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12 College Admissions Trends to Watch

Suzanne Shaffer


If you have a college-bound high school junior, the current admissions trends will affect your student as they apply to college in the fall.

2021 brought tremendous change in college admissions in large part because of the pandemic. Campuses fluctuated from in-person, online, and hybrid learning throughout the year. Test-optional admission policies evolved because of uneven (and sometimes unavailable) standardized testing opportunities.

Understanding college admission trends can help you and your student make informed choices as you begin finalizing their college list in the fall. Examining the trends should always be a key factor during the college prep process.

12 Trends to Watch

1. Applications Will Continue to Increase

Inside Higher Ed reports that the Common Application, which is widely used by over 900 colleges, saw an increase in applications this past year. As of February 15, over 1 million distinct first-year applicants applied to college, an increase of 13.9 percent over 2019–20 numbers.

The Common App Reports and Insights shows there were substantial increases in underrepresented minorities and first-generation applicants. Minority applications increased 21 percent; first-generation applications increase at nearly twice the rate of other applicants over the same period. International applicants nearly tripled the rate of domestic applicants.

What does this mean for your student? Increased applications means increased competition. Your student should position themselves to stand out in the applicant pool and be strategic in which colleges receive their application in the fall.

2. Applications Make Changes to Serve Trans and Non-Binary Students

Last year, the Common App announced changes to better serve transgender students. They added a question to give applicants the option of sharing their preferred first name, added a pronoun question, and shifted the presentation of questions from “sex” to “legal sex” to reduce confusion.

This year, they are making additional changes. Beginning with the 2022–23 application season, they will add “legal” to the first/given name question label. And beginning in the 2023–24 application season, Common App will add “X” or “another legal sex” as an option in addition to “female” and “male.”

Other college application services are also working to make their applications more inclusive and welcoming for trans and non-binary students. This is good news if you have an LGBTQ+ student and are concerned about their transition to college.

3. Test-Optional Colleges Are Now Mainstream

Test-optional colleges have abounded over the last decade. According to FairTest.org, as of fall 2021, over 65% of all bachelor-degree institutions in the United States are officially test-optional. The pandemic has been largely responsible for the acceleration in number of institutions going test-optional, but the temporary policies are taking hold and many colleges are making this policy permanent.

Test-optional policies generally provide students with more flexibility in how they position themselves in the college admissions process. Test-optional doesn’t necessarily mean "test-blind," however. Just because a school doesn’t require students to submit SAT or ACT scores doesn’t mean that a strong testing performance won’t work in a student's favor. If a college is “test-blind” it will not accept test scores and will not use them to influence an admission decision. Some colleges are “test-flexible,” meaning students can provide AP and IB test scores in lieu of their SAT or ACT.

According to the Boston Globe, “The widespread adoption of test-optional admissions is being applauded by civil rights and equity advocates, who say it removes a significant barrier to entry for students of low income, students of color, and first-generation students. They argue such policies should become permanent.”

4. Waitlists Will Continue to Grow

College waitlists have been extremely active of late. The waitlist is the last line of defense for colleges protecting themselves from declining yield rates.

According to a recent study, “the number of students admitted from the waitlist rose 97% from 22,223 in 2019 to 43,867 in 2020.” This past year, the trend continued.

Wait lists can be perceived as good news or bad news. On the one hand, if your student is waitlisted, there is a possibility they will be offered admission. It’s an opportunity for students to assess their options. If the school is your student’s top choice, they should be proactive and communicate that with the college. On the other hand, waitlists are a gamble. Your student should always carefully consider the other colleges who offered them admission.

5. Colleges Will Continue to Attract International Students

Colleges across the country took huge hits in international student enrollment during the 2020–21 school year due to travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic. During the 2020–2021 admissions cycle, international enrollment fell by as much as 43%.

After this dramatic downfall, international enrollment has more than rebounded during the 2021–2022 admissions cycle, with a reported 63% increase from the prior year.

Given the importance of students with varying perspectives and backgrounds, this influx of diversity could add tremendous value to college campuses across the U.S. and it’s expected colleges will pursue this diverse group in the upcoming admission season.

6. Expect Gap Years and Transfers to Continue

Even though COVID-19 numbers continue to decrease, parents and students might be hesitant to believe college campuses will return to normal. All the flip-flopping over the last two years has certainly made them reluctant to commit to paying for an expensive college education if that education changes again. Gap years could still be a viable option for many students.

In addition, there will continue to be high numbers of transfers. Many students who didn’t have a chance to tour a college before enrolling, or opted to attend a local community college, will be interested in transferring to schools that better meet their needs and goals.

7. Students and Families Will Still Focus on Value

Value is still a very important guiding metric when it comes to choosing where to apply to college. This became even more of a consideration during the past two admissions cycles, with families wondering if the cost was worth it to just be attending school online.

As a result of this increased emphasis on value, increasing numbers of applicants will be drawn to colleges with sizable financial aid, work-study programs, opportunities to graduate in three years as opposed to four, and colleges with lower net prices. Families may also focus on state schools, which are generally the more affordable option for students who live in the state.

8. AP Exams May Take a Bigger Role

SAT Subject II tests have been eliminated permanently. In the past, they were used to prop up course rigor and gaps in grades. They were used to show evidence of course mastery and college readiness. With their elimination, more emphasis will be placed on AP classes and AP test scores. Some colleges will look at AP scores to assess college readiness.

9. Diversity Policies Are Top Priority

Colleges are looking to improve their optics with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This will certainly affect their admissions policies. Therefore, record numbers of students who represent diversity in terms of race, income, disability, gender and other groups will be offered admission. This also includes first-generation students.

10. Legacy Preferences Are on the Way Out

Hand in hand with the priority to cast the net for talent as wide as possible is the trend at many schools, including Amherst College in Massachusetts, to abolish legacy preferences in admissions. This doesn't mean the children of alumni won't be accepted at elite institutions but they'll need to qualify for admission completely on their own merits.

11. Essays Will Play a More Significant Role

With more and more colleges making standardized test scores optional, the essay and supplemental essays in the college application will play a more significant role in the admissions decision.

In addition, the SAT essay has been discontinued and unless your student takes advantage of the ACT essay, admissions officers will only have their application essay when making an admissions decision.

Not only does this essay provide the college with unique information into the student’s background and abilities, it gives them the opportunity to gauge the student’s writing ability. The application essay can be a deciding factor in an admission officer’s decision to accept or deny admission.

12. Colleges Lagging in Vaccination Requirements May Suffer

Naturally, many parents are concerned about how the social life on campus and in the community could impact their student's health. If a college is located in a state or city where there are low vaccinations per capita or any kind of surge in COVID-19 variants, it’s possible that fewer students will apply to those schools.

Colleges with strict testing and vaccination guidelines may fare better among health-conscious families. For those states and colleges who aren’t pushing vaccination mandate requirements, there could be fewer applications.

For more information: List of Colleges That Require a Covid Vaccine >

Moving Forward

As you help your high school student compile a list of colleges to apply to, information is key, so consider these trends as you tour and research schools. The more you know about the current college admissions climate, the better you can tailor your student's application options and best-fit strategies.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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