As schools adopted test-optional policies, selective colleges experienced an unprecedented climb in first-year applications, thereby lowering fall admission rates.

Applications Surge at Selective U.S. Colleges

Acceptance Rates May Fall to Lowest Levels Ever


  • Elite colleges that waived test requirements due to COVID-19 saw a huge influx of applicants.
  • At the same time, less competitive colleges experienced drops in applications.
  • Those who deferred admission last year are starting this fall, reducing open spots.
  • Record application numbers at selective schools will result in low acceptance rates.

Imagine you've just begun your senior year in high school. You're a great student near the top of your class, sporting a weighted GPA north of 4.0, numerous AP courses, and leadership roles in a wide array of clubs and activities. You're also a varsity athlete with years of community service and tutoring experience, just for good measure.

There's just one problem: You don't fare well on standardized tests, and your SAT scores, while decent, aren't competitive for your dream school. Although well above the national average of 1051, your 1310 leaves you far short of the 1500 or so you'll need to crack the Ivy League.

If that's you this year, you're in luck. In response to concerns about safety during the pandemic, some 72% of colleges nationwide — including Ivies and other ultra-competitive schools — have gone test-optional, meaning students are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. They certainly can submit good scores to strengthen their case, but they don't have to.

So buoyed by this windfall, you apply to a number of top colleges, figuring you now have a shot. The bad news? You'll have plenty of company.

By waiving standardized test requirements, most highly selective schools attracted record numbers of applicants this year.

By waiving standardized test requirements, most highly selective schools attracted record numbers of applicants this year. Harvard University received 57,000 applications, up 42% over last year. Brown University saw a 26% increase, while Tufts University's pool grew 35%. Cornell University's numbers are also up by a third. And imagine being an overworked admissions officer at Colgate University, having to face a whopping 102% increase in applicants.

The University of Pennsylvania received 56,000 applications, up 34% over last year's total. John McLaughlin, interim dean of admissions, said in an email that the majority of applicants to Penn did in fact include test scores in their applications, but he also suggested that going test-optional "creates an opportunity for those students who weren't able to take these tests, or feel that their testing doesn't accurately reflect their ability."

At the same time, McLaughlin doesn't think waiving the standardized test requirement attracted weaker applicants. "There is no reason to believe that the overall quality of the applicant pool dipped," he said.

Some public schools saw similar spikes in applications. At the University of Maryland, College Park, where just over half of applicants did not submit standardized test scores, totals are up 25%, while numbers at the University of Virginia rose 15%. For the first time ever, the University of California, Berkeley, received more than 100,000 applications; its total of 112,821 represents a 28% increase over last year.

Percent Change in First-Year Applications, Fall 2020
School Fall 2020 Applications % Change Over Fall 2019
Berkeley 112,821 +28%
Brown 46,469 +26%
Colgate 17,392 +102%
Harvard 57,000+ +42%
Penn 56,000+ +34%
Tufts 31,190 +35%
UMD 41,000+ +25%
UVA 48,000+ +15%

Across the board, application totals at large public universities climbed more than 11%, while competitive private schools witnessed an increase of more than 17%.

Many schools plan to extend the test-optional provision another year or two. Columbia University and Cornell were the first Ivies to announce they'll be test-optional for the 2021-22 application cycle, and Harvard followed suit. Meanwhile, Williams College and Amherst College are maintaining their policies through 2023.

Test-optional admissions is nothing new, even among selective privates. Bowdoin College hasn't required standardized tests for years, and the University of Chicago eliminated them in 2018. Before the pandemic, 1,070 colleges were test-optional; today that number is 1,686.

Clearly, COVID-19 has accelerated the trend and forced many institutions to reconsider their testing policies, at least in the short term.

Last Year's Deferrals Mean Fewer Spaces for New Applicants

The painful truth is that you would have been better off being a senior last year, even with relatively low SAT scores. With the uncertainty surrounding campus plans in response to the pandemic, applications to many elite colleges were actually down for the class entering in fall 2020.

Harvard, for example, saw its totals decrease from 43,330 in 2019 to 40,248 in 2020. Penn's numbers went from 44,960 to 42,205. Yale University's, 36,843 to 35,220. These drops halted a decade or more of steady increases in applications. Across the country, immediate college enrollment — students progressing to college directly from high school — fell 6.8% last fall.

A marked decrease in international enrollments contributed to last year's lower numbers as well. One survey revealed a 16% drop in international students studying at U.S. universities in fall 2020, including 43% fewer new international students. Reasons cited include travel restrictions, safety considerations due to COVID-19, and the shift to virtual learning.

Conversely, this year international applications have surged. Although applications from China are down 18%, countries such as India (up 28%), Pakistan (37%), the United Kingdom (23%), and Brazil (41%) have experienced significant increases.

