The under enrollment trend that many colleges adopted before the pandemic has become amplified in 2021. The trend first started in the 2018-2019 admissions cycle (before COVID-19 arrived), when a record number of students got rejected or waitlisted by colleges that they should have been accepted by. Then, a record number of students successfully got accepted on appeal and got off of waitlists. The same pattern happened in 2020 and is bound to repeat in 2021. Learning why this pattern is happening will calm the nerves of uncertainty and ensure that you're best positioned to get off of waitlists.
The Trend Toward "Under-Enrolling"
The 2018-2019 admissions results were absolutely wild compared to previous years. The college counselor of Palos Verdes High School (ranked the 11th Best High School in California) called it a bloodbath and other high school counselors echoed the same sentiment. Their horror stories of student outcomes were unusually devastating and grim compared to any previous year. Students across the country on social media, and even several College Zoom clients, were shocked and felt dismayed, too.
Even the lower numbers of applications received by certain colleges didn't mean better odds. When early media reports revealed that the number of freshman applicants applying to the UCs had dropped for the first time in 15 years, many were relieved. The assumption was that 2019 would finally be an easier year to be admitted. Yet, the opposite proved true. UCLA's acceptance rate actually dropped, in spite of it receiving fewer applications. Thousands of applicants who would've been accepted the year before were turned away despite there being less competition from other applicants.
Meanwhile, UCSB and UCSD became increasingly competitive, approaching the volume of applications that UCLA received almost 5 years ago. By the time all of the admissions decisions had been released, one of Los Angeles's top private high schools discretely hired College Zoom to help one of their top students appeal because she was rejected or waitlisted by every UC she applied to. Her grades were a 3.8 weighted GPA with a 4.5 weighted GPA. We successfully helped her reverse several UC decisions but she ended up choosing to enroll at USC.
Another mom, who used another independent college counseling service, was equally dismayed with the results from both UCs and private colleges. She looked up College Zoom because her daughter was the salutatorian and had only been accepted by UW-Seattle, which had a 51% admit rate. No admittance to UCs at all. Her school counselor told her she was so strong that she could apply to just the top UCs and Ivy League colleges and be fine. [Update: we helped the daughter write a waitlist appeal letter for Vanderbilt and she was accepted.]
Within College Zoom, the 2018-2019 season was initially set to become our absolute worst on record. We had 5 academically competitive students who had worked with us from the beginning and did not get into any of their top choice colleges. That was more students we had collectively waitlisted or rejected across the board in one season than we've had in our entire 11 year history. All but one was eventually admitted off of a waitlist or rejection letter appeal and now attends either an Ivy League or top 20 college. The only one who didn't reverse an outcome was still able to enroll at UCLA. The crisis was averted. Everyone ended up okay, but not before a bewildering and emotional roller coaster ride.
Under enrolling colleges admit fewer students upfront. Then, they use the waitlists and rejection letter appeals to dial up to their ideal class sizes. It makes sense administratively for better yield management, but it absolutely decimated the feelings of students who hung in limbo and didn't know that they should persist past bad news.
Why Did This Happen?
When more applicants enroll than a college expects, this is bad for the college. In recent years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over enrollment became logistical nightmares for some colleges. For UCSD and UCI in particular, stories in the media spread of 3 students being crammed into dorm rooms meant for 2, and university housing offices scrambled to rent off-campus apartments to accommodate incoming freshmen.
As certain schools became increasingly popular recently, the historical assumptions used in those universities' yield prediction models grew rapidly outdated and stopped being reliable predictors for forecasting the number of students who would actually enroll. Moreover, every high school graduating class since 1996 has been increasingly larger in size. So, why was the shift to under enroll so sudden and so sweeping? Similar to how many high schools use the same software (like Naviance) for grade reports, many colleges hire the same data companies for statistical analysis and modeling. Thus, many apply the same recommendations made by these companies as well as follow the lead of what other admissions deans are enacting as best practices for the year.
The shock applicants felt was further exacerbated by the fact that, in admitting even fewer students than usual, each college naturally took the strongest of the strongest. Imagine the same small group of students winning all of the acceptances from all of the desired colleges. In fact, we had a couple of students who were admitted to almost every school they applied to (but that wasn't the norm), and each student can only pick one college. This pattern left some colleges further below the enrollment numbers they had expected to achieve by under enrolling. Consequently, it contributed to them accepting more students off of waitlists and rejections than usual.
The Impact of COVID-19
The pandemic sent the under enrolling trend into overdrive. In 2020, Tufts and Georgetown admitted students off of their waitlists in mid-August. That means students were accepted only 1.5 to 2 weeks before fall term classes started at those universities. Because COVID-19 skewed the data that previously helped colleges predict their yields, colleges played it safe by waitlisting more students. However, one new variable that exists in 2021 that didn't exist in 2020 is the fact that a lot of colleges allowed students to defer their admission. That means that students who were supposed to begin college in the fall of 2020 deferred and took a gap year. Those students are guaranteed a spot in the class set to begin college in the fall of 2021. The consequence of this is that fewer spots are available for high school seniors at colleges that allowed students to defer.
At Harvard, for example, 20% of the class that was supposed to start in the fall of 2020 deferred. Now, in 2021, Harvard is expected to drop to a 3% admit rate as a significant amount of the spaces that normally go to first-year students are on hold for students returning from their gap year.
