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Key Changes to College Admissions Since 2020

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Vinay Bhaskara in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


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The COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to increasing discussions on making higher education more equitable, caused some dramatic shifts in college admissions. This article will discuss some of the key changes since 2020.


Trend 1: Lower Acceptance Rates


The first trend in college admissions is that acceptance rates at many colleges have fallen. Colleges across the country became more competitive during the pandemic. For example, in 2020, all of the Ivy League colleges accepted an average of 4.3% of applicants, and 17 other top colleges now have an acceptance rate below 10%. Though some pandemic-related trends have been toned down, such as more students taking gap years and an increase in homeschooling, acceptance rates have not bounced back since the pandemic’s height.


That means that there are a lot of schools where 90% or more of applicants are getting rejected. And it’s not just the usual suspects — not only do schools like the University of Chicago and Harvard have lower acceptance rates, but even schools like Northeastern University, Florida State University, and Tulane University saw plummeting acceptance rates. 


There are a lot of colleges that are following this trend and starting to become quite competitive, when just five or six years ago they had acceptance rates in the 25-30% range. Take the University of Georgia as an example — its acceptance rate dropped from 54% in 2016 to 41% in 2022. 


Trend 2: Test-Optional Policies


Part of what has driven this rising competitiveness is the increased prevalence of test-optional and test-blind admissions policies. Nearly every college in the country now has some form of test-optional policy, which essentially allows applicants to opt out of submitting an SAT or ACT score. 


Though there are some schools that are exceptions to the trend, such as MIT, which recently reinstated its SAT score requirement, the appearance of over 1,700 test-optional schools has encouraged more students to apply to college in general. Schools like CalTech, which have gone test-blind and no longer consider SAT or ACT scores at all in the admissions process, have seen an even higher increase in applications each cycle.


The prevailing thinking among applicants is that applying test-optional will give them the same chances of admission to colleges. This is not necessarily true, since the data suggests that even though many colleges are test-optional on paper, test score submissions are strongly encouraged in practice and can significantly increase an applicant’s odds of being awarded a merit scholarship. In general, taking the SAT or ACT is still a good idea, as submitting a high score can result in a real boost in an applicant’s chances.


Trend 3: A Focus on Diversity


The final trend that has been taking place is that social justice has become more important to the admissions process. George Floyd’s death in 2020 and its aftermath motivated colleges to intensely focus on diversifying their incoming classes. This has wide-ranging effects on how colleges evaluate applicants.


First, if a student has something on their resume that goes against the ethos of social justice, it can, and increasingly is, being held against them. For example, if a student is a part of a political advocacy group which argues against diversity being a strength, their odds of admission will be decreased. In these cases, colleges’ intensified focus on social justice is used as a negative factor against applicants.


On the flip side, if a student is a part of a demographic that benefits from affirmative action, their chances will be increased. Belonging to an underrepresented minority group can even make up for some of an applicant’s weaknesses.


As can be seen from these examples, the increased importance that colleges are placing on social justice has positive implications for some students and negative ones for others.