COVID has sparked a firestorm of reform in the admissions process. Road2College recently sat down with Rebecca Chabrow, our Counselor-in-Residence of the Road2College Concierge Service, and the Director of College Counseling at Linden Hall School for Girls, to talk about the 2021 college admissions results and the potential long term changes.
Here are some of the key takeaways from our special Zoom event, along with a link to the full presentation.
College Admissions Results From Colleges Going Test-Optional
According to ACT, half of four-year colleges were test-optional before the pandemic. As COVID swept across the globe, another 30% of schools transitioned to test-optional.
Chabrow says that in the 2019/2020 high-school year, about 77% of college applications were submitted with test scores, and in the following high-school year (2020/2021), the percentage dropped to 46%.
Even after so many schools waived the need for scores, families were unsure whether a student who submitted an application without them would be evaluated as fairly as someone who had.
The results–in the form of acceptance rates–are starting to come in. While not all schools are sharing the percentage of students they admitted with test scores versus those they admitted without (many of the schools that are sharing this information are more selective colleges with admissions rates of less than 50%), students who submitted with test scores fared much better.
Chabrow has two theories about why this is:
1) Colleges may be less test-optional than they say they are–that is, they really do prioritize tests.
2) In general, top students who are admissible to the most selective schools are also top test-takers.
“Going test-optional gave a lot of students a false sense of admissibility,” she said. “You’ll see, as a result, a lot of acceptance rates went down.”
This was not true across the board. Boston University and Northeastern University had 18% acceptance rates for students both with test scores and without.
Application Numbers Reach Record Highs at Top Universities
When schools went test-optional, many students increased the number of colleges and universities they applied to–especially elite New England schools (a.k.a. “Little Ivies”). Their hope was that, without the barrier of test scores, they might have a better opportunity to be accepted.
There was also a lot of confusion about the potential impact of students sending out more applications than usual–would schools increase the number of students they admit?
Students who typically apply to eight to ten colleges were applying to more than a dozen. With only so many spots in a given class, college admissions committees faced a real challenge.
Interestingly, the schools which were already test-optional didn’t necessarily get more applications. For example, Colgate, which normally required test scores, but went test-optional during the pandemic, saw a large increase in applications. Colby College, which had long been test-optional, did not.
Overall, the more selective, large, public universities like UC schools, UNC, and the University of Virginia overall saw a 15.53% increase in applications. The more selective, small, private schools had a 14.11% increase.
The biggest increase in applications was within the Southwestern colleges, which tend to be larger in terms of total number of undergraduates. The smallest increase in applications was within the Mid-Atlantic colleges, which tend to be smaller sized schools. Chabrow saw a correlation between an increase in applications to school size and activity (such as big schools with sports teams), as well as location.
Here are some specific application statistics as a result of schools going test-optional:
- 11% increase overall in applications
- 1% increase in applicants–this is because more people sent out more apps
- 1.6% decrease in first-generation applicants
- 13% increase in international applications
- 24% increase in applications to more selective (<50% admissions rates), larger (>10,000 undergrads), private colleges
- 22% increase in applications to more selective, smaller, private colleges
Acceptance-Rate Outcomes (a.k.a. Admit Rates)
While the number of total college applications increased dramatically, the acceptance rates at Ivy Leagues only decreased slightly. A small liberal arts schools like Colgate, which had huge increases in applications, had a decrease in their acceptance rate because they have limited physical resources and don’t have space for everyone.
At Rice University, test-optional was a factor in more people applying, and also led to an increase in their acceptance rates. That’s because they increased the total number of freshman they accepted. Although this increase in class size has not been the norm nationwide, some schools have made changes to accommodate the increase in applicants, including those noted in the images below:
Also factoring into the acceptance rates are pandemic gap-year students—those who applied to college in the 2019/2020 school year and were admitted, but chose to take a gap year and attend in 2021/2022 instead.
What this means is that schools whose admit rates went down, accepted fewer students because they knew they had gap-year students coming in.
There is no indication, said Chabrow, that the trend of taking a gap year will continue at the same rate (as many as 7% of accepted students took a gap year in 2020/2021, according to some schools).
Positive Impact on Underserved Populations
Test-optional has had a positive impact on underserved populations. According to Chabrow, first-generation, lower-income, as well as Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, were (previous to the shift to test-optional) less likely than others to submit their test scores on applications. With testing requirements changing, underserved communities fared much better in the application process than in years past.
At Harvard, for example, 18% of admitted students were Black, up from 14.8% last year. And for the first time ever, more than 20% of admitted students were Pell Grant Eligible.
By contrast, at the University of Florida, which did not go test-optional, Black, Hispanic, and Native American admits decreased, even though the number of admits increased.
Here are more examples of schools that were test-optional, and the impact it had on admits in underserved communities:
The college Waitlist is a pool of applicants who are put on hold–they are neither accepted nor rejected. Schools use the lists for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to reject certain applicants (i.e., children of alumni); needing to assess the statistics of their next freshman class; being unsure of the potential success of a student; wanting to further review a student’s application; and more.
A student’s chances of getting into a school for which they’re waitlisted varies based on the competition. Waitlists are generally not ranked.
During the pandemic, with so many more applications for schools to consider, waitlists have dramatically increased. In the 2019/2020 school year, with a larger proportion of students opting for a gap year, waitlisted students had a much better chance of getting in, and did.
This school year, because there were so many students with multiple acceptances to colleges and universities (they applied to more), once students decided where to attend, spots on waitlists opened up in higher numbers.
In general, most schools will have more students on their waitlist than on their accepted students list.
Here are some statistics on waitlist offers versus admissions for the high school class of 2019:
What Changes to the Admissions Process Will Remain?
As the 2021/2022 admissions cycle proceeds, a few things will change and a few things will stay the same.
- Test-optional is not going anywhere. Students like the option, and it has proven beneficial, though admittedly challenging, in terms of finding alternatives for evaluating students.
- Issues such as the increased number of applications per student, larger waitlists, and lower acceptance rates may change over time, but it will take several admissions cycles to see how things shake out.
- One bright spot: Students are much less likely to take gap years now that colleges will return to normal operations. As a result, gap years will not impact acceptance rates.
- In short, the current admissions cycle will have plenty in common with the last one–but so far, there are some strong signals that we are inching towards normalcy.
Bottom line: Over the next two years, college admissions will likely see a hybrid of sorts between pre-pandemic and what we hope will soon be post-pandemic life.
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