2020 Early College Application Numbers Defy Expectations

Early Decision and Early Action decisions just came in for the 2020 application season. The numbers are like, in the immortal words of Johnny Utah, woah.

The short version is: conventional wisdom, among college counselors and many other folks associated with college admissions, speculated that application would drop; instead, they’re up. In some cases, way up. That means admission rates are down. In some cases, way down.

At this point, anyone’s commentary amounts to a very hot take. But, some insights into admission rates and trends are emerging. A colleague of mine at Interface Education Services recently attended a webinar with admissions reps from Tufts, Boston University, and Northeastern (all are fairly selective colleges), and much of the following is a distillation of her notes, plus information I’ve gleaned from elsewhere, including media reports, webinars with professional organizations (including IECA), and discussions with friends involved with admissions.

The Predictions

For much of this wretched year, conventional wisdom held that applications would be down this year, for a few reasons:

In March and April, pretty much every element of the economy plummeted, so it was assumed fewer families would be able to afford college tuition. This was expected to hit ED especially hard, since families would not want to commit without knowing how much financial aid they’d get.

Many colleges expected that their applicant pools would be more geographically limited, with fewer students willing to travel long distances.

International applications would be down, for obvious reasons.

Colleges might have fewer spots because of a large number of students admitted last year opting to take gap years.

The Reality

The reality was basically the opposite of expectations, at least at selective colleges:

Northeastern’s ED pool was up 5%. Northeastern offers Early Action too. Their EA pool was up 14%.

Boston University’s ED pool was up 12%.

Tufts’ was up 17%.

These numbers are nothing compared to those of some ultra-selective colleges.

Harvard’s (restricted) EA applications were up 57%.

Penn’s ED applications were up 47%. Yale’s REA increase was about the same.

And then there’s MIT: up 62% for (unrestricted) early action.

We are accustomed to marginal increases every year, mainly following demographic trends. These numbers are staggering.

Some reasons:

While lower-income Americans are struggling, many families in the middle and upper tiers have done unexpectedly well during the pandemic, thanks in part to the stock market and real estate market. The New York Times reports that applications for financial aid are down in the aggregate this year, meaning that many families who would have applied for financial aid in normal years are not applying to college at all this year.

People seem to have settled into Zoom life and accepted that either travel will return to normal soon, or Zoom will suffice for the time being. Either way, the geographic concerns have not seemed to pan out. Moreover, colleges’ online marketing tools — such as virtual tours and info sessions — may have broadened their applicant pools and eliminated the advantage that students who visit in-person usually have.

Here’s an interesting geographic quirk: Tufts’ ED deadline was November 15, well after Election Day. Their rep said that they got a flood of international applicants who submitted after it became apparent that Biden was going to win. (On the assumption that the Biden administration will be friendlier to international students than a second Trump administration would have been.)

Most importantly: Test-optional policies seem to have increased applications significantly at many schools. Why? Students with relatively low scores who might otherwise have considered their applications longshots felt freer to apply on the merits of their grades (and everything else).

It’s also likely that some schools’ EA numbers, especially MIT’s, Harvard’s, and Yale’s, were inflated in part because Princeton suspended EA this year. You can safely assume that many students who would have applied EA to Princeton instead applied to one of the other ultra-selective EA schools.

UCs and Cal States reflect this trend dramatically. UC and CSU applications were due only a few weeks ago, and results won’t come out for months, but the preliminary numbers show that UC applications are up 15% and CSU applications are down 5% (with numbers down particularly at low-income CSU campuses). UCs skew wealthier while CSU skew poorer. The UCs previously relied heavily on standardized testing, so the absence of that requirement surely had a major impact on students with strong grades but weak test scores. This LA Times article offers a thorough analysis.

I have not seen numbers on international students. I suspect that applications from some countries and/or to some colleges are down. There seems, though, to be a bit of a moral hazard afoot in some places, meaning that applicants changed their behavior according to circumstances, and that behavioral change may have backfired in the aggregate. This note is from a colleague in Europe: “Here it was less about SATs and more about the assumption there would be less competition. I have heard that a lot as a reason people were putting in reaches for the US and applying to the most competitive in the UK.”

Admission Rates

All of the above means that admission rates at many colleges were even lower than in years past. I would guess that nobody, including the college admissions people themselves, expected this.

Here’s a chart with application numbers for some notable schools.

