6 Key Takeaways to Know After the 2020-2021 Admissions Cycle

The 2020-2021 Application Cycle had Record Setting Application Volume

Written by Jason

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Last updated Dec 25, 2022 | Published on Jun 16, 2021

Each college admissions cycle tells a unique story, and the 2020-2021 application cycle trumped them all. Covid, a national test-optional movement, and a stunning spike in application volume all contributed to some major challenges. 

The underscoring theme: Families need college planning help more than ever. Parents who take on college planning without any help may take a huge risk with their child’s future. College planning requires a foundation of knowledge and a continuous stream of best-in-class information from admissions officials to professional associations.

Families need college planning help to find successful admissions outcomes, navigate changing conditions, and reduce stress. 

What is an Admissions Cycle? 

An admissions cycle refers to a college’s yearly timeline to review potential applicants. All schools have different application plans, requirements, and deadlines. 

Admissions cycles for those going into their senior year faced some major unpredictability. A majority of colleges were closed for tours. Standardized testing became optional for almost all colleges. Many students became less motivated to complete college applications due to the pandemic. 

What We Learned Early in the Admissions Cycle

In the early fall months, many colleges watched as their year-to-date application volume took a nosedive. Admissions leaders wondered where the applicants were! Some experts felt virtual learning in high schools made students feel disconnected from teachers and school counselors and did not follow through with the application process.

As the November 1 Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approached (as well as the deadlines for the other admission types), the national application volume unexpectedly spiked. 


Students applied to more selective institutions than ever before based on test-optional policies because they no longer needed to submit standardized test scores.   

Check out some of the early application volumes at a few institutions:

  • Harvard University admitted 747 students early, out of an early pool of 10,086. The number of applicants increased fifty-seven percent from 6,424 last year. Harvard admitted more students last year: 895.
  • Yale University admitted 837 Early Action applicants from a record pool of 7,939 applications, an increase of thirty-eight percent
  • Duke University admitted 840 Early Decision students out of 5,036 who applied, a sixteen percent increase. Duke only admitted 16.7 percent of its pool, compared to 20.7 percent last year.
  • Johns Hopkins University offered admission to 520 students out of an applicant pool eleven percent larger than last year’s pool.
  • New York University (NYU) recorded its fourteenth year of record application volume with a whopping 100,131 applications for freshman admission. The university received 17,148 Early Decision applications, which also was a record and a fourteen percent increase from fall 2020. The graphic below illustrates the stunning and accelerating rise in applications from 2008 to 2021.

NYU Record Setting Freshman Application Volume

As you can see, college acceptance rates were tighter than ever before in this admissions cycle. Far more applicants competed for fewer available spots. Test-optional policies encouraged more students to give extremely selective colleges a shot. 

Navigating the Unknown Road 

While no one could have predicted the record-setting application volume, my membership in the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) provided best-in-class knowledge for navigating the unknown road ahead. One of the best benefits of my membership involves conversing with a community of professional college consultants throughout the country. We share information openly, especially by different regions to buffer unexpected storms. 

The chart below from an IECA colleague illustrates an extreme and unexpected surge in Early Decision and Early Action applications.

Application Volume was Recording Setting

Regular Decision Results from the Admissions Cycle

It quickly became apparent the Regular Decision application round would turn out very competitive. 

As expected, the Regular Decision round also hit record application heights. Students may have applied to more reach colleges without analyzing the appropriate number of target and safety colleges. This family’s experience speaks to what they described as a “college admissions nightmare” because they did not calibrate colleges correctly.

Learn some of the final admissions cycle results:

  • UCLA had one of the most staggering application volumes in the country. The university received a twenty-eight percent increase in freshman applications. This equated to 139,500 applicants in this 2020-2021 application cycle compared to 109,000 applicants in 2019-2020. 
  • University of Pennsylvania received 56,000 applications during the past application cycle. University of Pennsylvania did not expand its accepted class size of 2,400 students even though it received a thirty-four percent increase in applicants.
  • Boston University set a new record of 75,733 applicants and only 13,384 were offered a spot. Interestingly, Boston University reported that fifty-three percent of applicants were admitted through Early Decision. Applicants made a binding decision even though they could not see the campus during Covid!
  • Colby College recorded a record-breaking 15,857 applicants and offered admission to 1,279. This equates to an eight percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2025. 
  • Rice University was one of the few universities in the country that accepted a record number of applicants. Rice extended 2,749 admissions offers out of an applicant pool of 29,523. The previous year, Rice accepted 2,346 out of an applicant pool of 23,433. Rice’s slight increase to a nine percent acceptance rate does not make admissions easier. Rice has plans to increase the student body by 2025, which could end up as a benefit to applicants in future years.

Benefits to Understanding the Admissions Cycle

You may want to understand the previous admissions cycles, so you know how to guide your child’s senior application efforts. Otherwise, how do you know how to navigate a competitive college admissions cycle?

