The Ivy League universities — Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University — each released decisions this week to Regular Decision applicants to the Class of 2025 and, with the exception of Princeton since Princeton did not hold an Early round this past fall, deferred Early candidates. The statistics, in a word, are sobering. While the overall trend lines over the course of many years have been clear — including ever-increasing applications and shrinking admission rates — this year’s supersized applicant pools and comically low admission rates mark what is likely a new era in elite college admissions.
The trigger of this new era, of course, was not a group of Harvard graduate students and professors penning an academic paper demanding change in admissions in the spirit of equity. The trigger of this new era was not groups lobbying for the elimination of testing in admissions. Make no mistake, the trigger of this new era in elite college admissions was the perfect storm created by the pandemic: the cancelation of SAT and ACT administrations around the globe, elite colleges transitioning to test-optional policies, the elimination of SAT Subject Tests, and skyrocketing applications. But before we examine these changes and whether or not they’re here to stay, let’s first take a look at the 2020-2021 admissions statistics at the Ivy League universities that have thus far reported their figures.
A Closer and Contextual Look at the Admissions Statistics for the Class of 2025 Around the Ivy League
At Harvard University, between the Early Action and Regular Decision rounds, total applications soared 43%. 57,435 students submitted applications — 10,086 in Early Action (747 earned admission) and 46,569 in Regular Decision (1,223 earned admission). Overall, 3.4% of students earned admission to Harvard’s Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 40,248 students applied and the admission rate stood at 4.9% for Harvard’s Class of 2024. For Harvard’s Class of 2023, a then-record 43,330 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 4.5%. Prior to the Harvard Class of 2023, total applications never reached 43,000 and the admission rate never dipped below 4.6%.
At Yale University, between the Early Action and Regular Decision rounds, total applications soared 33%. 46,905 students submitted applications — 7,939 in Early Action (909 earned admission, incorporating QuestBride admits as well) and 38,966 in Regular Decision (1,260 earned admission). Overall, 4.62% of students earned admission to Yale’s Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 35,220 students applied and the admission rate stood at 6.5% for Yale’s Class of 2024. For Yale’s Class of 2023, a then-record 36,843 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 5.9%. Prior to the Yale Class of 2023, total applications never reached 36,000 and the admission rate never dipped below 6.3% (though it did hit that admission rate for the Classes of 2022, 2020, and 2018).
At Princeton University, which opted against offering an Early Action program this year due to the pandemic, applications rose 12.56%. While applications were up big at Princeton this year, due to the school’s cancelation of Early Action, the rise in applications was the lowest among the Ivies. In all, 37,601 students applied in Regular Decision to Princeton’s Class of 2025. Of these applicants, 1,498 earned admission — marking an overall admission rate of 3.98% for the Princeton Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 32,836 students applied and the admission rate stood at 5.6% for Princeton’s Class of 2024. For Princeton’s Class of 2023, 32,804 students applied and the admission rate stood at 5.8%. For the Princeton Class of 2022, a then-record 35,370 students applied and the admission rate stood at 5.5%, a record low admission rate that stood until the Class of 2025 shattered it to pieces.
At Columbia University, between the Early Decision and Regular Decision rounds, applications soared by 51%. Over 60,000 students submitted applications in the hope of earning admission to Columbia’s Class of 2025. In the Early Decision round, applications soared by a margin of 49%. And while Columbia historically releases its admissions data long after Regular Decision notifications go out, we can say that based on Columbia’s anticipated class size coupled with most highly selective universities admitting 50% more students in Regular Decision than they anticipate will enroll, the admission rate — and this is an estimate — likely stood around 3.5%. To put these figures in historical perspective, 40,084 students applied and the admission rate stood at 6.1% for Columbia’s Class of 2024. For Columbia’s Class of 2023, a then-record 42,569 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 5.1%. Prior to the Columbia Class of 2023, total applications never reached 41,000 and the admission rate never dipped below 5.5%.
At Dartmouth College, which was the last admissions portal to go live this year with decisions when all Ivies were supposed to release at 7 PM EDT (come on Dartmouth — BASIC was invented in Hanover!), applications surged 33%. Between the Early Decision and Regular Decision rounds, 28,357 students submitted applications — 2,664 in Early Decision (566 earned admission) and 25,693 in Regular Decision (1,183 earned admission). Overall, 6.17% of students earned admission to Dartmouth’s Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 21,394 students applied and the admission rate stood at 8.8% for Dartmouth’s Class of 2024. For Dartmouth’s Class of 2023, a then-record 23,650 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 7.9%. Prior to the Dartmouth Class of 2023, total applications never reached 23,000 and the admission rate never dipped below 8.7%.
