Over the last ten to fifteen years, admission rates for most colleges have declined, but over the 2021 and 2022 admissions cycles, these drops have been especially large. The long-term trend can be accredited partially to the rise of the common application—which allows students to apply to multiple schools with one application—whose online version has steadily gained popularity since it was first introduced in the 1990s. The test-optional policy implemented by most colleges for the class of 2021 has also led many students to apply to more schools than they otherwise would have since they don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores. This means schools receive more applications, and as a result, accept a smaller portion of applicants. 

Northeastern University received just over 64 thousand applications for fall 2020, more than 75 thousand applications for fall 2021, and about 91 thousand applications for fall 2022. Over just two years, they saw an increase of over 27 thousand applications, and both the 2021 and 2022 admissions cycles broke the previous school record of application numbers. UCLA saw a similar trend over the last couple of years. They received about 135 thousand applications for fall 2020, 168 thousand for fall 2021, and 175 thousand for fall 2022. Due to an increased number of applications and a fixed number of spots, acceptance rates for these colleges and many others experiencing a similar trend have decreased. 

“Northeastern University received 70,000 applications last year, so that number alone is going to make any person nervous about the application process. That’s essentially twice the population of Wellesley plus 10,000 people,” said high school counselor Dr. John Steere. 

Wellesley seniors this year have experienced this trend first-hand and noted how selective the college admissions has been. Speaking to a table of eight seniors, almost every one shared that they got rejected from many schools, including schools they applied to with early decision (ED) or early action (EA). 

“I think I’ve gotten into about three schools, and been rejected by about ten,” said an anonymous senior.

Over the past few years, individual students have generally applied to more schools. Colleges, as a result, are receiving more applications yet, despite this trend, their class sizes remain the same. Because of the common application, applying to more schools is easier than ever, which incentivizes some students to apply to schools whether or not they truly could see themselves going there. 

“You see more and more students who have longer lists and I think that’s because they are struggling to get into schools that the high school students typically apply to,” said Dr. Steere. 

One anonymous senior did not even know the exact number of schools she applied to, but she knew it was more than twenty. 

“I applied to a lot of schools because I was nervous about declining admission rates from last year,” she said. “I would say that it’s very normal for students to apply to ten or more schools.” 

Abraham Budson-McQuilken ’22 thinks a solution to this problem would be for institutions to increase their class sizes and admit more students to combat rising application numbers. Even though more students than ever are applying to college, many institutions have not significantly increased their class sizes for decades, despite the fact that most colleges, especially historically prestigious ones, have massive endowments that would allow them to do so. 

“This creates a situation where people are not able to get into the same schools their parents were able to get into with the same grades and high school performance,” said Budson-McQuilken.

Additionally, the number of students who take a gap year after high school practically tripled nationwide due to the pandemic. At some institutions, that number has increased tenfold. Since these students have already gained admission to the class that current high school seniors are applying to, the number of class spots is reduced even before application season starts. 

Due to the ongoing pandemic, most colleges instituted a test-optional policy for admissions, which lets students choose whether or not they would like to submit an SAT or ACT score as part of their application. Data from the common app revealed that only nineteen percent of students submitted test scores to every institution they applied to. This also contributes to the overall increase in applications.

“We’re seeing higher numbers of applicants at more selective schools because of the test optional policies, which leads to more and more schools having larger applicant pools because students think that they have a better chance at a particular school without the quantitative score,” said Steere. 

For students in the classes of 2023 and 2024, this trend may be concerning as they approach their own college admissions cycles. And although it is likely that these low acceptance rates will remain for the next five to ten years, Steere has also noticed that more students are questioning the traditional path of going to college. Many are considering different routes after high school, he noted. 

“The college landscape is shifting, more people are now wondering if they should go to school online or wondering about going the vocational route. I do think that the trend is going in a different direction—more and more people questioning if it really means something to attend college,” said Dr. Steere. 

With fewer students applying to schools, acceptance rates may level out in the future. 

Although decreasing acceptance rates can make a high school student preparing to apply to college anxious, Dr. Steere affirms that students are still able to find post-secondary plans that work for them and there is no need to be overly anxious about the college admissions process.

“Students are still finding the right fit for themselves,” he said.

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