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Last Updated On: July 1st, 2024

When colleges across the country made standardized test scores optional or even dropped the requirement altogether, many students figured it was their big chance to get into an elite school. Unfortunately for applicants, it actually had the opposite effect: Removing the hurdle of the SAT or ACT led to a rush of applicants, resulting in the lowest admission rates ever at the most competitive schools.

What happened?

The Ivy League schools all reported significant drops in their acceptance rates. For example, Harvard University’s acceptance rate dropped to 3.4% from 4.9% the year before. While the UC system has yet to release complete data, its most competitive schools seem to follow a similar pattern—record high applications (up 16.1% from the previous year), followed by record-low acceptance rates. Following the same pattern, USC’s rate dropped from 16% to 12%.

With all of the shake-ups to the norms during the 2020-21 school year and so much uncertainty about how colleges would judge applicants, it’s likely that many students looked at the more competitive schools and decided, “Why not?” The data support this hypothesis: While the number of applications submitted via the Common Application jumped by 11%, the number of students applying increased only 2.4%, meaning each student was applying to more schools.

While it might seem like a positive that the most competitive schools have their choice of applicants, it’s also created new challenges for admissions offices. With so many students applying, schools have had trouble estimating how many students lucky enough to be offered admission will accept. Because of this, record numbers of students have been waitlisted, and many of those on the waitlists might have a good chance of getting in.

So what does this all mean for current seniors?

First, if you’ve gotten into your top choice school(s), congratulations! You’ve achieved a feat that got even more difficult this year. If you’ve been waitlisted to your top choice, make sure the school knows you’re still interested, and that you will accept a spot if it’s offered.  (Don’t say this unless you really mean it!) Send a letter of continued interest, and continue to achieve in your school and extracurricular activities to show that you’re a top prospect and you haven’t been bogged down by senioritis.

If you didn’t get into any of your top schools, you still have options. While applications to the most competitive schools are high, many less competitive colleges saw applications decline, and community colleges have struggled with drops in enrollment. For a top student, the honors transfer program at community college can be an excellent way to take care of your general education requirements, save money, and earn a place as a transfer student at a highly competitive school. You might also consider enrolling in a “mid-tier” school like a Cal State, which can provide an excellent education for students who take advantage of everything the school has to offer.

What does this mean for other students?

If you’re currently a junior (or freshman or sophomore), this year has proven that removing the standardized test requirement has made admissions harder, not easier, for most students. The exception—perhaps—is for students with top grades and extracurriculars who struggle on standardized tests, but even these students are now being compared to a wider pool of applicants. If you can obtain a high score and are applying to a “test optional” school, it is probably beneficial to prepare and take the SAT or ACT. While a test score might no longer be the gatekeeper it once was, a strong score provides one more boost for your application, and applicants need all the boosts they can get. Regardless of test scores, you should identify two to three schools you would most like to attend where you have a reasonable chance of gaining admission and put extra effort into letting the school know you’re a good fit and that you’re likely to accept an admissions offer. Make sure to attend a college tour (virtual or in-person), spend extra time with any application supplements specific to that school (optional or required), engage with college events open to the public, and maybe even read and comment on the research papers written by professors in your major of interest. This lets the school know you’re really interested, and didn’t just check off one more “Why not?” box on the common application.

No matter what kind of news came into your Inbox this admissions cycle, every student deserves credit for navigating one of the most challenging years in history. All students who attend college next year—no matter the school—should feel proud of their accomplishments.

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