Harvard is not on that list, and I don’t like focusing on Harvard because it already gets too much attention in popular lore. But their numbers are instructive: their EA admission rate was 7.6%. This is astonishingly low for EA. That’s because applications were up like crazy, and they chose to admit fewer students than in years past. Here’s a quote from The Crimson:

“The College invited 747 of 10,086 early applicants to join its Class of 2025. Last year, the College accepted 895 of 6,424 applicants. The number of applicants increased by 57 percent from last year, while the College admitted 148 fewer students.”

Basically, this means that Harvard admitted almost no one other than recruited athletes, first-generation students to whom they can offer generous financial aid (rightfully so), and truly extraordinary, unusual applicants. They admitted the students they felt were necessary, and they’re letting everyone else chill until regular decision. We can assume that case was similar at other ultra-selective EA schools.

(These numbers, and the madness, effort, and, sometimes, frustration they represent have prompted a New York Times commentator to wonder whether admission to highly selective universities should be by randomized lottery. It’s a compelling question. I do not think it should be, but I do think reforms are warranted. That’s a topic for another blog…)

One important note: A good number of last year’s high school seniors opted to take gap years this year, meaning they will enter in September 2021. Colleges have been notably mute about how this bubble of gap-year students are affecting their capacity for this year’s applicants. Many colleges may come up with plans to accommodate everyone. For instance, they might add temporary housing or add summer sessions in 2022. Or they might encourage some of this year’s admitted students to take gap years. Or they may, in fact, end up offering fewer spots to this year’s applicants.

Test-Optional Applicants

Given the increase in applicants without test scores, it’s reasonable to ask whether they had an advantage or disadvantage over those who did. The answer seems to be: neither.

Tufts, BU, and Northeastern all report that the percentage of students without test scores whom they admitted was basically the same as the percentage who didn’t submit scores in the first place. Roughly 25% — 35% of applicants submitted scores at Northeastern and BU; 44% submitted scores at Tufts (which is quite a bit more selective than NU and BU). Needless to say, more people in an applicant pool makes for a tougher pool and tougher decisions.

The advantage, though, may lie in students’ decision to apply in the first place. The absence of testing requirements enabled students who had low test scores to apply to — and in some cases, get into — schools they may otherwise have considered unattainable.

Among the students who didn’t submit test scores, many were from lower income tiers and/or were first-generation college applicants (meaning their parents did not go to college). This surge suggests that, as critics long contended, standardized testing is a barrier to these students. Omitting test scores therefore increased equity in the applicant pool and probably among admitted students. Many colleges, especially those with strong financial aid programs, are eager to admit first-generation and low-income students. So, it’s very likely that many of these non-test applicants were very attractive to the colleges, even without test scores.

Some numbers published in Dartmouth’s student newspaper bear this out: “of the 566 admits, 36% are Black, Indigenous or people of color, 16% are first-generation and 14% live outside of the U.S. — all early decision records [emphasis added]…. a record 26% come from low-income families.”

I salute first-generation and low-income students who were assertive enough to apply and fortunate enough to get into highly selective schools. It’s not easy. But, as I’ve written before, it is very much possible for students of modest means to eclipse those who seemingly have all the advantages in the world.

Commentary & Analysis

Here are some insights that the college reps shared. Again, this information is secondhand, but I trust the source, and it’s consistent with other buzz I’ve heard.

They relied more on transcripts and recommendations from counselors/teachers to understand the school year and how the curriculum and/or teaching format changed because of the pandemic. (Not a surprise.)

“Demonstrated interest” and “why essays” were important, meaning the colleges appreciated when applicants had done their homework even in the absence of in-person visits. (This is true every year, though we had expected colleges to treat demonstrated interest a little more loosely this year because of the lack of campus visits. But, colleges have many methods of tracking students electronically.)

Admissions officers were interested in how students pivoted during the pandemic and made contributions and engaged with their communities. For instance, they appreciated musicians who taught lessons to younger kids via video or athletes who switched to coaching or community service. (I get this, but, of course, these opportunities depend on what is available and safe.)

The most worthwhile covid essays (an optional section on the Common App) were those that discussed genuine hardships and/or significant changes in home life. (I don’t think this means that covid essays on more mundane topics are bad, but it does mean that readers might treat them as neutral.)

Tufts revealed that they deferred 8% of students and, therefore, denied roughly 75% of candidates. “If we don’t think they will be competitive, we deny and want them to move on,” said the rep. This approach may sound unforgiving in the moment. But, I think it makes sense. It’s far better for students to approach RD seriously and soberly than for them to hold out false hope. (Likewise, Tufts admissions staff doesn’t want to be bogged down by thousands of applicants who are never going to get in.)

