-optional admissions policies has skyrocketed since 2020. In fact, many schools that went test-optional because of the pandemic have adopted these changes permanently, including some bigger-name schools like Columbia. However, other elite schools, like MIT, have gone back to requiring test scores. Other schools are updating their test-optional policies on a year-by-year basis.

It’s important to keep in mind that ‘test-optional’ doesn’t mean ‘test-blind’. Just because a school doesn’t require you to submit SAT or ACT scores doesn’t mean that a strong testing performance won’t work in your favor. We recommend that students who can sit for the exam take full advantage of this chance to add to their applications.

Affirmative Action Is Gone

In June 2023, the Supreme Court gutted affirmative action, removing race and ethnicity as factors in college admissions decisions. Many campuses will most likely become less racially and ethnically diverse as a result unless they come up with a strategy to maintain diversity without breaking the law. According to IvyWise college admissions counselor Nat, “I think every college is still looking for their own way to try to diversify the class.” Cornell, for example, made the choice to accept fewer students Early Decision during the 2023-24 admissions cycle in order to be more equitable in admissions decisions. Other schools are using supplemental essay prompts to help diversify their incoming classes.

It is important for applicants to highlight the diversity of identity, experience, and perspective that they will bring to their college campus through their personal statement and by encouraging teachers and counselors to share this information in their recommendation letters. We anticipate that colleges will find new and innovative ways to cultivate diverse campus communities, but those innovations will take time to develop, test, and implement.

Legacy Admissions Are Under Review

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the use of affirmative action in college admissions, many schools are examining their policies regarding legacy admissions. More than 700 schools currently give admissions preference to prospective students with ties to alumni and donors. Several prestigious schools have already done away with legacy admissions, including Amherst College, Pomona College, Wesleyan University, and MIT.

Applicant Trends Show More Diversity

According to the Common App, there has been an uptick in first-year domestic applicants who identify as underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. The November 2023 Common App report shows an overall increase since the 2019-20 admissions cycle, broken down by race/ethnicity:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 86%
  • Black or African American: 70%
  • Latinx: 65%
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander: 53%
  • Two or more races: 50%
  • Asian: 43%
  • Unknown: 40%

Applications from first-generation students have increased 67% during the same time period.

Waitlists Will Get Longer

Due to rising application numbers at some of the country’s top schools and concerns over enrollment numbers, college waitlists lengthened in 2020 and have continued to follow that trend. Colleges have been utilizing waitlists more frequently over the past few years as more students apply to a higher number of colleges. And now, with increased pressure to hit enrollment targets, it’s likely that admissions officers will increasingly opt to waitlist applicants.

While being placed on a waitlist can be confusing and disappointing, it is also an opportunity for students to assess their options. If you’re confident that the school that you’re waitlisted at is truly your top choice, we have tips for getting off the waitlist. From discussing your strategy with your college counselor to reiterating your desire to attend, it’s important for waitlisted students to be proactive.

Colleges See an Increase in International Applicants

During the 2020-21 admissions cycle, international enrollment fell by as much as 43% due to the pandemic but rebounded to pre-pandemic levels the following year.

International students are an essential part of the college experience, contributing to the diversity of cultures and experiences on campuses. As the population of graduating high school students in the U.S. continues to shrink, international students are an essential part of continuing to grow enrollment at U.S. universities. Expect that colleges across the board will ramp up their international recruitment efforts to keep these numbers on an upward trajectory.

According to the November 2023 Common App report, there has been an 87% increase in international first-year applicants since 2019-20. Let’s take a closer look by region of citizenship:

  • Africa: 371%
  • Other: 97%
  • Europe: 95%
  • Oceania: 68%
  • Asia: 52%
  • Americas: 50%

Public Institutions Are Becoming More Popular

ROI is still a very important guiding metric when it comes to choosing where to apply to college. As a result of this increased emphasis on value, increasing numbers of applicants will be drawn to institutions with sizable financial aid offerings, developed work-study programs, and opportunities to graduate in three years as opposed to four.

Other applicants may focus on state schools, which are generally the more affordable option for students who live in the region — in fact, large state universities are growing in popularity. According to the Common App’s recent data, applications to its public member institutions have increased 82% since the 2019-20 cycle, while private member institutions have only seen an increase of 47% in the same time period.

It’s important to understand the college admissions landscape when you prepare for your admissions journey. Information is key, and when students are aware of the current college admissions climate, they are, in turn, more knowledgeable about their application options and best-fit strategies.

At IvyWise, our team of admissions counselors, tutors, and specialists always has its finger on the pulse of college admissions and knows what it takes to gain admission to students’ top-choice schools. The college application process can seem even more opaque now than ever before. IvyWise is here to help you navigate this process with insight gleaned from experience inside admissions offices. For more information on our college counseling programs and how our team can help you gain admission to your top-choice colleges, contact us today.

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