The Shift of Standardized Test Requirements
Traditional standardized test-taking, a longstanding staple of the application process, became extremely difficult during the pandemic. In response, the majority of schools have adopted test-optional (standardized tests not required) or test-blind (admissions will not look at standardized tests even if they are submitted) policies. Experts and analysts across the board cite this shift as the number one reason behind the trends in application rates seen this year 7.
These new policies have had a number of effects on application pools. Not only did the sheer volume of applications go up dramatically, but there was also a sharp increase in the diversity of those applying, including an unprecedented number of first-generation students 5.
Universities across the US are increasingly prioritizing missions of diversity and inclusion, and test-optional policies support these missions. These new directives come alongside increased criticism of elitism, as highlighted by the “Varsity Blues” scandal that dominated the news cycle just prior to the pandemic, as well as the practice of admitting legacy students at top schools. All Ivies will continue to be test-optional until at least 2024 4.
Beyond that, the future of standardized tests will vary greatly across schools. Some schools, like CalTech and Middlebury, will remain test-blind. Others, most notably the UC system, are developing their own test that will be administered to applicants. Schools such as NYU will be test-flexible. This means you can choose to submit one test from a wide range of options, including SAT, ACT, AP exams, or IB tests. Some schools, such as MIT and Georgetown, will revert back to traditional test requirements (SAT or ACT).
For students, all these new options are both good and bad news. Students now have more choices to present their “best-test-selves.” However, they will be tasked with preparing for all of these new options, adding to the pile of application preparation required of them.
Panic about Yield Numbers
Enrollment dropped by a million students in 2020 amidst the height of the pandemic 3. From a fear for safety to not wanting to miss out on the traditional college experience, many graduating high school seniors opted to take a gap year or defer their enrollment. In a new, relatively safer, and more open environment (at least for now), those students are now ready to start their college journey. This has not only affected the number of spots available for applicants but also the application review process for schools.
In the face of declining yield rates (the number of accepted students who enroll) essential to the competitive reputation enjoyed by many institutions, colleges panicked. To make up for the low enrollment of 2020, some schools over-enrolled in 2021, and then had to make up for the over-enrollment this year. For example, Northeastern, which went from an 18% acceptance rate to just 7%, had to decrease the class of 2026 by 25% 7. Additionally, selective schools have been filling their incoming class with the “sure bets” of early decision applicants, to avoid the uncertainty of regular decision cycles, where students are weighing their acceptance from a number of different schools. For example, Boston University filled 50% of the class of 2026 with early decision applicants, compared to just 13% a decade earlier 6. Barnard finalized a whopping 62% of the seats before considering any regular decision applicants 6.
The Common App Means More Students Applying to More Schools
The Common App makes it easy for students to apply to multiple schools. Indeed, more students are applying to more schools than ever before 4, often fearing they won’t get into any 6. However, despite their concerns, this increase in applications has led to a 9% overall decrease in yield rates for colleges on the App. This has further spurred schools to look to their Early Applicant pool to keep their yield rates up.
What does this information tell us?
Apply early and demonstrate a strong interest in all the schools you apply to.
For several reasons noted above, colleges are relying much more on their early decision pool. If there is a school you really want to go to, it is more important than ever before to submit an ED application. Moreover, demonstrating a strong interest in all the schools you apply to should be a focus of your application. Schools will consider applications with “demonstrated interest” more seriously, as they are more likely to increase their yield rate.
This means paying more attention to the details that make the college unique in supplemental essays. Show the schools you have done your research, and you are not just applying because it’s easy to do so on the Common App. Students should value quality over quantity. Rather than recycle the same “why us” essay 30 times, students should focus on creating stronger, more personal connections with a shorter list of schools.
Should you submit your test scores? Most likely, yes.
Despite claims that test-optional colleges do not view applications without standardized tests in a negative light, submitting your scores will most likely add value to your application. This is especially true for students with a score in the 50th percentile or higher at the particular school you are applying to. Scores will likely be a little lower overall since many students were unable to take the test multiple times to improve their results. However, individual circumstances should be discussed with your college counselor or college consultant.
Be yourself and celebrate your diversity.
With the vast increase in application numbers, it is more important than ever to stand out in the crowd. Make uncommon connections in your personal statement and supplemental essays. Take risks. Try to add humor and wit whenever you can. Be authentic. Having perfect grades and test scores are no longer enough on their own. Schools want to see what personal qualities you will add to their community, and they will use what they read between the lines of your essays to determine these qualities.
Celebrate the ways that you are different. If you are a first generation student, come from a diverse background or are part of a minority representing community, schools want to hear about it. But beyond that, talk about your individual quirks, passions and values. Schools want to see that you are doing an activity because it is important to you, not because it looks good on your application. Use language that shows off your personality. As always, show why you and the school are a good fit for each other, by drawing on how specific aspects of the school align perfectly with your unique and specific qualities. Do what you can to make the connection special.
1 Jaschik, Scott. “Inside Higher Ed.” Study Finds Generally Positive Impact of Common Application, 26 Aug. 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/08/26/study-finds-generally-positive-impact-common-application
2 Messinger, Joe. “5 New Trends for College Admissions in 2022.” College Aid Pro, 3 Jan. 2022, https://collegeaidpro.com/college-admissions-trends
3 Nadworny, Elissa. “More than 1 Million Fewer Students Are in College. Here’s How That Impacts the Economy.” NPR, NPR, 13 Jan. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/01/13/1072529477/more-than-1-million-fewer-students-are-in-college-the-lowest-enrollment-numbers-
4 Nietzel, Michael T. “Ivy League Colleges Reveal Acceptance Numbers for Class of 2026.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2022/04/04/ivy-league-colleges-announce-acceptance-numbers-for-class-of-2026
5 Picchi, Aimee. “Ivy League Acceptance Rates Drop to New Low. They’re Not Alone.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 1 Apr. 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ivy-league-acceptance-rates-harvard-yale-columbia-brown
6 Selingo, Jeffrey. “The College-Admissions Process Is Completely Broken.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/change-college-acceptance-application-process/627581
7 Stein, Jason. “Class of 2026 Acceptance Rates Plummet.” Inklings News, 4 Apr. 2022, https://www.inklingsnews.com/news/2022/04/04/class-of-2026-acceptance-rates-plummet