What Will the 2021 College Admissions Season Look Like?

As the high school class of 2021 prepares to head to college campuses in the fall, the class of 2022 is just starting the college application process. What can we learn from the 2020 college admissions cycle, and what will the 2021 college admissions landscape look like?

Application Numbers Are at Record Highs

Across the country, top-ranked colleges saw record-shattering numbers of applications this year. For example:

What Does This Mean for the 2021 College Admissions Season?

Test optional policies explain a large part of this trend—students who otherwise might have felt disqualified by their SAT or ACT scores might have decided to apply anyway. And during an unpredictable admissions cycle, a lot of students applied to even more schools than usual. Both of these unique circumstances will still apply in the 2021 college admissions cycle.

But there are other reasons for rising application numbers. For example, the virtual recruitment strategies colleges started relying on last year allow them to reach a wider audience of potential students than ever before. In fact, Georgetown admissions officials attribute much of their 19% rise in applicants to the school’s virtual recruiting. Other schools, such as the University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, say that their move to adopt the Common App is responsible for a significant portion of their increase in applicants.

Near-record or record numbers of applications again translate to near-record or record low admission rates. Students should be prepared for another extremely competitive admissions cycle in 2021.

It May Be Easier to Apply, But It’s Not Easier to Get In

Historically speaking, when a college goes test-optional, it sees a rise in applications and becomes even more selective. Case in point: when the University of Chicago went test optional in 2018, the average SAT score rose 15 points, and the school’s admission rate dropped from 7.2% to 5.9%.

This trend certainly held true in the most recent admission cycle. For example:

Brown University’s Dean of Admissions Logan Powell put it best, noting that the university could have admitted “two or three” classes with nearly “indistinguishable” academic credentials—the applicant pools grew larger, but no less competitive.

What Does This Mean for the 2021 College Admissions Season?

With large numbers of colleges extending their test optional policies into the 2021-2022 application cycle, it’s unlikely that the trend will reverse itself. Huge numbers of highly qualified applicants will continue to apply to the nation’s top-ranked colleges.

Students will need to take advantage of every opportunity to stand out of the crowd. An impressive academic profile is the first step, but students will also need fantastic essays, unique extracurricular resumes, and enthusiastic recommendation letters.

Test optional doesn’t really mean test optional

Pre-pandemic test optional policies already suggested that applicants with competitive test scores had an advantage over those without scores. The University of Chicago is but one example. In fact, the majority of applicants to competitive test optional universities and colleges submit SAT/ACT scores:

  • Pre-pandemic case studies at several test optional schools, including Bates, George Washington, George Mason, Sarah Lawrence, and Susquehana, showed that 60% or more applicants still submit test scores.
  • At Wake Forest University, which adopted a test optional policy in 2008, about 70% of applicants submit test scores each year.

Early data shows that the same trends continued during the last admissions cycle: the majority of applicants at selective schools submitted scores, and those who submitted scores had a higher chance for admission than those who did not. Here is a sample of the data:

  • At Notre Dame, 51% of early applicants submitted test scores, and they made up 69% of admitted students. The early admission rate without test scores was just 13.7%—the early admission rate WITH scores was 29%.
  • At the University of Pennsylvania, 62% of early applicants submitted test scores—they made up 75% of admitted students. The early admission rate without scores was just 9.5%, but the early admission rate with scores was 18.4%.

What Does This Mean for the 2021 College Admissions Season?

In the world of college admissions, “optional” really means “strongly recommended.” This is true of optional essays and optional test scores.

Not having test scores because of a lack of access to safe testing facilities will not create an insurmountable barrier to admission, even at the nation’s most selective schools. But having competitive SAT or ACT scores offers a substantial boost to a student’s chances for admission—and in a competitive admissions atmosphere, every little bit counts.

The Qualitative Parts of the Application Are More Important than Ever

With test scores, grades, and other parts of the normal college admissions equation up in the air, admissions officers turned to the more subjective qualitative aspects of the application: essays, recommendation letters, and extracurricular involvement. For example:

What Does This Mean for the 2021 College Admissions Season?

This year’s applicants were not unaffected by the pandemic. Most will have spent their all-important junior year navigating a patchwork of digital and in-person learning and truncated extracurricular opportunities. Many continue to have difficulty finding testing centers for the SAT or ACT.

The same uncertainty around grades and testing will continue into this year. Colleges will rely more heavily on the subjective pieces of an application—and last year’s applicants set a high bar for amazing essays and ways of working around pandemic restrictions to grow and develop their skills.

Colleges are playing the waitlist game now more than ever

A national survey by Art & Science Group, a higher education consulting group, revealed that as late as April, 1 in 5 high school seniors had been waitlisted by at least one college. Of those, 40% say that they would accept a spot at their waitlisted school even if it means losing a deposit at another school.

What Does This Mean for the 2021 College Admissions Season?

For colleges, the waitlist game has winners and losers. More prestigious and in-demand colleges will be able to attract waitlist students, even if they aren’t able to offer the most attractive housing or financial aid options. Those students will then give up the spots they have already placed a deposit for, leaving those colleges scrambling to admit students from their waitlists as well. This cycle trickles down to less selective or less popular colleges, resulting in lower than usual enrollment at those schools.

The end result: a widening gap in selectivity between the most prestigious, popular schools and the less well-known or less prestigious schools.

Colleges will watch this trend closely to inform their decisions for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Top-rated schools will likely leverage their waitlists heavily again, meaning that a lot of students will be offered spots on the waitlist. Smaller or less well-known schools may opt to admit a larger number of applicants to account for lower than usual yield.

Students should be prepared to see a lot of waitlist activity again in the coming admission cycle. Learn more about what to do if you’re waitlisted here.