At Brown University, between the Early Decision and Regular Decision rounds, applications surged 29.4%. In all, 46,568 students submitted applications — 5,540 in Early Decision (885 earned admission) and 41,028 in Regular Decision (1,652 earned admission). Overall, 5.4% of students earned admission to Brown’s Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 36,794 students applied and the admission rate stood at 6.9% for Brown’s Class of 2024. For Brown’s Class of 2023, a then-record 38,674 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 6.6%. Prior to the Brown Class of 2023, total applications never reached 36,000 and the admission rate never dipped below 7.2%.
At the University of Pennsylvania, between the Early Decision and Regular Decision rounds, applications surged 25.07%. In all, 56,333 students submitted applications — 7,962 in Early Decision (1,194 earned admission) and 48,371 in Regular Decision (1,206 earned admission). Overall, 4.26% of students earned admission to UPenn’s Class of 2025. To put these figures in historical perspective, 42,205 students applied and the admission rate stood at 8.1% for UPenn’s Class of 2024. For UPenn’s Class of 2023, a then-record 44,960 students applied and the admission rate stood at a then-record low 7.4%. Prior to the UPenn Class of 2023, total applications never reached the tally for the Class of 2023 and the admission rate never dipped below 8.4%.
At Cornell University, applications were up big. In the Early Decision round, we believe the figure was up by around 36%. But Cornell has joined Stanford University and Columbia University in being cagey about their admissions statistics. We’ll find out the numbers soon enough when they become publicly available. In the meantime, to put their forthcoming figures in historical perspective, a then-record 51,500 students applied and the admission rate stood at 10.7% for Cornell’s Class of 2024 (records we believe have since been shattered by the Class of 2025). For Cornell’s Class of 2023, 49,118 students applied and the admission rate stood at 10.6%. Prior to the Cornell Class of 2023, total applications reached a then-high of 51,328 for the Class of 2022, a year the admission rate also dipped to its lowest mark of 10.3%…before this year that is.
Why Ivy League Applications Soared and Admission Rates Plummeted for the Class of 2025
So why exactly did applications to the eight Ivy League universities soar this year? That’s an easy one to answer. We believe there were three primary reasons for the skyrocketing numbers: (1) squeakers, whom we shall subsequently define; (2) students had time on their hands and they were stuck at home with their nagging parents who encouraged them to submit even more applications; and (3) the uncertainty and angst surrounding the pandemic. Points two and three are self-explanatory, but allow us to dive into the first point in some depth.
So who exactly are the squeakers? Squeakers are students who applied to the Ivy League schools and other elite institutions without test scores. They thought in a year in which these schools switched to test-optional that they’d squeak in without test scores. They believed admissions officers when admissions officers pontificated that students without test scores would be at no disadvantage. And so, filled with newfound chutzpah, they submitted moonshot applications to elite universities that in an ordinary year they’d have deemed impossible reaches.
Of course, as we’ve long suggested, admissions officers have a habit of not always telling it like it is. After all, it’s these same admissions officers who claim to not take into account one’s financial need when it literally asks on the vast majority of college supplements — which admissions officers can see with their own two eyes — if students need financial aid. It’s these same admissions officers who claim to value equality as they offer preferential treatment in admissions to the children and grandchildren of alumni. When we announced from atop our soapbox in admissions that, all else being equal, a student with a great SAT or ACT score will always have an advantage over a student with no score, it turns out we were right. Most highly selective universities are cryptically — and unsurprisingly — not releasing the percentage of students admitted with and without scores. As an example, Duke University bragged this week that 44% of applicants didn’t submit test scores but the school didn’t release the all-important figure of the percentage of students admitted without test scores.
