A Record Number of College Applications This Year! How Can You Stand Out in the Crowd?

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: March 31, 2021

Early on in the pandemic, as college students fled home, the forecast for the future of universities turned to gloom and doom. A year later, such talk of their demise proved premature. Not only are many colleges surviving, but larger, more competitive, and Ivy League colleges saw application numbers skyrocket in 2020; on the other hand, selective and smaller institutions saw declines.

For example, New York University (NYU) received more than 100,000 applications, setting a new single-year record for private universities in the United States. Applications to Colgate, a liberal arts college in Upstate New York, saw an incredible 102% increase in applications. Here are a few other examples of the increases in application volume over the previous year:

  • Harvard – 42%
  • Dartmouth – 33%
  • UC Berkeley – 28%
  • University of Virginia – 15%

An interesting note: While applications from China decreased, overall, international application numbers saw a substantial increase despite the pandemic.

Numbers also soared for Early Action and Early Decision applications, as exemplified in the graph below:

Early Decision by College

So, What’s Going On?

Undoubtedly, the biggest change in the college application process this past year was the fact that the majority of schools went “test optional,” meaning applicants were not required to submit ACT or SAT scores. Students took advantage! Only 44% submitted scores this year, compared to 77% last year. When you add to this option the ease of applying to additional schools through the Common Application or Coalition Application, students chose to take a shot at universities where previously they might not have had a chance because of sub-par SAT or ACT score. Overall, students applied to more schools, including more “stretch” schools.

So far, what we’ve seen is that the year’s larger pool of applications has translated into more students being deferred and wait-listed by their top-choice schools. Colleges are hedging their bets because the pandemic has created much uncertainly about which accepted applicants will actually say “Yes!” to a college’s admission offer (the infamous “yield” of attendees from the overall pool of accepted students). We’ve also seen that even in the test-optional approach, having a solid test score matters and can set you apart from others who have not submitted one. For example, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 15% of its early decision applicants. Only ⅔ of those applicants submitted SAT or ACT scores, but ¾ of those admitted submitted scores – a significant advantage for score-submitters. Georgetown received 8,700 applications for restrictive early action and admitted 11% of them – including only 7.34% of whom did not submit SAT or ACT scores.

What Does All This Mean for Future Applicants?

A number of selective colleges have already announced that they’ll continue on the test-optional path for current high school juniors including Amherst, Cornell, Harvard, Syracuse, Tulane, USC, U Maryland, WashU, and Yale, among others. Without test scores to evaluate, college admissions officers have the daunting task of comparing applicants based on their academic rigor and achievement, extracurricular engagement, essays, and recommendations. How do you stand out when there are so many more applications without test-score, and fewer criteria on which to evaluate applicants? First and foremost, don’t get discouraged! We have been guiding students for many years and no matter the annual changes, one thing remains the same: you will find your way to college, and more likely than not, it will be one that fits you well.

We are here to support you along the way. In this competitive environment, here are a few quick tips for creating a stand-out application…

  • Aim for an SAT/ACT score you’ll want to submit. While other students are opting out, your goal should be to prepare extensively to give yourself the best chance of getting a score that is within the mid-50% range (or higher) of your top-choice colleges.
  • Focus on doing well on other standardized tests. Universities want to know that you’re capable of handling rigorous college-level work, and that you’ve mastered your high school material. We suspect that more than ever, your scores on AP, IB, AICE, and other standardized tests will be used as indicators of academic abilities.
  • Create a personal project that showcases your unique talents or passion. This is not as challenging as it sounds – and can be a lot of fun. If you’re not sure where to start, we have counselors who specialize in helping you brainstorm and create impactful projects that will demonstrate to colleges your leadership, commitment, and impact.
  • Start thinking about college application essays, especially your personal statement that all your colleges will read, and the “Why this particular college?” essay that many colleges require. Brainstorm unique, engaging topics with your parents, teachers, and college counselor.
  • Develop relationships with two core academic teachers so they can sing your praises in their recommendations. How? Participate as much as possible in class, asking good questions and volunteering thoughtful answers; seek out these teachers to discuss in greater depth classroom topics you find particularly intriguing; find ways to help other students in your class.

Remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Whether you need tutoring to improve your grades; test prep for the SAT, ACT, AP, IB, or AICE exams; or guidance through part or all of the college application process, we are dedicated to supporting you, easing the stress, and helping maximize your potential for admission to your top-choice colleges. Contact us for more information!

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Topics: College Counseling Coronavirus


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