Here’s something admissions reps may or may not admit: the burden of evaluating applications was probably immense.

If a college’s ED/EA applications are up 20%, 30%, or — perish the thought — 60%, there’s no way that college can add admissions staff to keep pace. That means each admissions officer must read that many more applications and has that much less time to spend considering any given application. Also, while standardized test scores are problematic, they are definitely useful. Low scores can help colleges eliminate significant swaths of their applicant pools quickly to quickly determine which applicants are going to get serious consideration. In the absence of scores, admission officers have to scrutinize applications much more carefully.

These factors mean that, in the aggregate, admissions officers are working harder than ever. What does that mean for their decisions? They might be more random than ever before. Or they might abide by predetermined institutional priorities (more first-generation students; more students from Nebraska; more anthropology majors; etc…) more strictly than ever before.

Regular Decision

The obvious question is, how do these trends bear on regular decision applications? As with everything, it’s hard to make predictions. But here are some ideas…

I expect that many selective colleges will get surges in RD just as they did in ED, for the same reasons. Therefore, I think we can expect admission rates to drop compared to previous years. I do not think this should change students’ categories of “reach, match (or “50/50”), and safety (or target)”. But, I think we have to assume that a given applicant’s chances will be slightly lower in each category.

This may mean that students should add a school or two, particularly at the less selective end. It may also mean removing 1–2 super-reaches, or, at least, assigning them the lowest priority. Highly selective schools tend to have complex applications, so you don’t want to spend time and effort on a super-reach at the expense of applications to more attainable schools. No matter what, I encourage students not to fall in love with any one school, especially in the regular round, and especially if that school is highly selective. It’s far healthier for students to get excited about their entire slate of applications and about what they’re going to learn in college, not where they’re going to go.

Substantively, I encourage students not to read too much into a deferral or even a rejection. Those decisions reflect colleges’ constraints — they have only so many spots — rather than an individual student’s worthiness. A student’s application can be perfectly strong — with great essays, appropriate recommendation letters, well-structured activity lists, and all the rest — and still not yield the desired result. As with many things in life, college admissions depends on circumstance and countless factors over which applicants have no control (being born in the early 2000s and growing up to attend 12th grade during a pandemic is but one example). A deferral or rejection does not necessarily mean students should change anything about their approaches or writing.

With that said, if a student gets inspired (by, say, a new essay topic), has accomplished something notable in the past two months, or had a personal or intellectual revelation, the student can absolutely update applications accordingly.

There’s a clear message in favor of demonstrated interest. So, if students aren’t yet on mailing lists or haven’t attended virtual tours, they should do so ASAP.

Based on these trends, though, I do want to be clear: students’ top-choice colleges may be less attainable than we thought. (Wellness guru Brené Brown says, “clear is kind; unclear is unkind”; that’s been a mantra of mine for a long time)

That’s OK.

As I tell my students as often as I can: everyone will go to great colleges. Everyone can and will be happy and successful. And anyone who can be happy and successful at his or her first-choice college should be just as eager and determined to be happy and successful at his or her most unexpected safety school. Students need to do their best, make good choices, and the process will work out for the best.

Post-Script

I am of course thrilled for students who got admitted to EA and ED schools (whether they’re my students or not). I’m also proud of my students who worked hard on applications, made smart choices, and didn’t get in. I encourage students to extend the same attitude to their friends and classmates.

It’s easy to be jealous of and competitive with friends who were admitted. But jealousy doesn’t solve anything, and competitiveness can get out of control. Likewise, I hope students are not frustrated at colleges that rejected them. Students can’t control colleges’ decisions, but they can control their own attitudes. The college admission process is tough, and it sometimes relies as much on luck as it does on accomplishment and effort.

Humility, mutual support, and encouragement are more valuable than any college acceptance, especially in this very strange, very challenging year. Let’s all try to make this an excellent adventure.

This piece has been updated since its original publication.

Josh Stephens is a longtime educator based in Los Angeles. He has advised domestic and international students on college applications for over a decade. He blogs about college admissions and essay-writing on Medium and the Huffington Post. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Princeton University and his Master of Public Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of the recently published book The Urban Mystique. He can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

Image of Trinity College Dublin library courtesy of Urko Donsorro on Flickr.