2021 College Admissions by the Numbers

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Julia de Raadt
Julia de Raadt

Julia has dedicated much of her career to education. Since commencing with Empowerly, Julia has looked after the research team which handles student questions on different topics about college admission.

2021 was a tough year for hopeful college applicants. The upheaval of the pandemic, which had truly set in (2020 applicants only felt its initial effects) really upended college admissions. Changes to grading and testing requirements, an international ban on travel, moving admission and college acceptance deadlines, and the switch to online learning had some jarring effects. Some colleges benefited, others wavered, and many students were left fretting over their chances of admission. Here are our key observations and an overview of the successes of our Empowerly’s students despite the setbacks.  

The most selective colleges experienced a dramatic increase in applications.

In recent data released by the Common App, the number of applications increased by 11%, however the number of applicants rose by a mere 2%. This means the same number of students as last year sent out more applications, 9% more applications to be precise. Most applications were received by the more selective colleges. The nation’s most-selective four-year colleges and universities saw a record-breaking 17% increase in applications this year, according to the Common App. Harvard University received 57,000 applications, up 42% over last year. Brown University application numbers increased by 26% and UC Berkeley totalled more than 112,000, up 28 percent

Less competitive colleges received fewer applications.

While larger and more competitive institutions experienced an increase in applications, less competitive and smaller colleges didn’t fare so well. The Common App reported that schools with more than 20,000 students saw increases of 16% on average, yet those with enrollments under 1,000 dropped 4%. The chancellor of State University of New York system, stated that the SUNY system had seen an application decline this year of “20 percent, one of the largest annual decreases in the system’s 73-year history.”  At California State University, applications decreased by 5%, with Cal Poly Pomona seeing 40% fewer applications. 

Nearly half of all applicants did not self-report test scores through the Common App.

With almost all colleges going test optional, many students either didn’t submit scores because they didn’t take the test or chose not to.  This season, only 46% self-reported a test score to Common App compared to 77% in the last season. For some students, the absence of a test score or a less competitive score was no longer a barrier to applying to the most highly selective colleges thus driving up the number of applications. However, this year students with top test scores made up the majority of accepted classes.  A recent survey conducted by the ACT found that many colleges still used test scores in admissions and enrollment process, even though most were test-optional. 

More applicants were waitlisted.

The uncertainty of the pandemic meant that colleges would find it more difficult to know how many students would enroll. As a result, a significant number of students found themselves waitlisted. On the upside, many students who were on a waitlist for fall 2021 had a higher-than-average chance of being accepted, as universities sought to fill spots. 

Gap year students reduced the number of positions.

As colleges began to shut down their campuses and only offer online learning, many incoming freshmen in 2020 decided to defer. Not surprisingly, there were more deferments than previous years.  At UPenn, the number of deferrals increased by roughly 300%, according to Dean of Admissions Eric Furda. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some colleges have not increased the number of positions to make room for these extra gap year students, which suggests the Class of 2021 had to compete for fewer coveted places.  

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How did Empowerly’s Class of 2021 students fare?

With all the upheaval, where did that leave our students?  In spite of all the obstacles and disruptions, Empowerly students exhibited extraordinary tenacity and resilience and their hard work paid off!

Admission to the top 25 colleges:

While competition for these most elite reached unprecedented lows,  Empowerly more than doubled students’ admission chances to these colleges. This rate remained on par with last year’s Empowerly student results. Students increased their chances of admission substantially to colleges including Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Emory and MIT.  

Empowerly more than doubled students’ admission chances to the top 25 colleges.
Empowerly acceptance Average acceptanceEmpowerly advantage
Bowdoin100%9%11x
Johns Hopkins44%6%7x
Georgetown75%12%6x
Emory75%13%6x
MIT20%4%5x
Vanderbilt38%7%6x
Wellesley67%16%4x
WUSTL50%13%4x
Harvey Mudd50%14%4x
Claremont McKenna33%10%3x

Fewer students were waitlisted

While many of the nation’s applicants found themselves on waitlists—as many as 21% according to a recent survey—our students were more frequently accepted rather than waitlisted. In fact, Empowerly students saw a rate of 20% fewer waitlist responses than the national average for students.

Our students submitted test scores

Many of our students apply to highly competitive colleges and the merit scholarships they award. Cognizant of the significance test scores play amongst these colleges and as a criteria for awarding merit aid,  we encouraged our students to take them where possible. This year, the majority of students submitted either an SAT or ACT score. 

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What does 2021-22 college admission have in store?

So what can we expect for our Class of 2022? Will it be another turbulent admission season? While the dust has settled and students are much more aware of what to expect, we foresee another year of increased competition to top colleges. There are a number of reasons for this.

Test-optional policies will remain in place

Most colleges are sticking with test optional policies for this upcoming admission cycle. This will continue to have a ballooning effect on the number of applications to competitive colleges. 

More international students return

When the pandemic first hit, the number of international applications dropped dramatically, leaving more positions available for US applicants. However, since re-opening the borders, applicants from overseas have begun to climb again with the exception of China. The Common App reported growth from India (+28 percent); Canada (+22 percent); Pakistan (+37 percent); the United Kingdom (+23 percent); and Brazil (+41 percent).

Many students will defer enrollment

Like last year, many of this year’s incoming freshmen will opt to defer their spot for a year. This will increase the competition for  colleges that decide not to increase their admission numbers to account for gap year students. 

Given this high level of competition is expected to remain, we suggest students focus on what is within their control, the quality of their application, their academics,  and their extracurricular activities. Well-written essays, recommendation letters that can attest an applicant’s strengths, an academic profile which shows strong performance in rigorous classes and deep engagement in a select number of extracurricular activities continues to be most important in admissions. 

Empowerly can help you achieve this. Our counselors have experience helping students with every part of the college application. 

Book a free consultation to find out how Empowerly can help you achieve your college admission success story. 

Questions? Let us know!