The Effects of the Pandemic on US University Admissions for the Class of 2021

While there has been much in the news lately about smaller or less recognizable US institutions being hit hard financially from the pandemic – a consequence of fewer applications and lost revenue sources from things like athletics and housing – selective institutions have experienced the opposite.

This year has led to a record-breaking increase in applications at the more selective institutions, with an average increase of 17%. However, many schools that typically attract Meadowridge students have reported an even higher increase: Emory University 19%, Brown University 26%, UCLA 28%, Johns Hopkins University 30% University of Pennsylvania 34%, Harvard University 42%. Some schools noted even higher increases, such as Colgate University – a small, highly selective liberal arts college – who saw 103% increase in applications this year.  

What has caused this increase?

In October, I wrote a post about how the pandemic has led most US institutions to go “test-optional”, meaning they were no longer requiring standardized tests for admissions. This change in policy reflected a need to prioritize health and safety while also understanding the limitations that COVID-19 imposed on students globally.

The change to standardized test requirements is the driving factor in what we are seeing now. Firstly, for students who did not want to write a standardized test, this has opened the door to options they wouldn’t have had in other years. Additionally, even those students who did write a test and had scores, all of a sudden had a choice to send them or not, deciding strategically based on how competitive they were (test-optional). Some schools, like the University of California, have gone test-free or test-blind, meaning they won’t even consider scores that have been sent. The change to standardized testing requirements has eliminated a filter that may have prevented students from applying in the past. This year, more students applied, thinking that they had a better chance of being admitted.

It is important to note that admission to some schools and programs are more predictable than others... [t]his is why the Post-Secondary Counsellors work with students to build a balanced list, and this year is no different.

This is certainly what drove up application numbers in the early application rounds. But in December, as schools were reporting significant increases to their early applicant pools, this also caused more anxiety in students, triggering them to submit more applications than perhaps they normally would have in the regular round.

While these have been identified as the two main factors for this increase, two more remain. With the pandemic having financial implications on many families, more students are in need of financial aid this year. With aid being a more complicated, unpredictable factor in admissions, students in this situation often apply to more schools than students who are full pay. And finally, with President Joe Biden winning the election, international students are generally more at ease about pursing an education in the US.

All of these factors together have created the perfect storm for this year’s applicants to the US. Schools and programs that were already highly selective are now considered – if even possible – to be even more so.

How Else has admissions been affected?

With application numbers increasing by so much this year, counsellors are reporting seeing more deferrals from the early round in the US than in previous years. Additionally, many schools have had to push their decision release dates to accommodate reviewing all of the additional applications. Most notably, the Ivy League has delayed their decision date by a week.

What are we seeing elsewhere?

While applications are up overall in the UK, despite Brexit, applications to health-related careers are of particular note. The pandemic has clearly drawn an interest and inspired students, with direct-entry medical applications increasing this year by 21% and nursing applications rising by almost a third.

This trend can also be seen in Canada, with Ontario reporting a 73% increase in applications to undergraduate nursing programs. As many schools and programs throughout Canada are rolling, it is too early to say what other implications the pandemic may have for this year’s cohort beyond a slower application review process.

It is important to note that admission to some schools and programs are more predictable than others. It is not uncommon for even the strongest applicants to be declined by highly selective institutions. This is why the Post-Secondary Counsellors work with students to build a balanced list, and this year is no different. By doing so, we are confident that our students will always have options to choose from in determining which higher-education institution will be the best fit for them.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brianna Just is in her fifth year working at Meadowridge School and is currently the Head of the Post-Secondary Counselling Department. She holds professional memberships with the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), International Association of College Admissions Counseling (IACAC), Canadian Independent School Counsellors (CISC), and British Columbia’s Academic Advisors Consortium (AAC). Additionally, she has also completed University of California, Los Angeles’ College Counseling Certificate program.