Of the few elite universities that have released such data — you’ll note most don’t include such pertinent information in their press releases about their incoming classes at least as of the time of this publication — the numbers point to the significant advantage students with test scores enjoy in admissions. As an example, at the University of Pennsylvania, about 66% of Early Decision applicants to its Class of 2025 submitted test scores. And about 75% of Early Decision applicants who earned admission submitted test scores. So students who submitted test scores to UPenn this past Early Decision cycle held a statistically significant advantage in the admissions process over those who did not. As another example, at Georgetown University, 7.34% of Early Action applicants to the Class of 2025 who did not submit test scores earned admission. This compares to Georgetown’s 10.8% overall Early Action admit rate for the Class of 2025.
And if you don’t think the numbers tell the story, take a look at some of the Freudian slips admissions leaders have made to press outlets in recent weeks, highlighted by the gem Cornell University’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Jonathan Burdick offered to The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Interest Surges in Top Colleges, While Struggling Ones Scrape for Applicants,” Amelia Nierenberg writes, “Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We saw people that thought ‘I would never get into Cornell’ thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance,’” said Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment.” Oh, Mr. Burdick, who ever would have given these applicants the crazy idea that they had an equal chance of admission without test scores? Yet it’s not like Mr. Burdick is the only admissions leader with loose lips. In a recent CNN piece by Yon Pomrenze and Bianna Golodryga entitled “College applications in pandemic year show deepening inequities in access to higher education,” NYU’s admissions leader offers a most interesting quote. As CNN reports, “‘You might find more students applying to an Ivy League or a school like NYU because they feel like they have a chance (now that test scores are optional),’ says MJ Knoll-Finn, senior vice president for Enrollment Management at New York University.
Addressing Which Changes to the Ivy League Admissions Process Will Stick
Now, of all the changes to the Ivy League admissions process this year, which ones do we think will be enduring? We believe the Ivy League schools and the vast majority of other highly selective universities will remain test-optional. That’s right. We don’t see a world in which these schools will return to requiring test scores. They changed their ways and adapted to a new system. In so doing, applications surged, admission rates plummeted, and admissions officers at Ivy League schools and other highly selective universities did happy dances around their living rooms over Zoom. They learned, and have been operantly conditioned, they can still admit a class and set new admissions benchmarks without an important piece of data. It was the worst nightmare realized for The College Board, the maker of the SAT, and ACT, Inc., the maker of the ACT. So, yes, test-optional policies are for keeps, though you now know that just because one can apply without test scores doesn’t mean one will get in.
SAT Subject Tests, which were eliminated in January, are not coming back. They are already an anachronism. But let’s be real. SAT Subject Tests were already on the way out well before the pandemic struck. Until recently, The College Board had three lines of business (beyond selling names of students and their information to colleges and such): the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Tests. SAT Subject Tests didn’t drive in nearly the revenue of either the SAT or the AP Tests and, arguably, ate into its AP Test business. We believe that in the years to come, The College Board, in the interest of increasing revenue for its AP Tests, will make it easier for students to take the exams. In fact, Ivy Coach’s famously accurate crystal ball hereby forecasts that The College Board will not only offer more AP Tests online in the future rather than in person but the organization will figure out a system so students don’t have to ask permission from their schools to sit for exams. It’s an unnecessary roadblock for students and The College Board alike. And if there’s anything that we’ve learned about The College Board over the years, they will figure out how to optimize their revenue.
And as to those skyrocketing applications and diminishing admission rates, Ivy Coach’s famously accurate crystal ball has another forecast. We believe applications will be down next year for the Class of 2026. That’s right. We believe they’re going down. We expect they’ll be higher than for the Class of 2024, but significantly lower than for the Class of 2025. Accordingly, we believe admission rates will go up next year. We believe they’ll be lower than for the Class of 2024, but higher than for the Class of 2025. Basically, this year, well, it was a bit of a blip. It’s an understatement, we know. It was, in short, the wrong year to be born and yet so many of our students at Ivy Coach earned admission to their dream schools in spite of it all! Each year, when colleges say how it was the most competitive year ever and create all the mania, we shout out from atop our soapbox in admissions that it wasn’t actually the most competitive year. The Ivy League schools and other elite universities just get better and better at getting students — even unqualified students — to apply because the more students who apply, the lower the admission rates will be, and the higher the school will be ranked in the all-important US News & World Report annual college ranking. But this year, it really was the toughest year ever. Yet it wasn’t chiefly because of the spike in applications. Rather, it was because at many of these elite universities, so many seats were already filled with admits to the Class of 2024 who opted to go the gap year route during the pandemic. So, yes, this year really was the toughest year ever.
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