From fluctuating between in-person, online, and hybrid learning models to the constant flurry of test-optional announcements, the higher education landscape is undergoing significant change – not least because of the pandemic. As this year’s college admissions cycle wraps up, here are a few trends that we have observed:

1. Record breaking application numbers and declining acceptance rates

Even though college enrollment has been on the decline since 2020, largely due to the pandemic, total application numbers have actually increased. According to data from the Common Application, the number of applications received by November 2021 were up by 20% from the same time in the previous year. Application volumes were so far beyond what admissions officers predicted that it even caused some schools to delay their Early Decision and Early Action results by a few days, or in some cases, weeks.

Another outcome of this trend is that selective schools, where the acceptance rate is under 50%, have become even more selective, since these institutions have seen the highest growth in application numbers. Application numbers at selective schools are estimated to have grown by 25% since the 2019-20 application cycle. This number is significantly higher than the 16% increase at less selective colleges (where the acceptance rate is over 75%) and 11% at slightly more selective institutions (where the acceptance rate is 50-74%).

2. Waitlists are getting longer

Colleges have historically utilized the waitlist to manage enrollment numbers, and are now turning to this tool more than ever. The pandemic has created considerable uncertainty in the college application process, making it exceptionally difficult for colleges to predict their yield – or in other words, the number of accepted students who will enroll. As a result, more students are finding themselves on waitlists.

According to a study by College Kickstart, the number of students admitted from the waitlist rose by 97% from 22,223 in 2019 to 43,867 in 2020. While
being waitlisted
can be extremely frustrating for students, the silver lining in high waitlist numbers is that more students are also being admitted off these lists. The College Kickstart study estimates that on average, 29% percent of waitlisted students were admitted in 2020, which was up from 18% in the previous cycle.

3. A larger and more diverse international applicant pool

The unpredictability of global travel during the pandemic resulted in a huge decline in international student enrollment. According to an enrollmentsurvey that studied data from over 700 colleges, the number of international students in 2020-21 declined by 43% from the previous year.

The financial and social impact of this was significant for colleges as most international students pay the full cost of attendance and contribute to the local economy. However, this year’s data suggests that this trend has reversed, as international student enrollment is up by 63%, likely due to a combination of easing travel restrictions in the US (especially as compared to other global higher education destinations around the world) and colleges taking a more proactive approach toward pursuing international applicants.

4. An increasingly fragmented test-optional landscape

The test-optional trend has been gaining momentum for years, but was significantly accelerated due to COVID-19. According to Common App data, only 5% of institutions on its platform required standardized test scores for the 2021-2022 application cycle, as compared to 11% in last year’s application cycle. However, despite the growth of this movement, 49% of applicants submitted test scores this year, which is higher than last year’s 44%. Nevertheless, it is still much lower than the pre-COVID testing landscape, where 77% of applicants submitted scores in the 2019-20 application cycle.

Overall, it appears that test-optional policies are certainly here to stay in some form, which was also one of the key findings in a survey commissioned by the ACT. However, colleges are taking very different approaches toward implementing these policies, with some reviewing their requirements on an annual basis and others adopting multi-year policies, including Harvard University, which has decided to remain test-optional through to the 2026 application cycle. On the other hand, there are universities that have already reinstated standardized test requirements, including public universities across Georgia and Florida, as well as high-profile institutions like MIT, which announced that it will require test scores for the 2023 applicant class.

Overall, while the test-optional movement is certainly here to stay in some form, this landscape is both fluid and fragmented, and requires applicants to stay prepared for constant change.

5. More weightage on essays, demonstrated interest and exams

With the growth of test-optional policies, admission officers are increasingly looking toward other methods of evaluating a student’s college readiness. This could include alternative indicators of academic achievement, such as AP exam results or IB predicted grades, which are good predictors of success in university. In the absence of the SAT essay, moreover, applicants’ personal and supplemental essays are also expected to play a more significant role in the admissions process as they are now the primary method of an applicant’s writing ability. Lastly, with the pressure to protect yield rates, colleges are paying more attention to demonstrated interest to ensure applicants are genuinely interested in attending their school. For more information on how to demonstrate interest, check out our blog called College Research in the Time of COVID-19.

6.More gap year and first-year transfer students

Between in-person and online class fluctuations, travel restrictions, etc, the past two years have seen an increase in the number of students opting to postpone their entry into college. Even though US colleges are, for the most part, “back to normal,” this trend is expected to continue. The financial aftermath of the pandemic, moreover, has also forced many students to take a break from their education to boost their college funds and savings before focusing on their undergraduate degrees.

Another complementary trend is the higher number of first-year transfer students, since a lot of students enrolled in community colleges or looked to other affordable post-secondary options during the pandemic, when learning was almost entirely virtual. While the average transfer rate among freshmen is usually 33%, colleges anticipate that it will be much higher this year.

The college application process may seem especially competitive and uncertain this year. If you find yourself overwhelmed, wondering about how you can prepare a strong application in the face of increased competition, get in touch.