The pandemic has created innumerable consequences, but who could have guessed that it would result in an exceptional increase in college applications for selective schools? The inability to take standardized tests in-person—and colleges adopting test-optional policies as a result—gave many students unrealistic hopes of being accepted to their dream school and led to an increase in applications to reach schools. In addition, restrictions created by the pandemic gave students more time to complete college applications while they were stuck at home. Finally, the lack of opportunity to visit colleges in-person may have led students to create longer college lists, as they hesitated to remove any colleges which they hadn’t had the chance to see for themselves.

This blog will explore the sharp rise in applications to America’s top schools and what applicants can continue to do to improve their chances.

Overall Applications at Many Selective Schools Are Up!


This year, some schools saw an astounding jump in overall apps, including Harvard (42%), Boston College (36%), Tufts (35%), and Penn (34%), just to name a few. Colgate received a 102% increase in overall apps, which is literally off the charts! More applications from diverse and international students are part of this surge. Many schools credited this rise in part to their test-optional policies, virtual outreach to students through online tours, and web-based talks with admissions staff, students, and faculty.

Jenny Rickard, President & CEO of the Common App, reported that there has been a 9% increase in the application per applicant ratio this year.

Some Schools Received Fewer Apps

On the flip side, not all schools received record-breaking applications. Bowdoin, which has had a test optional policy for a long time, saw a slight dip in applications. Loyola University Maryland had their apps decrease by 10%. According to Inside Higher Ed, “The larger and more competitive colleges and universities are having a good year and getting lots of applications. But smaller and less competitive colleges are not.”

Overall, the pressures of Covid-19 resulted in a national trend of a decline in enrollment. This was particularly true of public institutions that appeal to families with more limited financial resources. For example, applications to New York’s SUNY system were down 20% this year.

Many Applications Were Submitted Without Test Scores

At many schools, almost half of applicants did not submit test scores. How many of these applicants will gain admission remains to be seen. Adding a test-optional alternative led to a significant increase in applications for many colleges as students who either had no test scores or scores that were not competitive now felt they had a shot at acceptance.

Penn saw a staggering 34% increase in applications for the Class of 2025, including students who applied test-optional who may not have applied otherwise.  38% of Penn’s early decision applicants applied test-optional and of those admitted, only 24% did not submit test scores. Notre Dame also saw a rise in applications, with 11% increase overall; 49% of early applicants at Notre Dame chose test-optional, and 31% of the early admit pool did not submit test scores.

Interestingly, most colleges that became test-optional on a trial basis in response to Covid-19 have now committed to continuing their test-optional policies for the next one to three years – either because they feel that students continue to be limited in access to testing or because they benefitted from the increase in applications. The University of California system plans to phase out the use of the ACT and SAT, and this year UC-Berkeley adopted a “test-blind” policy, which means no test scores were considered for any applicant.

As of Feb. 15, 2021, the Common App reported that only 44% of applicants had submitted test scores with their applications, compared to 77% last year at that time.

Some Schools Will Delay Notification Dates

In response to the flood of applications, some schools will notify students of their admissions decisions by a later date than originally planned. For example, the Ivy League will now release admissions decisions on April 6, roughly a week later. Students will have two more days to notify colleges of their acceptance (May 3, instead of May 1).

The Squeeze on the Class of 2025

Many selective schools do not have plans to increase class size for the class of 2025, and there are many admitted students from the class of 2024 who chose to defer attendance for a year. At some schools, this will result in fewer spots for freshmen. Penn, for example, does not plan to go beyond the usual 2,400 class size of admitted students, and has 200 students from the class of 2024 who took a gap year. For perspective, in a normal year, Penn has only about 50 students  take a gap year.

Takeaways and Next Steps

The overall increase in applications will undoubtedly cause unprecedented selectivity at already competitive schools. The early admissions process also saw a spike in applications to selective schools, resulting in a large number of deferrals.

Yield, the percentage of students who accept offers of admission, has already declined in recent years. For example, Stanford’s yield declined from over 80% to under 70% from 2019 to 2020; Princeton’s from over 70% to 62%, and Yale’s from nearly 70% to 55%. For the Class of 2025, yield will be even more difficult to predict, and colleges will most likely draw more students from wait lists. See the chart below.

Last year, after the pandemic began, yield for the Class of 2024 declined at many selective schools. According to Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, “The wait lists are going to be obnoxious this year.” He expects them to be long and active, with colleges turning to them in April and continuing to do so until well into the summer.

The main takeaway may be: Be patient as the process unfolds.

In the meantime, here are a few ways you can strengthen your regular admissions chances:

  • Continue to engage in your high school courses and earn high grades.
  • If you are deferred or waitlisted, send letters to your top colleges expressing your continued interest. If the college is your clear first choice, say that you would attend if accepted. Mention any updates, such as awards, special academic achievements, or extracurricular projects that have occurred since you submitted your original application.
  • Review each college’s admissions website to learn specifically what follow-up information they would like to receive, including additional recommendations and test scores. Nearly all colleges will accept informational updates that help them assess your candidacy from a fresh perspective.

As you await your final college decisions, remember to trust in the process, and remind yourself that you have done all you can to maximize your chances of success. Have faith that you will have an exciting range of college options for this fall.

At Collegiate Gateway, we know how difficult this period of waiting for college decisions can be. We are happy to guide you developing a “best-fit” college list that will help you develop your potential and position you for success! Sign up for a free consultation and see our events schedule for virtual presentations geared toward high school students.