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Will 2020 Deferrals Hurt Acceptance Rates for the Class of 2021?

This year has looked extremely different from years past. The college process has been impacted in many different ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, with SAT and ACT test dates getting canceled, schools teaching remotely, and so on.


This year, we also saw a rise in the number of students who are deferring enrollment. How will that affect acceptance rates going forward? Here’s what to know.


How Many Students Deferred Their Enrollment Due to COVID-19?


Many selective colleges and universities are seeing a dramatic deferral rate increase this year. Harvard, for example, had a deferral rate of 20 percent.


Harvard previously saw a yield — the percentage of admitted students who chose to matriculate — of 84 percent. But as many students decided to defer admission or not enroll because of COVID-19, that yield dropped to 81 percent as of late June.


At the University of Wisconsin—Madison, 150 students deferred admission, more than double the typical deferrals (70).


According to a Carnegie Dartlet survey of 2,800 high school seniors conducted in May, 33 percent of students said they would defer or completely forgo an offer of admission if the college went entirely online. 


It’s unclear, however, how many students ended up deferring overall, and it likely varies quite a bit by the school. Nonetheless, it seems that enough students have deferred to worry this year’s college applicants. Will this impact their admissions rates?


What Do These Deferrals Mean for 2020 College Applicants?


Number of Applicants Accepted


Of course, the future is uncertain, but we at CollegeVine predict that the total number of accepted students at each institution will be on par with previous years. This will likely lead to a larger freshman class, including the students who deferred. We expect many selective schools like Harvard to have a freshman class that is 10-25 percent larger than those of previous years. 


Financial Implications


Because colleges need student revenue to continue to operate, colleges are unlikely to consider lowering their admission rates. In fact, they’re actually spending as much as they’re earning.


So, why can’t colleges with huge endowments tap into them to weather this storm? It’s because the majority of these endowments are restricted funds, meaning they’re designated for specific purposes. Except for a small percentage of the funds, they can’t just use the money for whatever needs it the most.

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Amount of Resources for the Incoming Class


This year’s incoming freshman class (Class of 2024) is smaller than in previous years, meaning competition for resources — such as housing and faculty — may not be as stiff as you imagine when you enter as a freshman in 2021, even if your class size is bigger than normal. You won’t be contending with as many sophomores living in campus housing or attending your courses. 


Smaller, less selective colleges may have a more difficult time spreading the resources, which could mean that these schools won’t be able to accept “supersized” freshman classes in this coming admissions cycle.


There are some downsides to admitting more students. Some colleges might respond by increasing class or course sizes, which isn’t ideal. Moreover, you might see more competition for internships and research positions.


Advice for 2020 Applicants


While we expect 2020 acceptance rates to be similar to those of previous years, there are definitely peculiarities of this admissions cycle. Here’s our advice for this year’s applicants.


1. If you have test scores, submit any that are close to the 25th percentile.


Many colleges post their middle 50% SAT and ACT score ranges. Because so many test dates were canceled due to COVID-19, most students were unable to take standardized tests more than once, if they were able to do so at all. That means that average scores will likely be lower this year than in previous years, so scores that seem low compared to the cited test scores may actually be comparatively higher against those in the admissions pool. 


In particular, we recommend submitting your scores if:


  • Your SAT score is within 60 points of the 25th percentile for that school.
  • Your ACT score is within 3 points of the 25th percentile for that school.


If you haven’t been able to take the SAT or ACT or have considerably lower scores, then don’t worry — because most colleges have gone test-optional this year, you won’t be penalized for not submitting scores.


For more advice on the test optional policies, see our post: Should You Apply Test-Optional in 2020?


2. Don’t write your essay about COVID-19.


Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. You and other students have certainly faced plenty of challenges during the pandemic. Still, it’s not the best topic for your essay unless you’ve faced truly unique circumstances because of COVID. The purpose of your essay is to stand out, and if you write about something that everyone has experienced, you’ll blend in. Moreover, if you haven’t faced unique obstacles because of the pandemic, you could risk coming across as tone-deaf, since many people have dealt with far worse consequences.


For more advice, see our post: Should You Write Your Essay About COVID-19?


3. Remember that everyone is dealing with the pandemic.


Perhaps your grades dropped because of pandemic-induced stress. Maybe you weren’t able to take the SAT or ACT since so many test dates were canceled. No doubt, you’ve experienced some kind of fallout from COVID-19. And you’re not alone.


Colleges know that this year has been an extremely difficult one for everyone, and they’re not going to penalize you for circumstances beyond your control. Now, just focus on what you can do — create the best application possible with what you do have to show for yourself.


Feeling overwhelmed by the college process during these unprecedented times? CollegeVine can help. Create your free CollegeVine account to find out your chances of admission to more than 500 colleges, get tips on how to write your essays, hear from real students at your dream school, and much more.

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.