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Feb 15

The Rise in Competitiveness of College Applications

As more and more college decisions are released (congratulations to our seniors who have already heard some good news!), some data points have emerged around the rapidly increasing competitiveness of what is already a very challenging application process. Many admissions counselors (ourselves included) had predicted that the pandemic, and especially the degree to which it has affected the United States, would lead to a decrease in applicants this year, and that has not been the case. Applications have risen dramatically across the board, especially to elite schools:

  • New York University received over 100,000 applications this year, a 20% increase from last year. 
  • The University of Pennsylvania saw a 23% increase in Early Decision applicants, decreasing their already low acceptance rate by 4.71%.
  • Harvard and MIT both saw their applicant pools increase by 57% and 62%, respectively, while the number of applicants they accepted remained roughly the same. This meant, in the case of MIT, that there were 15,036 applicants fighting for 719 seats. 

These types of numbers are true for other schools as well. Our conversations with admissions officers from other American Universities like Northeastern and Tulane, as well as from universities in the United Kingdom and Japan, have revealed similar stories – many had initial concerns that the pandemic would decrease applicant numbers, but then received an unprecedented amount of applications this year. 

There are many theories as to why this might be. The shift to testing policy has certainly encouraged more students to apply. The increasing cost of a college education has also led families to prioritize elite schools with strong international name-brand value. These are trends that most expect to continue.

What does this mean?
Regardless of the reasons behind it, these surges mean that gaining successful admissions is even more competitive than before. The changes to standardized testing – both the shift to test-optional and test-blind policies as well as the removal of the SAT Subject Tests – also means that there are fewer ways to distinguish oneself as a uniquely qualified student in an increasingly competitive field. As a result:

  • Academics are essential: With fewer statistics to demonstrate capability, the classes you take and the grades you earn in them are more important than ever. With course selection right around the corner for many of you, it is vital to continue to plan out your curriculum so that you can pursue the most competitive possible path, and then ace all those classes.
  • Standardized tests remain important: The shift to test-optional has not changed the importance of these tests as a metric of admissions. Universities need to make quick initial decisions about who has the potential to thrive in their community, and the more metrics you can provide, the better. 
  • Maximize your extracurriculars: The pandemic has shut down most traditional experiences like internships and summer school, but that means there are tremendous opportunities to build out something unique and creative, whether that be engaging in independent research, starting your own club/business, or mastering a particular skill like coding or ikebana. If you have the resources to be reading this newsletter, you have the resources to do more than what you are doing now. 

Of course, given the complexity and competitiveness mentioned above, it cannot hurt to have a little support. Whether it be course selection or test preparation planning or figuring out your extracurriculars, there’s a lot to weigh when applying to colleges this year.