By Christine, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
As we wrap up another college admissions cycle – headlined by “lowest-ever!” and “another record year!” – a few trends and observations stand out amid the current landscape, particularly at the nation’s top colleges and universities.
The Common App, the main application platform for US university admissions with over 900 member institutions, reported yet another year of increasing application numbers. According to a recent Common App report, through mid-March, the number of first-year applicants using the Common App increased by 14.4% compared to two years ago (the pre-pandemic 2019-20 cycle), from some 1.03 million to 1.18 million applicants. The number of first-year Common App applications increased as well, by 21.3% from 5.48 million to 6.64 million, during the same two-year period. In other words, students are applying to more colleges, as the average first-year application per application on the Common App, increased from 5.3 in 2019-2020 to 5.6 in 2021-22.
Growth in application numbers is experienced among universities not using the Common App, too. For example, the University of California system, which includes 10 campuses from UC Berkeley and UCLA to UC Riverside and Merced, saw an increase of 22.5% in first-year applicants from two years ago, from some 172,000 to over 210,000 applicants, and the increase was particular sharp at the flagship campuses of Berkeley, which saw a 45.6% increase in applications, and UCLA, with a 37.6% increase.
The increase in application numbers is partially driven by colleges and universities broadly adopting test-optional, or test-blind in UC’s case, policy due to the pandemic and pre-pandemic forces. This trend was first observed in the early admissions round in the fall of 2020 when the number of early applications spiked significantly at the top universities from the previous, pre-pandemic year when testing was required by most schools (e.g., in fall 2020, Early Action applications at Harvard increased by 57% and by 61% at MIT).
It’s straightforward math that when the number of applications goes up, but size of undergraduate enrollment remains fairly constant, the admit rate falls. While admit rates have been falling for years, the low single-digit rates at some universities for the last two years have been quite noticeable, making the most selective institutions even more so.
Among the lowest acceptance rates, the share of admitted students at Harvard, Columbia, and MIT dipped below 4%. Princeton declined to release its admissions data this year, noting that such admissions statistics could “raise the anxiety level of prospective students and their families” and “may discourage some prospective students from applying.” Last year, its admit rate in 2021 was 3.98%. It may be interesting to note just how dramatic the decline in admission rates has been in the last decade. For example, in 2012, Boston University admitted nearly one in two applicants, or 46% of its applicants, and this year, just 14%; for NYU, it was 32% 10 years ago, and now 12.2%; for Penn and Cornell, a decade ago, their admit rates were 16.4% and 20.4%, respectively, but last year, they had fallen to 5.7% and 8.7%, respectively. Both Penn and Cornell have yet to release this year’s data.
Despite hyper-selective admission statistics garnering so much attention in our media and culture, it is worthwhile to note that the majority of four-year institutions admit more than two-thirds of its applicants, according to a 2019 Pew study that analyzed nearly 1,400 universities, and every year in the spring, the NACAC provides information on hundreds of colleges and universities that are still accepting applications. As the Pew study notes, the extremely selective universities only accounted for 3.4% of the universities they examined, with only 4% of the student population.
Increasing Agency Amid Increasing Uncertainty
Along with the increasing volume of applications and plummeting admit rates, albeit only at a select tier of colleges and universities, there is a growing sense of uncertainty among students and families. Even as students apply to more schools, they are also receiving more waitlist offers and unsuccessful applications. When there are significantly more qualified students – e.g., those with competitive academic and extracurricular profiles – admissions results feel ever more like a lottery.
Despite such a landscape, students can still gain agency. Thoroughly researching colleges can enable students to identify a balanced list of good-fit colleges that would fall within the reach, target, and likely ranges. For students who are ready to apply to colleges by October of their senior year, they should consider good-fit schools that offer early admissions programs – e.g., Early Decision, Early Action. Many universities that offer Early Decision (ED), which is binding, commit one-half of their first-year class through ED, causing Regular Decision pools to become especially competitive. These early admissions programs have accelerated the application timeline and the preparation for college admissions.
Ultimately, the best preparation for the admissions process is to build a strong academic foundation, to genuinely pursue intellectual and extracurricular interests to their fullest, to earnestly engage with and impact one’s communities, and remain thoughtful and authentic.
The college admissions process is complex and constantly changing, but the team of expert counselors at IvyWise are here to alleviate the stress and help you have a joyful and exciting college application experience. For more information on how we can help you craft a balanced list of best-fit schools and prepare for success in the admissions process, contact us today!