College Applications Are on the Rise: What to Know

Every year, students spend hours in front of the computer formulating answers to college application essay prompts, looking for ways to stand out against other applicants in the pool.

But recently, the college admissions landscape has gotten more competitive: The number of submitted applications rose by 21.3% between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022, according to a March 2022 Common Application report, which included data from 853 member schools. The increase was especially large among students of color and first-generation applicants.

While applications rose steadily between 2014 and 2020, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, growth has accelerated recently due to a number of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic. And experts say the increase is likely to continue in the upcoming admissions cycle.

Why Are Applications Increasing?

The rise in applications is attributed to several factors, admissions experts say, including individual students applying to more schools, intentional recruitment efforts by the universities and the implementation of test-optional or test-blind policies, partly driven by the early pandemic during which some students were unable to take tests.

Application growth slowed in fall 2020, when many schools were still remote. For instance, between November 2019 and November 2020, the Common App reported a 16% decrease in applications from first-generation students and students who qualified for an application fee waiver. But those numbers have since rebounded.

“During COVID, colleges and universities really looked at their process to understand what barriers existed for students,” says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, a nonprofit college admissions membership organization. “One of the key challenges oftentimes for first gen and underrepresented applicants is they may not have the same resources at home that other students might have. And when COVID happened, students weren’t in school and that was often their lifeline to college applications.”

When students returned to school buildings and had more support again, application numbers went up.

[Read: A Complete Guide to the College Application Process.]

Applying to a Higher Number of Schools

“There’s so much volatility in admissions right now and it’s really hard to know if you’re going to get in or not,” so students are applying to more schools, says Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB, an education firm that provides research, technology and advisory services.

A 2022 EAB report found a steady increase over the last seven years in the average number of applications per student.

“Applications being up just means students are applying to more schools. If I apply to eight schools, instead of six, I can still only attend one,” Rhyneer says.

There was a particularly large jump during the pandemic — on average, students applied to seven schools in 2021, up from 6.1 in 2020. That’s in part because some students were looking for the most affordable college option during this time, and needed more choices. The competitive landscape is also a self-fulfilling prophesy; when there’s more competition, students apply to more schools.

Intentional Recruitment

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, schools transitioned from in-person to virtual recruitment, allowing them to reach a broader range of students.

Additionally, after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers sparked a racial reckoning across the country, many schools have become more intentional with their outreach.

Universities “want to reach students that they’ve never reached before,” says Bari Norman, co-founder and head counselor at Expert Admissions, an admissions consulting company. “They also want to create meaningful connections with students that they previously may have connected with, but there wasn’t the sense on the part of students that there was space for kids like them on those college campuses.”

Test-Optional or Test-Blind Policies

Not only did COVID-19 force schools to rethink their recruitment strategies, it also changed some admissions requirements. Many colleges and universities removed testing requirements for applicants during the pandemic when some SAT and ACT exams were cancelled — though some schools had transitioned to test-optional or test-blind policies even before the pandemic.

Test-optional policies allow students to decide whether or not they want to submit standardized test scores. But test scores are sometimes required for international students and out-of-state students or for certain scholarships. Meanwhile, test-blind schools don’t consider SAT or ACT scores, even if they are submitted.

Standardized tests have been a significant barrier for many students, so the decision to go test-optional opened the doors for more applicants, particularly students of color and low-income students.

Fifteen percent of students reported that they applied to a college specifically because it was test-optional, for instance, according to the EAB report. That number was higher among applicants of color: 24% of Black students, 15% of Asian students and 21% of Hispanic students applied to a school because of its test optional-policies.

“If you are able to hire a tutor, get the prep books and the materials, you’re obviously going to be able to score a little bit higher,” says Christopher Rim, the founder and CEO of Command Education, an education and admissions consulting company. “If you have time outside of school to prepare for these exams, you can do that. But if you are low income, you may not have time to study because you might need to get a part-time job in order to support your family on paying rent or with the groceries and things like that.”