One survey revealed a 16% drop in international students studying at U.S. universities in fall 2020, including 43% fewer new international students.

And then there are the students who deferred admission from fall 2020 to fall 2021. Some 340 students — 20% of the total — accepted to Harvard for fall 2020 deferred enrollment, taking a gap year instead of beginning their college careers online. Normally that number is between 100 and 130.

At nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the percentage of students taking a gap year rose from 1% to 8%. At Williams, 90 students chose to defer instead of the usual 25, and Bates College saw its deferrals rise from 4% to 10%. Dartmouth College experienced a five-fold increase in deferments. A 2020 survey of 2,800 high school seniors indicated that one-third were likely to defer or reject a college admission offer that year.

Well, now they're back, and they're taking seats away from fall 2021 hopefuls. In a year already marked by an unprecedented influx of applicants, there are now fewer available spots thanks to the students who deferred in fall 2020 and instead reserved a place in the 2021 entering class.

So had you applied for fall 2020, the chances of being admitted, statistically speaking, would have been greater, and you certainly would've had a better shot at getting in off a waitlist given the high number of gap-year deferrals and outright rejections of offers.

Competition Rises as Students Apply to More Colleges

These days, it's not uncommon for high school students to submit a dozen or more college applications. While it may seem like that number continues to grow, evidence from the Common App bears this out. A recent study revealed that among the Common App's more than 900 member institutions, there was a 9% increase in applications per applicant this year.

"Students are hedging their bets by applying to more colleges as a result of COVID-induced uncertainties and the unknowns surrounding how and if test scores are being considered," said Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.

"Families are also increasingly concerned about costs and value," he continued, "so applying to more colleges gives them potentially more choices or more chances of being admitted to an institution they can afford."

Penn's McLaughlin also noted this growing trend, adding that the "cycle of selectivity … results in students applying to more and more schools, which results in more and more applications, and greater and greater selectivity."

First-Year Early Acceptance Rates, 2019 vs. 2020
School Fall 2019 Early Acceptance Rate Fall 2020 Early Acceptance Rate
Duke 20.7% 16.7%
Georgetown 11.7% 10.8%
Harvard 13.9% 7.4%
Penn 19.7% 15%
Yale 13.8% 10.5%

Add it all up and the results are record-low early acceptance rates at many schools. For its early action round, Harvard reported an application increase of 57% and an acceptance rate of 7.4%, down considerably from last year's 13.9%. Likewise, Penn received 23% more early decision applications and accepted 15%, down from the previous year's 19.7%, while Yale saw a 38% jump and admitted 10.5%.

Outside the Ivy League, Georgetown University welcomed a 20% increase in early applications and accepted an all-time low of 10.8%. Duke University received 16% more early applications and accepted 16.7%, down 4 percentage points from last year. And UVA reported a 38% rise in early applications and an acceptance rate of 32.9%.

Most competitive schools haven't yet released regular decision acceptance figures, which normally become public after students are notified in late March or early April. To accommodate the flood of applications, the Ivies have pushed back Ivy Day, or the day when all members of the Ancient Eight inform applicants of their fate, to April 6.

Considering last year's regular decision rates ranged from 8.7% (Cornell) to 3.2% (Harvard), we can safely anticipate numbers in the low single digits. Put another way, if you're in a room of 50 people awaiting word from Harvard, only one of you is getting in.

Not All Colleges Are Seeing Surges in Applications

The situation isn't rosy for all colleges, however. Institutions in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest have been hit particularly hard. The State University of New York system experienced a 20% decline in applications, while Loyola University Maryland saw an 18% decline in early applications. Similarly, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is expecting a 4% decrease.

Data from the Common App shows that while larger and more competitive institutions are experiencing an increase in applications, smaller, less competitive colleges aren't faring as well. Schools with more than 20,000 students saw increases of 16% on average, yet those with enrollments under 1,000 dropped 4%.

Schools with more than 20,000 students saw increases of 16% on average, yet those with enrollments under 1,000 dropped 4%.

And although Common App applications were up 10%, the number of first-generation applicants and applicants receiving fee waivers (suggesting lower incomes) fell 3 and 2 percentage points, respectively. While troubling, perhaps it's not surprising given that these students and families have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its financial ramifications.

The 2020-21 admissions cycle will no doubt set records for competitive admissions and widen the selectivity gulf between elite schools and the rest of America's colleges. We can expect some return to normalcy after SAT/ACT requirements are reinstituted, assuming that happens. Meanwhile, this phenomenon is just one more example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped higher education in unprecedented ways.

Feature Image: Jon Lovette / Stone / Getty Images