The Pandemic Has Thrown this College Application Cycle Into Chaos

The promise of on-campus learning and return of 'gap year' students has led to a flood of applications—and a record number of rejections.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
April 8, 2021, 2:47pm
Rear view of large group of students raising arms during a class at amphitheater. - stock photo

After over a year of remote learning and a lot of admission deferrals, colleges across the U.S. are now fielding, and reportedly rejecting and waitlisting, record numbers of applicants, especially at the country’s top private and public schools. 

According to data provided to the Wall Street Journal by the Common App, a system students use to apply to multiple schools at once, more students applied to more schools this year. Roughly the same number of students applied to four-year colleges and universities, but each student cast a wider net and applied to an average of 5.8 schools, up 17 percent from previous, non-pandemic years. 

The most competitive four-year colleges and universities were hit the hardest, possibly due to the fact that most schools didn’t require applicants to submit SAT and ACT scores this year. (Though, as writer Jeff Selingo pointed out on Twitter, schools have yet to disclose how many admitted students were among those who didn’t submit test scores.) 

One reason for the huge surge in applications could be the cautious optimism that on-campus learning will return this fall. Four months ago, when most applications were due, it was still unclear how successful the vaccine rollout would be, and when or if the pandemic would continue to surge into the next school year. Prospective students may have cast a wider net simply to up the odds of winding up at a school with on-campus learning in fall 2021. In recent weeks, many schools, including Harvard and Columbia, announced a return to on-campus living and learning, which is certainly an incentive for students who’ve been doing remote class for the past three semesters. As college students previously told VICE, Zoom college—while a necessary precaution amid the pandemic—felt like a waste of time and money, and they would’ve preferred being on campus if possible. 

 As a result, waitlists are also now reportedly longer than ever, due to schools being concerned that higher than normal numbers of applicants will decline their admission in favor of another school. “With students applying to more schools, enrollment officers are worried about whether or not students intend to enroll at their institutions,” Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told Inside Higher Ed. “Students may apply to 15 schools, but in the end, they can only show up at one.”

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Harvard’s admission rate dropped to a staggering 3.6 percent—its lowest ever, due to a 43-percent surge in applicants. Part of the reason for the surge could be lower application and enrollment numbers from fall 2020, when it was clear that the pandemic would cause another full year of remote learning. Columbia University's acceptance rate dropped by almost half—down from 6.3 percent last year to just 3.7 percent for fall 2021—after the school received a record number of 60,551 applications. 

Unsurprisingly, the impact of an extraordinarily hellish college admissions season is creeping onto TikTok, where fall 2021 applicants have carved out an entire genre of college decision videos. A typical post involves a prospective student sharing their “stats,” AKA their GPA, test scores, and any notable extracurriculars, and then sharing which schools they were rejected and accepted by. Most of the TikToks are also focused on applications to fancy schools like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, UCLA, et cetera, highlighting the trend of concentrated applications at the country’s most competitive schools. Comments on the TikToks are usually kind and encouraging, and most come from a place of relatability—no one is getting in anywhere, despite hope that dropped test scores might create a more equitable admissions process. 

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