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2021 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, and the spring semester is an excellent opportunity to reflect on recent updates and keep an eye towards the future.

2020 was a year of tremendous change that affected almost every aspect of college bound students’ lives – including the college admissions process. From transitioning to online and hybrid learning models to SAT and ACT cancellations, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on students’ lives and the application cycle at large.

While some changes are directly influenced by the pandemic and likely to be temporary, there’s no doubt that COVID-19 will leave a lasting impact on higher education. Many institutions are embracing digitization to upgrade online learning opportunities, while others are considering permanently transitioning to test-optional admissions policies.

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 radar throughout 2021 and beyond.

Application Numbers Continue to Rise

Many schools reported significant increases in the number of early applications for the 2020-21 application cycle. For example, applications to Harvard were up 57% from the previous year and their acceptance rate for Early Action was just 7.4% – a record low for the school. Similarly, Yale saw a 38% increase in applications during the early round, with an acceptance rate of just over 10%. There are a number of factors that are likely behind this upswing in applications, including the schools’ new test-optional admissions policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students who may have once felt discouraged from submitting their application due to a sub-par test score now have the opportunity to apply without reporting how they did on the SAT or ACT. It’s likely that this trend will continue on for applicants in the regular round, which is why it’s so important for every student to compile a balanced list of best-fit colleges.

Test-Optional Goes Mainstream

After a slow but steady climb for several years, the number of schools shifting to test-optional admissions policies is skyrocketing. As a result of SAT and ACT cancellations, many colleges have placed a hold on requiring students to submit exam scores, at least temporarily. For the 2020-2021 application cycle, every Ivy League is test-optional for the first time ever.

As colleges navigate this new test-optional landscape and successfully build a class, many for the first time without a significant portion of applicants submitting test scores, expect many to adopt this policy moving forward. In fact, a survey of colleges found that 68% of schools that went test-optional because of the pandemic plan to adopt test-optional policies permanently.

While the dramatic shift to test-optional is certainly noteworthy, there are a few thing students should keep in mind for 2021. First, test-optional doesn’t equal 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 have the opportunity to sit for the exam take full advantage of this chance to add to their application.

Secondly, many colleges are only adopting test-optional policies for a specific amount of time. Some schools have noted that they will continue being test-optional for three years, while others are only using this policy for the 2020-2021 cycle. Consequently, it’s important to stay up to date on the requirements for every school on your best-fit list.

Waitlists Will Get Longer

Due to rising application numbers at some of the country’s top schools and concerns over enrollment numbers, you can expect longer waitlists this year and likely in the years to come. We saw this with the early round with record deferral numbers and expect this to carry over into waitlists in the Regular Decision round. Colleges have been utilizing waitlists more and more 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 this spring.

While being placed on a waitlist can be disappointing, it’s also an opportunity for students to assess their options. If you’re confident that the school that you’re waitlisted at is truly your first choice, there are some tips our admissions counselors recommend for improving your standing. From discussing your strategy with your college counselor to reiterating your desire to attend, it’s important for waitlisted students to be proactive.

Expect More Gap Years and Transfers

The 2019-20 admissions cycle saw record numbers of deferrals from accepted applicants who opted to take a year off rather than go to college online this fall. Even with a COVID-19 vaccine available and optimism that the fall will be more of a shade of normal than the previous year, expect that many students will still opt to take a gap year. While it likely won’t be the same onslaught the class of 2024 saw last spring, it will likely still be higher than normal. With interrupted extracurricular activities, the constant flip-flop from in-person to virtual learning, and the absence of regular college admissions activities like in-person campus visits and colleges fairs, expect that many students will want to take some time off to be 100% sure they have found the best-fit school and get the full college experience they want.

Also expect that, for similar reasons, a higher number of students will want to transfer colleges this spring. With many students starting the 2020-21 school year online, some haven’t even stepped on campus going into their sophomore year. This is likely to have a big impact on their first-year experience, leading many to want to transfer to a better-fit school that meets their needs. The overall first-year transfer rate is 33%, but expect it to be much higher this year – especially when considering students who went to a community college or a less-expensive school to save some money while learning was entirely remote and now want to transfer somewhere else.

Colleges Will Go All In Wooing International Applicants

Colleges across the country took huge hits in international student enrollment during the 2020-21 school year due to travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. Enrollments of new international students fell 43% this year, with overall international enrollments at US universities down 16%. This was a huge financial hit to colleges and surrounding communities, as international students often pay full price and contribute significantly to local economies. International students are also an essential part of the global college experience, contributing to diversity of cultures and experiences on campus. As the population of graduating high school students in the US continues to shrink, international students are an essential part of continuing to grow enrollment at US universities. Expect that colleges across the board will ramp up their international recruitment efforts in order to make up for this year’s losses and continue to raise their profile internationally.

This includes US universities recruiting more students from a broader pool of countries rather than just a handful of countries that send large numbers of students to US schools already. This expansion of recruitment will increasing the geographic diversity on college campuses. Given the importance of students with varying perspectives and backgrounds, this influx of diversity could add tremendous value to college campuses across the US.

Value Is the Name of the Game

ROI is still a very important guiding metric when it comes to choosing where to apply to college. That became even more of a consideration this past admissions cycle, with colleges moving to online formats and families wondering if the cost was worth it to just be going to school online. As a result of this move towards 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 in on state schools, which are generally the more affordable option for students who live in the region.

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 strategy tips.

At IvyWise, our team of admissions counselors, tutors, and specialists always has its finger on the pulse of college admissions and know what it takes to gain admission to students’ top-choice schools. With the emergence of test-optional and flexible polices, consideration of gap years and transfers, and questions about ROI, the college application process can seem even more opaque. The IvyWise team can 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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