College Admissions 2021: The Data & Changes

College Admissions 2021: The Data & Changes

College Admissions 2021: The Data & Changes 1000 1000 Lloyd Nimetz

college admissions 2021


In the same way that Covid has radically transformed so much of our society, it has catalyzed major shifts in the college admissions 2021 process and beyond. The rippling aftereffects will last for years even as high schools, colleges, and society as a whole (hopefully) return to some degree of normalcy later this year. Almost without exception, every grade experienced upheaval, from pre-K to postgraduate, and observers have suggested that the Covid-19 crisis could add up to a “lost generation” of students.

College Admissions 2021: Last Year’s Notable Changes

Among a shortlist of disruptions to the college admissions process: test centers closed, the SAT II canceled, and AP tests went online (leading to massive student frustration and an eventual lawsuit against the College Board). In the wake of these and other impacts of the Covid crisis, college admissions offices instituted a number of policy shifts. Hundreds of schools became test-optional, allowing students to apply without submitting standardized test scores. Other schools adopted a “test blind” policy, meaning that even if applicants submitted their scores, the admissions team didn’t consider them.

In the context of high school, the isolation and dislocation of the pandemic created a number of mental health challenges for young people. This trend led to increased levels of anxiety and depression, paralleled by disengagement from classes. Students attending remote classes from their at-home bubbles experienced distraction, frustration, and exhaustion. These feelings were heightened by extended immersions in screens and the associated technology platforms. While some students thrived in virtual classes, other students saw their grades plummet. Cognizant of these impacts and the unreliability of Covid-era grades to reflect a student’s full capability, a number of high school administrators decided to eliminate grades and make classes pass/fail. Whether or not students agreed with this decision, the change means that their transcripts will look very different than those of past students.

Outside of academics, high school sports and extracurriculars ranging from volleyball to theater to soup kitchen volunteering were disrupted. As a result, applicants had a skimpier activities list and fewer opportunities to interact with mentors who might write a recommendation.

College Admissions 2021: Analyzing Trends

The disruptions and shifts in college admissions sparked by the pandemic will continue to affect the college admissions 2021 process and beyond. In this Spike Lab college admissions guide, we provide an essential summary of trends for college admissions this year and coming years. We conclude with what students and families can do to pivot in the new environment for college admissions.

The Data

The recurring headline from the 2020-2021 college admissions cycle is that applications went up significantly at highly selective colleges while admit rates went down. With elite schools making standardized testing requirements optional, many more students threw their hats into the proverbial admissions ring. Compared to the previous admissions cycle, Harvard saw a 42% increase in the number of applicants; Columbia saw a whopping 51% jump, and Dartmouth applications went up 33%. (Check out the full stats here.)

Not only did more students apply to the most selective schools, but the number of seats available also decreased. A larger-than-usual percentage of students deferred during the throes of the pandemic in Fall 2020. With a higher number of applications and fewer seats, the admit rates decreased. Harvard went from 4.9% to 3.4%; Columbia from 6.1% to 3.7%; and Dartmouth from 8.8% to 6.2%. (See the chart below for stats on these and other top schools.) The larger numbers of applicants were largely due to the test optional shift. However, these growing numbers also represent the acceleration of an existing trend. Elite schools are attracting more students and becoming ever more competitive. And that’s exactly why you need a Spike—and if you want to skip right to our summary of a Spike’s priceless value in the admissions process, jump to this point.

The enormous significance of a Spike was evident in TSL’s college admissions 2021 decisions. Of our students, 93% were accepted to at least one “reach” school. Notably, these students garnered entrée into programs that were ideal for their backgrounds and long-term goals.

STEM Majors Become More Competitive

During the college admissions 2020 cycle, a greater percentage of students applied to STEM and Computer Science majors. As in previous times of economic upheaval, the humanities take a hit, since applicants and families view STEM degrees as more resilient for long-term job stability. This trend had already emerged, reflected by the decrease in the size of humanities departments across schools. However, like other shifts, it was accelerated by the pandemic.

More First-Generation, BIPOC Students Accepted

While application numbers went up significantly at highly selective schools, the overall number of applicants to colleges stayed the same. Namely, a larger percentage of high school seniors aimed for elite schools. Within the overall pool, other notable changes in college admissions took place. The proportion of BIPOC students accepted into top schools increased. due in part to test-optional policies. Standardized tests have been shown to have a bias against minority, and especially low-income, students. The fact that first-generation, BIPOC students were admitted in higher numbers than previous years reflects the greater emphasis that admissions officers placed on the holistic admissions process.

