College Admissions

College Admissions Trends 2023

November 6, 2023

These are the biggest college admissions trends I noticed during the 2022-23 admissions cycle. Families of this year’s seniors and younger high school students should be aware of these trends, so they can make wise decisions as they apply to college. Note, I wrote this in April 2023, before the SCOTUS decision on the use of race in college admissions. I’m watching to see how colleges handle this change, so that will be a 2024 trend.

College Admissions Trend #1: Increased applications — at Some Colleges

Rising numbers of applications and drops in admissions rates generated headlines for prestige colleges like Harvard and Yale. But many other institutions have seen similar application increases. Most of these increases are at name brand research universities, including marquee public universities. For example, University of Tennessee reported a 40% increase in applications and subsequent drops in admissions rate.

University of Tennessee campus under a bright blue sky.
University of Tennessee Knoxville had a 40% increase in applications for class of 2027, mostly from out of state students.

College Admissions Trend #2: More Applications Per Student

The Common App reported an increase in total applications submitted through their platform. There were more individual student applicants, more total applications, and more applications per student. The average Common App user submits five college applications. But there were also students submitting a dozen or more applications. This might make sense if they apply to some low admissions rate colleges and want to still have a few offers of admission if none of those highly selective colleges admit them. But students should make sure their list isn’t just a dozen unlikely schools.

College Admissions Trend #3: Continued Use of Test Optional Applications

Most colleges have kept their Covid-initiated test optional policies in place, meaning that students can complete an application without submitting test scores. Only 4% of Common App colleges required test scores from first time freshman applicants in the 2022-23 cycle. But it’s unclear if student choices regarding test scores help or hurt their applications. Very few colleges release admissions statistics that separate admissions outcomes based on test submission. Strong test scores continue to be a positive signal to many colleges, especially in technical majors like engineering and computer science. A few colleges have reinstituted testing requirements, notably MIT and Purdue. Others never dropped their score requirement, such as Tennessee, Florida, University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. I recommend students take the SAT or ACT at least once junior year and then decide if those scores add value to their applications. (See below for upcoming changes to the SAT.)

College Admissions Trend #4: Holistic Admissions and Institutional Priorities Are Real

While grades and curriculum are the opening argument for college admissions review, that doesn’t mean colleges admit students by ranking them by GPA and test scores alone. College admissions readers weigh many factors, including the student’s academic context and personal context such as activities, family responsibilities, financial resources. Institutional priorities include academic program capacity, legislative restrictions on in-state vs out of state enrollment, and operating costs. Furthermore, colleges want to admit students who will then enroll. The ways that a student demonstrates interest in actually enrolling continues to be important, whether that is indicated through a binding Early Decision application, a visit to campus, or engagement with the admissions office.

College Admissions Trend #5: Massive Deferrals and Wait Lists

This trend dismays me. Some colleges deferred thousands and tens of thousands of early applicants to regular decision. And at the end of the admission cycle, many colleges created record-breaking wait lists. Both deferrals and wait lists are based on college-centered business practices. To paraphrase one admission rep: they don’t want to get to the spring and be unable to enroll a full class, so they delay finalizing admissions decisions. Increases in application numbers make this even worse, since the admissions office may not have gotten any larger and may struggle to get through all of the applications in a timely manner. Students who are still interested in remaining on a wait list should follow their directions for opting into the list. But realize that it is unlikely to come off a wait list and offers of admission to wait listed students are based on entirely on institutional priorities (see previous paragraph).

The next two are technological developments rather than college admissions trends, but they are likely to affect the 2023-25 application cycle.

Technology Trend – Digital SAT

College Board unveiled a computer-based Digital SAT test that uses adaptive technology to review students’ results on initial question modules and select questions for subsequent modules based on those results. This allows them to shorten the overall test length. It also means students need to be on their best game from the beginning of the test. Rollout of the Digital SAT started with international test dates and continues for US students with the October 2023 PSAT and then the Spring 2024 SAT. Students will need to bring their own testing device (laptop or tablet) with the required testing app already installed. Students should put in solid work to get familiar with it before the fall SAT.

Technology Trend – AI Writing

ChatGPT and other AI writing software launched with a big splash in Spring 2023. There was immediate speculation that students might use it to write their college application essays. There have already been several AI writing “detectors” announced, but their accuracy is questionable. Colleges may add these to their application review, but might not do so publicly. Some colleges added supplemental requirements like live writing or video responses. I’ve played around with ChatGPT and typical college application writing prompts. The results tend to be general and more than a little lifeless. Take time to go through the process of thinking, writing, and revising. Responses that are clearly individual to the student and not based on language prediction will continue to be the best option.

Final College Admissions Trend: Shock that Application Assumptions Were Wrong

I don’t know if this is really a trend or just something I’m noticing in social media. I frequently see posts from families that are shocked/dismayed/angry that their student didn’t receive the offers of admission they expected. If their kid mostly applied to colleges with <10% admissions rates, they may find that their highly qualified student is among the >90% of applicants that were not offered admission. If their college list did not include colleges with a wide range of admissions percentages (including medium and high admissions percentages), they may feel they have few viable options this spring.

My advice to build a well-balanced college list that includes colleges with higher admissions percentages is not news, but remains current. Students cannot count on admission to colleges that turn down more than 90% of applications. They also shouldn’t assume that selectivity equals quality. The more open students are to colleges they are less familiar with in locations that are less fabled, the better their choices in spring of senior year will be.

Related: Getting started? These books on college admissions will help you understand the landscape and know what questions to ask.