[Read: When to Apply to College]

How to Approach the Application Process

As you think about college admissions, experts suggest focusing your efforts on one extracurricular activity, applying early, prioritizing the essay prompts and expanding your list of colleges.

“Even in a competitive field, you still have a tremendous amount of control over what you present and how you present. I think students lose sight of that,” Norman says.

Apply Early

There are four types of application deadlines for students to note: early decision, early action, regular decision and rolling admissions.

Applications for early decision, which is generally a binding commitment, and early action are typically due in November, or as early as mid-October, while the deadline for regular decision is between December and February. Meanwhile, some rolling admissions schools allow students to submit their application until a few weeks before classes start in the fall.

Experts say it’s advantageous to apply early, especially if you’re hoping to be accepted into a more selective school.

Narrow Down Extracurriculars

Some high school students cram their schedule with extracurricular activities and take on every leadership position to stand out on their college application. Instead, dedicate your time and efforts to one project, organization or volunteer activity, Rim says.

“Think about what’s going to allow you to stand out,” he adds. “How can you take that single activity to the next level to really demonstrate to the school that you are actually able to have an impact? Whether it’s a for-profit business that you’ve started or a nonprofit that you are developing programming for, what does that look like? Talk about that. Show your interest and authentic passion.”

Prioritize Essays

The essay in a college application is a student’s primary opportunity to make a case for themselves. “I think the essays have become even more important than they were previously,” Norman says. “If a college doesn’t connect with you through your essays, it’s gonna be hard to get in.”

Supplemental essay prompts often ask: Why do you want to attend this particular school? Experts recommend you don’t say because of its reputation, location or size. Tailor your essay specifically to each school and what sets it apart from others in the state or country.

Expand Your Options

During the college search process, students may hear a lot about Ivy League or other top schools. But there are thousands of other colleges out there to choose from, so think more broadly. Find your best fit by researching schools’ academic programs, cost and campus life.

“We have heard from students year-over-year that visiting a school, virtually or in-person, really helps them better understand the climate and overall school personality,” Keri Risic, interim executive director of the office of admissions at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, wrote in an email. “Each school is unique and getting a feel for it before applying can help a student narrow down their list of where to apply.”

When creating a list of schools, experts advise applicants to include a mix of safety, target and reach schools. Any school that accepts less than 5 to 10% of applicants is considered a reach school “no matter who you are or what you’ve done,” Rickard says.

“There’s an assumption when people say target, they see a bullseye,” Norman says. “A target school doesn’t mean you’re gonna hit the bullseye. It means that you are in a target range. You’re going to hit the bullseye at some of these target schools and others you’re not.”

[Read: Avoid These Big College Application Mistakes.]

Impact on Enrollment

While applications are up, enrollment is actually down in many places. Undergraduate enrollment, for instance, dropped by 4.7% in spring 2022, or by more than 662,000 students, compared to spring 2021, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“It’s very counterintuitive” but this can be attributed to two factors: More students are deciding they are not ready for college yet and applicants are applying to more schools,” Rhyneer says.

The share of high school graduates currently attending college has decreased from 98% in 2017-2018 to 91% in 2021-2022, according to EAB’s report.

“In some cases this could be consequences of the pandemic, like economic disruption,” Rhyneer says. “And then some students, if they’re doing the math about, ‘Do I go to college or do I get a job,’ more of them are deciding, for mental health or financial reasons, that they’re not going to college. So a greater percentage of high school graduates are not going to college than would have been the case pre-pandemic.”

Rickard is hopeful that this year will be different, and the rise in applications will actually lead to more enrollment, at least among four-year colleges.

That said, starting in the fall may be challenging for some students, given the current rise in inflation.

“College is already expensive and it’s getting more expensive,” Norman says. “So the increase in cost, the diversification of the applicant and the potential impending recession all suggest that we’re going to see an increase in financial need. Hopefully the colleges will be able to meet that need.”

More from U.S. News

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Grammar Do’s, Don’t of College Application Essays

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