Fluctuations in International Student Applications

On the global front, applications from international students living outside of the US increased by 10%, although apps from China decreased significantly (see data). At the onset of the pandemic, the US halted in-person processing of student visas, discouraging many Chinese students from applying to US colleges last year. This number may begin to increase again for Chinese students especially since the US has started visa processing again. At the time of this article, international students from Europe and India are still waiting for the travel ban to be lifted. However, the US embassy has started processing the long backlog of student visa applications in India as well as China.

How To Prepare for College Admissions 2021

College admissions have gone through a sea change, and the reliable tactics of the past may no longer be valid. In the new admissions landscape, students now need to tread carefully and purposefully to achieve their admissions goals. In this guide, we explain how you can put your best foot forward.

Testing: Should You Test—and Should You Submit?

In the realm of testing logistics, AP Tests remain available online and SAT and ACT test centers have opened up. However, there are still hiccups in this process. A higher percentage of students who enroll in the SAT is able to take it now compared to last fall (see data), even as US testing centers have still been closing last minute due to health safety concerns.

In spite of the obstacles in test-taking during the pandemic, high schoolers still managed to go through the ritual. Last year, the number of students who took the SAT or ACT only faced small reductions. In the upcoming year, numerous schools will remain test optional, accelerating an emerging movement against the hegemony, monopoly, and—as critics describe it—the injustice of the standardized testing behemoths. One survey revealed that almost 70% of schools that switched to test optional will remain so in 2021.

The catch? Many top schools still consider standardized tests to be a meaningful predictor of a student’s ability to succeed in college. Just because these schools went test-optional last year does not mean that they ignored scores completely. Furthermore, selective colleges tended to have a higher proportion of students who did submit self-report test scores (the data on that is here).

Aiming For Top Colleges? Take the SAT/ACT

Since highly selective schools still value standardized test scores, you should take the SAT If you intend to apply for selective colleges. Once you’ve taken the test, opting to submit your scores is a strategic decision. There are multiple reasons why students don’t test well, from test-taking anxiety to simply being off your game at that moment. In general, if your scores are above a specific college’s testing median, it’s advantageous to submit scores to that school. If your scores are below the median, let the other elements of your application do the talking.

And if your scores aren’t as high as you’d like, change your college app strategy so that you submit test scores to safety/match schools, but not for reach. Also, make sure that you write strong essays and ask for recommendation letters from teachers who can eloquently advocate for you.

Some schools and state university systems were already relying less heavily on test scores, and they will likely stay that way. (For more on that trend, see here and here.) Because testing policies may fluctuate at individual colleges, stay up to date on the school’s policy. Check the school website, the Common App, or with an admissions department directly.

How Do Admissions Officers Evaluate Applicants Now?

College admissions officers consider a number of character and data points to decide who to admit. The pandemic affected or even erased a number of those elements. These include the test scores, GPA for students whose schools switched to pass/fail, extracurriculars that were canceled, recommendations that will now be written by teachers who never saw their students in actual classrooms. As a result, admissions teams will prioritize other sources of information. They will weigh more heavily what’s revealed through the personal essay or the sort of extracurriculars that self-starting students accomplished even in the midst of the pandemic. (Did we mention the value of a Spike?)

The Increasing Value of Demonstrated Interest

In the pandemic era, showing demonstrated interest in a school is now more important than ever. College wants to maintain strong yield rates (defined as the percentage of accepted students who matriculate to that school). With yield rates dropping due to uncertainty during the pandemic, demonstrated interest is an important factor. For tips, read our guide on demonstrated interest.

Prospective students should research colleges thoroughly, follow them on social media, talk to current students and alumni, attend virtual campus tours if you can’t visit in person, and send well-drafted emails to professors and admissions representatives. These forms of outreach leave a footprint that can increase your admissions prospects. Colleges are more likely to admit students who are genuinely engaged with the school. Demonstrated interest signals more certainty that a student will matriculate if accepted.

What’s Your ED Strategy for College Admissions 2021?

When highly selective schools adopted a test-optional policy, the application floodgates opened. With test scores eliminated from essential admissions criteria, many students took a “Hail Mary” approach and applied Early Decision (ED) to schools that were realistically beyond their reach. While we at TSL encourage our students to be ambitious, we also encourage them to use ED strategically. Applying ED is one significant way to demonstrate interest in a college, because you’re legally bound to attend if admitted. Therefore, applying ED generally increases your chances of acceptance at most top colleges. Students should apply for schools that are a good fit for their academic credentials. Most importantly, apply for a school that will engage and challenge you but not overwhelm you.