Let us review some key takeaways to better understand the 2020-2021 admissions cycle.

Key Takeaway 1: Test optional did not penalize applicants.

As colleges made announcements about test-optional policies for this recruiting cycle, families reacted with skepticism and uncertainty. Parents asked, “Will colleges really admit students without test scores?” 

The answer was a resounding YES! I had numerous clients accepted to selective universities without submitting test scores. 

The University of Notre Dame infographic below illustrates the competitive nature of the class of 2025. Interestingly, thirty-one percent of students who applied to Notre Dame early this year were admitted without a test score. As you can see, an applicant can gain admission to a very selective college without submitting a test score.

Class of 2025 Admissions Stats

Key Takeaway 2: Letters of recommendation mattered more than ever.

As many applicants applied test-optional, recommendation letters became an important admissions criterion. Colleges used recommendation letters as part of their application process more than ever. Letters of recommendation provided important insights into an applicant’s attributes, accomplishments, and achievements to help colleges identify the right students for their class. Applicants with outstanding letters of recommendation had a competitive advantage in many instances.

Key Takeaway 3: Underrepresented applicants earned admission in record numbers.

The modern admissions process has always prevented applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds from competing with their more advantaged peers. Completing financial aid information, such as the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, often presented another obstacle for minorities. The chart below from the National Student Clearinghouse highlights declining enrollment from underrepresented minorities and high poverty schools. 

Underrepresented Candidates were Important in the 2020-2021 Application Cycle

However, colleges and universities have made it a priority to admit underrepresented applicants. For example, Bowdoin College admitted a record forty percent of students of color in its most selective admissions cycle ever.

Key Takeaway 4: Deferrals and waitlists ballooned. 

As applications surged in the Early Action and Early Decision rounds, many underrepresented applicants had not applied, which led to many deferrals to the Regular Decision round. (Deferral means that a college sees potential in the student’s application but wants to review that student against the final pool of applicants before possibly admitting.)

Colleges and universities decided to waitlist more students than ever. Colleges use waitlists to ensure they meet their enrollment goals by choosing from a cadre of highly talented waitlisted students. Unfortunately, students found themselves in a position where they might not get into the college of their choice.

Key Takeaway 5: A balanced college list is critical.

Students need to look beyond the popularity or perceived name recognition of a college when shaping their list. If students do not understand key admissions data and how they stack up as an applicant, they can end up applying to more reach colleges than target colleges. Applying to more reach colleges may lead to more deferrals and waitlist notifications, inevitably leading to more stress.

You want to build the right mix of reach, target, and safety colleges. Remember, no “perfect” college exists — many colleges can tick the right boxes!  

Key Takeaway 6: Admissions decisions do not define self-worth.

College admissions is not fair. Decisions are made behind closed doors. The most accomplished applicants may have trouble understanding these aspects. Students often lose sight of the fact that they compete with highly talented domestic and international applicants for a very limited number of spots at highly selective colleges. 

An eight percent admit rate means that a college rejects ninety-two percent of applicants. Admissions officials have institutional priorities set annually by each college’s president and board of trustees for each incoming class.    

Therefore, admissions decisions should not define a student’s self-worth. A balanced college lensures that students can find success at several colleges. 

Admissions Deferrals are Another Challenge to Overcome During a Student's College Journey!

Know Your Admissions Cycle!

We may never again see stable admissions cycles in the future. Application volume has risen significantly for many years, especially at selective colleges — with no end in sight. Many colleges have opted to continue with test-optional policies for the years ahead. Colleges often change other admissions standards and requirements.

If you feel overwhelmed by it all, I can help you effectively navigate the admissions cycle so that you do not feel frazzled and frustrated throughout the application cycle.

Contact Campus to Career Crossroads for a free consultation and to understand how personalized college planning services will benefit your family. I work with students throughout the United States.


What is the process for getting admitted to colleges?

Getting admitted to colleges involves many components  — applications, application essays, recommendation letters, transcripts, and more. Each part of the process must execute precisely (and effectively!) so that you get admitted to the right school for you. One of the most important things you can do involves getting an independent educational consultant on your side so you can keep track of deadlines and seamlessly understand the entire process!

What does “application cycle” mean?

The application cycle refers to the admission timeline and process at each college. The application cycle differs from college to college. You want to make sure you understand the application process at each college. The application cycle typically involves the application deadline, required information you must send to the college, and the decision deadline. 

When should I expect an admission decision from colleges?

All schools publish different decision deadline dates, depending on the type of admission that the school uses. (Early Decision typically requires the earliest decision date.)

Rolling admissions gives you the most flexible option because you do not have to submit an application by a specific date. You will likely receive your admission decision between four and six weeks, depending on the school. 

You can ask each college individually when you should expect to hear back about the admissions decision.

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