Kate’s College Admissions Trends for 2023

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By Kate Sonnenberg


Guest author Kate Sonnenberg, JD, CEP, of KS College Success, is a Wow-certified essay coach and a member of our Wow Partners program. Kate helps students navigate college admissions, working with them to think broadly, apply wisely, learn, graduate and make the world a more just place.

Now that the 2022-2023 college application season is over, let’s explore some of the latest admission trends and what they could mean for students applying to college this fall.

Application volumes remain high

The Common Application reported a 7.5% increase in applications compared to last year. A whopping 1,244,476 first-year applicants applied to 841 colleges. This year’s applicants also applied to more colleges, averaging 5.7 applications per student. Twenty percent of seniors applied to ten or more colleges.

Underrepresented minority and first-generation applicants experienced significant increases of 31% and 36%, respectively, compared to the pre-pandemic 2019-2020 cycle. China and India were the largest sources of international applicants.

Selective private colleges and universities, as well as public universities, saw an increase in application volume. For the fall 2023 term, the State University of New York (SUNY) system experienced a staggering 100% increase in applicants.

Early Decision is replacing Regular Decision as preferred plan

Many students opted for early application plans such as Early Decision and Early Action. Traditionally, colleges had only admitted about 30% of their first-year classes through early admission rounds, but this is changing. Barnard College admitted 62% through Early Decision, Boston University accepted 50%, and Penn admitted 51%. Students who wait until a Regular Decision to apply may have a lower chance of admission.

During the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 admission cycles, top colleges like Harvard, Yale, Penn, and the University of Virginia saw record-high early application numbers, resulting in record-low early admission rates. This trend continued in the 2022-2023 cycle. Duke University reported its lowest Early Decision admission rate ever (16.5%, down 21.3% from the previous cycle), and Brown University’s early acceptance rate dropped from 14.6% to 12.98%.

More colleges are now offering an Early Decision II round

More colleges are also offering an Early Decision II round, giving students denied from their first choice school another opportunity to commit early to a second choice. ED2 provides another chance for colleges to secure students who promise to enroll if accepted.

However, students should not assume that applying Early Decision or Early Action guarantees a higher chance of acceptance. These rounds are becoming more competitive as more students apply early, and some colleges may be admitting a higher percentage of their first-year classes through early admission rounds. Students should adjust their expectations accordingly and be strategic about where they apply early.

One strategy is to consider applying early to both low-probability and medium-probability admit schools. By applying early to a slightly less competitive college, students may increase their chances of receiving sizable merit aid packages. However, students should also weigh the drawbacks of applying early, such as having less time to perfect their applications or research each college thoroughly.

Students who commit to a school through an early admission round also cannot compare financial aid offers from other colleges, which may be a disadvantage for those who depend on financial aid. Furthermore, students who are denied in the early round may miss out on the opportunity to apply to other colleges and may benefit more from focusing on creating strong regular decision applications.

Deferrals rates soared

Deferrals rates have also soared as a corollary to the growth in early admission applications. The University of Wisconsin deferred 17,000 of the 45,5000 applications it received in the early round, and Clemson deferred 15,000 of its 26,000 early applicants. USC, which offered an early action round for the first time last year, deferred 94% of its early pool.

Uncertainty around test scores continues

The uncertainty surrounding standardized test scores in college admissions has intensified. Over 80% of four-year colleges in the United States will not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores for the 2023-2024 admission cycle. Furthermore, two-thirds plan to continue their test-optional or test-blind policies through 2024-2025, and 90 colleges have made these policies permanent, including Columbia University. However, some institutions, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Florida, Auburn University, Purdue University, the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgetown University, and the University of Tennessee system, have maintained or reinstated their testing requirements.

As a result of the rise in test-optional schools, college admission advisors recommend submitting test scores if they fall at or above the 50th percentile of the college’s previous first-year class. Consequently, most students submitting scores in the past two admission cycles have had scores well above average, increasing some colleges’ average score ranges significantly. This trend has led to concern among students that an SAT or ACT score that was previously considered “good” may now be viewed as “below” average.

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Video interviews are the new trend

An increasing number of colleges offer applicants the option to submit a video essay or introduction, allowing students to showcase their personality and share unique stories not found in their application. Some institutions allow video submissions even before the application process. The colleges offering this option are Brown, Tufts, Washington University in St. Louis, Goucher, Bowdoin, George Mason University, and the University of Chicago.

Videos allow colleges to get to know applicants in a more informal manner than a written application allows. Students who take advantage of this opportunity get to showcase their personalities and share unique stories not found in their applications.

Some majors are increasingly competitive

Some majors are also becoming increasingly competitive, making college admissions more challenging for students applying to popular and competitive majors. Students should prepare for deeper scrutiny of their applications and their fit with the specific program. Students must thoroughly research colleges and describe why a college’s program in their field of interest is a good fit for them. Where possible, students’ past experiences in high school should also line up with their desired major.

Students should not list a less-popular major on their application, hoping to transfer into the major later. Most competitive majors are either only open as direct admits for first-year students or have only a few spots available for transfer students.

Predictions for the future: the demise of legacy admissions

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling prohibiting colleges from considering race and ethnicity when making admissions decisions, requiring colleges to reassess their strategies for enrolling a diverse student body. Numerous experts in higher education predict that colleges may discontinue legacy admissions, which offer an advantage to applicants with family members who have attended the same institution, as such admissions policies are negatively correlated with diversity.

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Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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