As the 2023-24 application cycle draws to a close, it is already being termed “the most confusing, chaotic college admissions season” ever! With the end of affirmative action, the FAFSA fiasco, and political unrest on college campuses across the United States, this year was definitely one for the books.

The admissions landscape continues to be dynamic, with changes in universities’ policies, requirements, and expectations. Looking back on the cycle that was, here are a few trends that stood out and are set to shape admissions in the coming years:

  1. The *new* highly selective universities

This was another record-shattering year in admissions for many schools including Duke, Dartmouth, Georgetown and Yale, who all reported their lowest ever acceptance rates and significant increases in application numbers. With the Ivy Plus colleges’ acceptance rates moving into ever lower single-digits, there is a new crop of highly selective colleges emerging. Amongst these are schools like New York University, which admitted only 8% of the 118,000 applicants that applied and the University of Southern California, which announced its lowest ever admissions rate at 9.2%. Schools like Boston College, Boston University, and the University of Miami are not far behind, with their acceptance rates also falling well below the 20% mark. This state of affairs requires applicants to redefine what terms like reach, target, and safety mean, given that selectivity at some of these schools has changed so drastically in just a few short years. 

  1. The rise of the highly selective major

Even if the overall acceptance rate of a university is relatively high, it is becoming increasingly evident that not all majors are created equal. Certain majors may have  significantly lower acceptance rates. Majors such as computer science, business, engineering, and nursing are particularly in demand at the moment, with acceptance rates falling significantly lower than other majors at the same institutions. Take the University of Washington, Seattle, for instance. It may have an acceptance rate in the forties for out of state applicants, but the acceptance rate for their computer science program for non-Washington residents is 2%. Similarly, three of NYUs undergraduate colleges only accepted 5% of applicants this year

Applicants interested in these majors will have to adjust their admissions strategy accordingly. The overall acceptance rate of a university may no longer be relevant with these lower major-specific rates. They will need to apply to a wider range of colleges, including institutions that do not admit by major or school, and go above and beyond to distinguish themselves from their cohorts with more than just top grades, impressive test scores and a well-rounded resume. 

  1. The changing role of the essay 

With the rise of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, concerns are increasing around the authenticity of application materials, and essays, in particular. Questions are being raised about the value of the college essay in the admissions process, and colleges are starting to turn to innovative methods to gain a holistic understanding of their applicants. There has been a growing trend for highly selective colleges to request applicants to submit video supplements or upload graded papers in order to get a more unfiltered sense of who they are. In a time when highly-polished essays are viewed with some degree of skepticism, students are increasingly looking to showcase their diverse talents, interests, and achievements through creative arts supplements, research abstracts, maker’s videos, and more. This shift is intended to give colleges a deeper insight into the unique contributions that prospective students can bring to campus life.

  1. The return of standardized testing

In the last few months, the standardized testing landscape has grown increasingly fragmented and confusing. Several universities have announced the reinstatement of standardized testing requirements for the upcoming application cycle. Following last year’s announcements from MIT and Purdue, this year,  University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology and Brown University have followed suit in requiring test scores from the class of 2025, while Yale and Dartmouth have instituted slightly more flexible policies.This news has certainly caught students and parents on the back foot, with many rushing to take standardized tests in order to be eligible to apply to specific universities. Cornell University will also reinstate standardized test requirements, however, this will be implemented for students applying for Fall 2026 admissions.There are several more prominent universities, meanwhile, that have not made a decision on what to do about their test optional policies, including Barnard College, Claremont McKenna College, Duke University, the University of Southern California.  

  1. More waitlisting, and more waitlist movement due to unpredictable yield rates

Waitlists are one of the most unpredictable aspects of the college admissions process from year to year, and unfortunately the use of waitlists is only on the rise. Colleges are waitlisting a noticeably higher number of applicants and also turning to the waitlist to accept students, with movement expected through July. Colleges use waitlists as  part of their enrollment strategy to ensure they fill their classes and dorm rooms to capacity. With students applying to a greater number of colleges than ever before, yield is becoming harder to predict. Waitlists buffer their own uncertainties about how many students will accept their admissions offers, allowing them to cherry pick selected students to fill gaps in the class through the late spring and summer. 

The only real certainty is that the college admissions process remains unpredictable. Trends like these can have serious implications for future applicants, though with the right support and strategy, students can increase their likelihood of successful admissions to the right colleges for their onward academic journey. 

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