2021 College Admissions Trends: Analyzing the Data

The 2020-2021 college application cycle was the first one after COVID-19 took over the world. Due to the various impacts of the pandemic, colleges took steps such as delayed deadlines and implementation of test optional policies to accommodate the different changes students were going through. As a result, the results landscape and the subsequent 2021 college admissions trends were also more drastic than ever before.

In this blog, we’ve outlined and analyzed different data points such as application numbers and acceptance rates, alongside test optional policies, and data released by the Common Application to understand the 2021 college admissions trends better.

Increase in Number of Applications and Decrease in Acceptance Rates

The statistics among the 2021 college admissions trends that have been making the most headlines has been the significant increase in the number of applications that top schools have received in the early application round. The following table showcases the data from this year’s early cycle compared with last year’s.


As you can see, the number of early applications received by schools such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT have drastically risen this year. The number of applicants to Harvard increased by 57% from 2019-2020, while 15,036 students applied to MIT in the EA round—a tremendous 62% from last year’s early action period. Brown admitted 885 early decision applicants. This year 5,540 ED applications this year—depicting an increase of 22% since the 2019-2020 cycle. The school has also set a record for the highest number of ED applications in the history of Brown. This is the fourth consecutive year that the number of ED applications has increased.

Due to the increased number of applications, the acceptance rate also went down at these schools, even at colleges where they accepted a similar number of students as other years. Let’s take a look at the acceptance rates and how it has changed between the last four cycles.

The 2020-21 early application numbers saw record-breaking stats when it came to acceptance rates. MIT was the most competitive school this year. This prestigious STEM-focused college offered admission to 719 students. This is approximately the same as the number of students admitted in the early round last year. However, due to the incredible increase in application numbers, the acceptance rate went down from 7.4% to a brutal 4.8%.

The table below shows the percentages of acceptances, rejections, and deferrals by the colleges that have publicized the data:

Interestingly, Harvard and Yale have deferred more candidates into the regular decision pool. It will be interesting to see how the deferrals affect the acceptance numbers in the regular decision round.

The Future of Testing

The 2021 admissions trends were also impacted by the fact that almost every single school made the submission of SAT and ACT scores optional due to testing dates getting disrupted due to the pandemic. UPenn is the only school that has released SAT specific admissions data so far, citing that 75% of admitted candidates sent their SAT score while 25% did not. This goes to show that students who have the added benefit of an SAT score have been more likely to succeed in the application process. However, due to the continued lockdowns, colleges have begun to extend their test optional policies. Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, Brown are among the colleges that have already made extension announcements. All other top schools are expected to follow.

The College Board has also canceled the SAT subject tests permanently. This means that schools will be looking towards students’ grades, alongside their AP and IB scores, to determine how they have challenged themselves and shown their strengths in particular subject areas.

The Implication of These Numbers and Other Data Released by the Common Application

So, what does it mean that colleges are receiving a higher number of applications than ever before? Considering that students have more uncertainty this year, they had possibly applied in the early decision round as it is statistically less competitive due to binding regulations. In a survey presented by the Common App overall applications had increased this year by 10 percent, reaching 5,583,753, as of late January 2021. There has also been a 9% increase in application per applicant—in the aftermath of the brutal early application numbers, individual students are applying to a greater number of colleges than usual.

The 2021 college admissions trends also show that colleges with less than 50% admit rate generally saw larger increases in application volume than less selective institutions. The more selective colleges saw a 17% rise in the number of applications. If the early round data is any indication, the regular application season is also about to be extremely competitive.

The 2021 college admissions trends also demonstrate an increase in the number of international students. According to the Common App, the number of international applications “surged,” except those from China. There was an 18% decline in Chinese students’ applications while experiencing a growth in applications from the following countries: India (+28%), Canada (+22%), Pakistan (37%), the UK (+23%), and Brazil (+41%). These surges could be a result of various factors, from the political climate to the addition of test optional policies.

While international applicants saw an increase, over in the US, there was a drop when it came to first-generation students—the number of first-generation applicants declined by 3%. The number of students completing the FAFSA, which is filled out by American applicants wishing to receive financial aid, declined by 10.1%

To accommodate the changes, many schools extended their early application deadlines and postponed their early deadline from November 1, including Cornell (11/16), Duke (11/16), Fordham (11/9), Tufts (11/17), University of Michigan (11/15), and Villanova (11/15). These dates were most likely moved to give students time to complete additional testing and requirements. The University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin moved their EA notification dates to late January from late December. Colleges have also started announcing regular decision notification dates—Stanford has said that it will be notifying students late this year. Admissions offices are attempting to account for higher applications as well as make predictions regarding enrollment and yield as everything is up in the air right now.

The Class of 2024

The Class of 2024 was the first group of students to start college in the midst of the pandemic—most online, some in a controlled on-campus environment. In the fall of 2020, the number of first-time freshmen declined by 13% with sharp drops among Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. Many colleges saw a rise in gap years and deferrals in enrollment. 20% of Harvard’s incoming class deferred enrollment, which is three times the average. 8% of students at MIT and 10% of students at Bates did the same, while at Williams College 90 students took gap years after acceptance, whereas usually, 25 students do. As more data appears on 2021 college admissions trends, we are almost guaranteed to see more gap year numbers—which colleges have to account for this year as they continue selecting members for the Class of 2025.

The 2021 college admissions trends show that there are a lot of uncertainties among students and colleges alike. As the pandemic continues, the regular decision numbers will undoubtedly be affected by the various changes in policies as well as the increase in application numbers. If you’ve applied in this cycle, you’ve hopefully worked hard to set yourself up for success and will find yourself at a fitting home for the next four years.

Good luck!

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