Why are Acceptance Rates at Elite Universities Declining?


Courtesy of the Independent

Harvard University, like many top universities, had a much lower acceptance rate in 2021 because of the surge in applications this year.

Danielle Huizar, Photojournalist

After three years of hard work, the class of 2021 started the college application process in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past few months, the class of 2021 has been receiving their college decisions from a variety of universities around the world. While scrolling on social media, you see a plethora of bright students get rejected from top universities, and although colleges steadily decline over time, is there a dramatic drop in college acceptance rates this year?


This year, at elite institutions, such as the Ivy Leagues, Stanford, University of Chicago, MIT, etc., the college acceptance process was much more competitive for students. For instance, the restrictive early admission acceptance rate at Yale and Harvard was around 14% in 2019 while this year it was 7.4% at Harvard and 10% at Yale (mycentealjersey.com). Also, at the University of Pennsylvania, the acceptance rate dropped from 20% in the previous year to 15% this year. Likewise, at Dartmouth, this year, the acceptance rate dropped from 26% to 21% (cnbc.com).


There are two main reasons more acceptance rates are declining: more people are applying to these schools due to optional standardized test requirements and many students decided to take a gap year last year and apply this year. According to data from the Common App, applications to colleges were up 11% nationwide, and the top colleges saw an increase of 17% of applicants. For instance, Harvard received above 57.000 applicants which is 42% more than in 2019, and Yale, Columbia, and Stanford had to push back the date to announce decisions because they received too many applicants (wsj.com). Top universities usually look at applicants’ SAT and ACT scores to predict how well they will do at their university, and these universities have a cutoff for the minimum SAT or ACT score an applicant can have. Because most schools went test-optional for the SAT and ACT this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students who had good GPAs and extracurriculars but did not do well on their tests believed they still had a good chance of getting into these schools. Thus, many students who would have been discouraged to apply to top universities with their scores in previous years applied this year. In a survey done in the summer of 2020, around 40% of students nationwide seriously considered taking a gap year because of the COVID-19 pandemic (edsurge.com). With college costs remaining the same, students decided that it would be better to save their money and wait to go to college when the pandemic is over to have a normal in-person college experience. As the pandemic is getting better in 2021, colleges are most likely going to have a normal in-person campus experience in the fall of 2021, so students who took a gap year last year are applying this year. 


The test-optional policies and the gap year students took lead to an increase in applicants for top universities, but colleges have a limited number of spots for students. Therefore, although the number of applications increased, the number of students who are admitted to these elite universities stayed the same leading to a decrease in the acceptance rate for these top universities.


As someone a part of the class of 2022, I am somewhat nervous to apply to these top universities later this year due to the decline in the acceptance rate. Similarly, Hannah Bucklin (11) is “nervous about the decline and acceptance rate” and “gets scared when she sees people on social media with similar stats to her get rejected from her top  universities.” However, even if you do not accept at your top university, you can still get a good education at any college in the world, including community college. Like many teachers, parents, and college students say, you will end up where you are supposed to end up.