The COVID-19 pandemic changed how the collegiate world functions, including colleges and universities closing their campuses and switching to online learning. As a result, many students delayed their enrollment or chose online-only options.
For example, enrollment for first-year students at colleges and universities — which includes two- and four-year institutions and public and private schools — declined nearly 13%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Of this group, Native American, Hispanic, and Black students witnessed the most significant enrollment drops.
In 2022, the college admission trends include an unprecedented increase in college applicants, a decrease in college acceptance rates, the rise of test-optional schools, and the “human” part of the college application becoming more critical, among other factors.
Increase in College Applicants
The college admissions process has gotten more competitive for many institutions. Specifically, the number of applications submitted to schools rose just over 21% between the 2019–2020 and 2021–2022 school years, according to a March 2022 Common Application report.
Some contributing factors to the rise of applicants include college recruitment efforts and the implementation of test-optional policies. Students discouraged from applying due to lower test scores may decide to apply since they don’t have to report their ACT or SAT scores.
During COVID, colleges and universities looked at their process to understand what barriers existed for students, Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, told U.S. News in a June 2022 press release.
"One of the key challenges oftentimes for first-gen and underrepresented applicants is they may not have the same resources at home that other students might have,” Rickard said. “And when COVID happened, students weren't in school and that was often their lifeline to college applications.”
But when students returned to higher education institutions with more support, application numbers went up.
Decrease in College Acceptance Rates
Students wonder if it will be easier to get into college in 2022, but the answer is no. The class of 2026 college acceptance rate is at a record low, especially so for Ivy League colleges.
And more applicants translate to lower admit rates to keep the entering class size at a pre-determined number.
For example, undergraduate enrollment dropped 4.7% (over 662,000 students) compared to spring 2021, according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report. As a result, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4%, or nearly 1.4 million students, smaller than before the pandemic.
For example, Tufts University and Boston University overenrolled last year, so they were highly cautious this year with their number of admits. Many colleges stated that they were actively using wait lists to manage the entering class size better.
Additionally, Amherst College’s acceptance rate decreased from 12% to 7% from 2021 to 2022; Boston College’s acceptance rate dropped from 32% to 16%; Colgate College’s acceptance rate decreased from 27% to 12%, Harvard University’s acceptance rate fell from 5% to 3%, and Dartmouth College’s acceptance rate decreased from 10% to 6%, according to an April 2022 Prepory blog post.
Many colleges and universities recently decided to do away with standardized testing requirements, such as the SAT and ACT. Over three-quarters of colleges did not require either of these tests for admission this fall.
This trend was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students could not access testing sites. Notably, many colleges and universities getting rid of the standardized testing requirements are now turning towards holistic admissions.
Holistic admissions create a more equitable system for evaluating potential students. Rather than placing most of the consideration on traditional academic factors, a holistic approach includes factors captured in a standard admissions process.
Standardized tests have been a significant barrier for many students. Test-optional policies allow students to decide whether or not they want to submit standardized test scores. Still, institutions sometimes require these scores for international students, out-of-state students, or specific scholarships.
Overall, the decision to go test-optional opened the doors for more applicants, particularly students of color and low-income students.
For example, 15% of students reported that they applied to a college specifically because it was test-optional, according to a 2022 EAB report. That number was higher among applicants of color: 24% of Black students, 15% of Asian students, and 21% of Hispanic students applied to a school because of its test-optional policies.
Going into the 2023 school year, at least 1,400 institutions have already indicated that they will now require tests as part of the application process. The only variable in this equation is those final 400+ institutions that haven’t yet announced their testing policies for next year.
College Essays Become More Significant
Admissions officers see thousands of student applications with similar test scores, GPAs, and activities. Colleges and universities are increasingly interested in admitting diverse, vibrant student bodies, which is why “holistic” admission standards are so important.
College essays allow admissions officers to see how students spend their time outside the classroom, what they’re passionate about, and if a student meets or exceeds the school’s standards of GPA/test scores/activities.
A college essay works in concert with the other parts of the application. It tells a story about an applicant, shows their personality, conveys how they communicate, and helps admissions officers understand how a student could fit in on campus from a social aspect.
Essays are the only part of an application hand-crafted by each applicant using their own voice and words. Since test score requirements have become few and far between in higher education, it's difficult for admissions officers to gauge a student’s writing ability.
Therefore, the essay allows admissions officers to gauge students' grammar, word selection, flow, thought organization, and expression.
And while being a great student requires a mix of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness, and performance, one of the essential qualities a college looks for in a student is empathy.
A simple and easy way a student can convey empathy in a college application is through the essay portion. In the essay’s generally broad prompt, students must communicate the value of moving away from seeing the world strictly through their own eyes. Through their every interaction, there is another viewpoint present, too.
“Empathy is an important variable in the maintenance and improvement of our social fabric, and the academic sphere is no exception,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Talent Select AI in a recent interview.