Many students want to attend a “brand name” school. However, if you realistically can’t handle the workload and the accompanying pressure, then it’s not a good fit. And if a school is more of a “reach” than a “target”—i.e., if your academic and extracurricular achievements don’t match the level of the prototypical student at the school—then applying ED to the school is akin to wasting a valuable at-bat in baseball. Instead of whiffing a potential home run, students should choose wisely when applying ED. Don’t waste your early decision opportunity during the college admissions 2021 cycle.

How To Select Your ED School

To do this, students should thoughtfully and realistically assess their ED choice and overall college list. Start by asking yourself what type of program fits your interests and desired level of academic rigor. Does the program you’re considering have resources (profs, research opportunities, classes) that will enable you to pursue your specific academic interests? Do your academic and extracurricular histories place you firmly within the potential pool of applicants? Does the school’s academic, social, and extracurricular environment fit your sensibility? You want to find a good match in the school you attend: a primary reason for carefully considering school choice and researching colleges thoroughly

What if You’re Graduating HS in 2023 and Beyond?

Younger students who aren’t applying during the college admissions 2021 cycle have plenty of runway. They still have time to build their extracurriculars (beyond the typical school clubs and programs), achieve high grades, and more. With the return to in-person classes and activities, younger students can also focus on developing authentic relationships with their teachers and advisors, especially if they will be your recommender for college. If online learning was a struggle, focus on improving your grades now that many schools are returning to IRL learning. Last but not least, conceive and complete a Spike! It’s an excellent method to demonstrate that you are a good fit for your top choice schools and programs. (Again, 93% of our students made it into one of their “reach” schools). Also, a Spike is a great way to become active in your community as things open up.

Why Spikes are a Timeless Strategy for Improving Admissions Prospects

With all of the changes in college admissions, one approach remains relevant: the Spike. Self-initiated projects in art, technology, activism, community service, science, and other arenas are always going to impress admissions officers. These projects show maturity, focus, wherewithal, commitment: qualities that colleges want to have in their students. This fact holds true for the upcoming college admissions 2021 cycle and beyond. See our previous roundup on additional reasons why a Spike is necessary for today’s students striving for the top schools.

As of summer 2021, in-person volunteering, extracurriculars, and sports are resuming, allowing students to get involved in their passions and favorite pastimes. Even with the return to relative normalcy, the fact remains that—with variants on the rise and varying vaccine uptake—some question if we can resume in-person interaction. In light of these facts, students should consider the following actions: (1) Build a Spike that won’t be affected if lockdown restrictions return. (2) At a time when extracurriculars are on hold, students should proactively pursue their own interests. Their initiative and motivation will make a significant impression on admissions officers.

Reflecting on Covid’s Impact on Your Application

During the 2020 admissions cycle, the Common App introduced a new question inviting students to address how Covid impacted them. The prompt:

“Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”

It seems likely that this question will be available in upcoming years. Freshmen affected by the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 won’t be applying until fall 2022 for admission in fall 2023. If your experience during Covid was particularly unsettling and it had an impact on your academics—if you were dealing with mental health issues, or the death of a family member, or technology constraints, or other pressures brought about by the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic—it’s important to use this statement to explain to admissions departments what happened and how it influenced you.

More generally, for students applying for this college admissions 2021 cycle, the pandemic may be a major theme in your essays. Students who are applying in upcoming years might find it helpful to reflect on how their pandemic experiences changed them. How did they shape your goals for the rest of high school? This pandemic year has been an emotionally challenging time. Look to yourself, your family and your community for inspiration on how to proactively respond to these pressures.

What About Financial Aid?

Colleges were able to offer less merit and financial aid since they saw a decrease in revenue during the height of the pandemic—due in part to more deferrals—and lower returns on their endowments, especially after last year’s bull market (data here) However, as of summer 2021, the economy is recovering and colleges will likely offer more aid in the coming years, especially with merit scholarships that are used to help schools protect their yield rates and entice more competitive students to matriculate.

Required Vaccinations

Colleges and universities are still evaluating their Covid policies, but a number of institutions have announced that students returning to campus will need to be vaccinated, in the same way, that they require MMR vaccinations or boosters. As a young adult, you can get ahead of the game by getting vaccinated now if you haven’t already. And make sure you keep close track of your vaccination card.

With so many changes in college admissions, one thing remains constant: the value of a Spike. To discuss how we guide students through creating a Spike, reach out to us.

Lloyd Nimetz

Serial entrepreneur, educator, investor, milonguero, dog-lover and Coach, Founder & CEO of The Spike Lab

Read more by: Lloyd Nimetz