by Madison Li ’22
Beginning with the application process, the greatest novelty of the 2020-2021 admissions cycle was the unavailability of traditionally crucial applicant information. First, plenty of students’ transcripts lacked junior year spring semester grades, since so many schools switched to pass/fail systems. In addition, as the pandemic shut down many locations and confined most people to their homes, students’ extracurriculars were disturbed, which upended countless lifestyles and paths to greater achievement. And most significantly, over 500 institutions went test-optional or test-blind, referring to the previously indispensable standardized tests SAT and ACT.
These new developments created considerable difficulties for admissions committees, who usually place the greatest weight on students’ academic records; now, a good chunk of that is missing from most applications. Instead, colleges are forced to evaluate other aspects of the application more carefully, drastically changing the process for the first time in half a century. As a result, while some students lost opportunities to appear more competitive with academic achievement, others gained opportunities to shine in other areas despite academic troubles. The removed standardized testing requirement especially influenced many low-scoring students to take their chances with prestigious universities, which they wouldn’t have considered in a normal year.
This increased optimism unsurprisingly led to a massive increase in the number of applications to selective colleges. Accordingly, waitlists lengthened and acceptance rates plummeted. All the Ivy Leagues took a plunge with acceptance rates; Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale reached record-low percentages between 3–5%. This matched the growth of the application, in particular, Harvard and Yale with respective increases of 42% and 38%. The UC system similarly had an 18% increase in applications, with a remarkable surge in the proportion of African American and Latino students. This reflects the plus side: typically disadvantaged groups, including racial minorities and low-income students, were represented much more in applicant pools at selective colleges. However, these groups have also sent in fewer total applications this year, likely since they’ve been the most heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Common App reported that fee-waiver eligible and first-generation applicants had decreased by 16% from last year.
On the other hand, there’s been a tremendous shortage of applications and enrollment for less selective colleges. Applications dropped by 14% for SUNY, the largest public US college system, and freshman enrollment in community colleges also dropped by over 20%. Colleges have suffered financially from the consequent smaller tuition payments from smaller first-year classes. To become a more attractive contender for prospective students, such colleges have extended deadlines, dropped requirements, and even contacted previously rejected applicants.
Further changes relating to the Common App this year included a new question about the effect of the pandemic on a student’s life (many colleges added supplementary essay questions regarding the pandemic, too.) Students also submitted their Common Apps much later: there were 8% fewer applications than last year by November 2020, but this soared to a 10% increase by January 2021. Moreover, there was a 9% increase in the application to applicant ratio, meaning students were applying to more colleges than usual.
The various shifts in this year’s college admissions process will no doubt have lasting effects on the next cycles. Colleges have already guaranteed policies such as the test-optional/test-blind rule for later years, and the pandemic has necessitated a more truly holistic approach than ever, which will certainly be carried over as well. Hopefully, this new chapter in college admissions will spell expanded opportunities for all types of students in the future, despite the issues that have arisen, and become another step in America’s journey toward educational equity.