New Updates for the 2020-2021 Admissions Cycle
UCSB, whose acceptance rate has dropped from 40% to 27% in past years, is an example of a popular college that many top students have traditionally used as a bellwether to predict their odds at harder schools. However, when UCSB decisions came out in March of 2021, a massive wave of disappointment went around. One mom reported that, of all the seniors who applied from Corona Del Mar High School (an Orange County public school with a private school culture and reputation), only 1 student of the entire senior class was admitted. One girl waitlisted had a 4.7 GPA. At Newroads School in Santa Monica, only 2 students were admitted by UCSB. Only one is seriously considering enrolling. Last year, one student was bedridden with depression after getting denied or waitlisted from the easier UCs before she was admitted to USC, UC Berkeley and Michigan on the same afternoon (her #1, #2 and #4 choice colleges). She had a 4.8 GPA.
Rumors of Yield Protection
Keep in mind that admissions offices are still reeling and emotionally drained from having manage the massive waitlists of the previous 2019-2020 admissions season. Because many colleges were managing waitlists and granting appeal cases as late as June, July, and August, the admissions officers effectively had no off-season break between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 admissions cycles. Naturally, admissions officers are going to do something this year to improve upon that. Thus, it is rumored (and plausible) that more colleges like UCSB, which top students had traditionally taken for granted, are currently "yield protecting". That is an admissions practice where an admissions office denies or waitlists highly qualified students on the grounds that such students are bound to be accepted by more prestigious colleges. Most interesting, the types of College Zoom students that we have seen get accepted to UCSB outright in 2021 were those who would traditionally enroll at UCSB because their strong but not top academic profiles meant that UCSB and similar colleges within the 20-30% admit rate ranges were the best colleges they could've hoped to get into. Similarly, we've heard that the students with 4.4+ GPAs who saw UCSB as a back up school were not admitted while peers with lesser academic profiles were admitted.
Yield protection would be a rational way to explain what we're seeing as UCSB's admissions office confirmed that its admit rate for 2020-2021 was 27%. However, colleges with a 27% admit rate have never historically waitlisted applicants with 4.5+ GPAs en masse to the extent that we are seeing. They don't have the "hold" power that more prestigious colleges do and they cannot convert admitted students to enrollees at high rates. Thus, whereas in 2019-2020, it was only the top students who got into UCSB while students with lower but still academically competitive profiles freaked out, now in 2020-2021 it seems to be the opposite. Lower but still academically competitive students seem to have been targeted for outright admission and the top students who saw UCSB as a back up school are freaking out from not being admitted. A pendelum is swinging as colleges like UCSB aim to zero in on who its true audience is amid a year of test-optional and test-blind admissions. However, as in each of the past two years, when unusually high amounts of competitive students, of any class rank, are not initially granted admission, we've seen massive amounts of movement off of waitlist and appeals down the line. Colleges with 20-30% admit rates, like UCSB, historically don't have high yield conversation rates. Students who enroll usually have multiple offers from comparable colleges with varying degrees of financial aid award. That will always lead to opportunities for whichever students are left in the blind. Additionally, for top 4.4+ GPA students, being waitlisted at UCSB may be the new bellwether to indicate that their odds at harder colleges are still strong.
How to Prepare Yourself
Admissions announcements are already an intense, emotional experience, further amplified by students' social media posts. Because of the heightened sensitivity, stress, and emotion that rejected students feel, it's most important that you understand why an early rejection (or even several big, early rejections) are not a sign of what's ultimately in store for you.
Myth #1: "It is easier to be accepted as an early decision/action applicant. Therefore, my early rejection means I won't get in anywhere."
No. Many high school counselors and admissions officers who don't understand statistics repeat misleading figures that feed the myth of the massive, early action/decision advantage. In actuality, once recruited athletes are removed from the early pool, the difference between applying early vs regular for non-recruits is quite negligible. Getting rejected from a school that you applied to early is never a sign that your regular decision applications are doomed. Read our blog article about the Early Decision/Action myth here.
Myth #2: "If I got rejected by an easy college, I have no chance of being accepted by my harder colleges later."
Every year we see students who get rejected by one or more "easier" colleges and immediately lose all hope. Then, they're dumbfounded when a harder college accepts them later in the game. This actually happens quite often. Why did this happen? While yield protection can be at play, many reasons could be at fault. But rather than dwell on why it happened, pour your energy into an appeal letter if the college accepts appeals. Below is an email written by an angry mom who may share your sentiment. Her daughter used us to apply to graduate schools with a 3.1 undergraduate GPA in 2016.
"Just to let you know that [my daughter] did not get in any of the schools she applied to using the application that you helped her with. I am out over $2000.00 and she got nothing. Is there a way to appeal the denial of entrance to Cal State Los Angeles, which is what she really wanted. I think after talking to her you should have known or had an idea if she would be able to get into certain schools. You have been doing this for a long time so you could have told her that it wasn't worth it to apply to certain schools because she had no chance to get in the school. Instead I paid you for the application and she didn't get into any school. I am very upset and very disappointed in what you did to help her. I feel you took the money knowing she had no chance and didn't bother to tell her just so you could make some money.
I would understand if she didn't get in to one or two of the schools, but she applied to almost 7 schools and the only one she got into was the one she wrote her own personal statement for. I would like to appeal the Cal. State LA one and think that you should help us with that for what we paid and what the results was as to no acceptance to any of the schools. I could have used that money for tutors for [my daughter] and at least it would have helped her in school. [My daughter] didn't get a thing for the $2000.00 and is totally disgusted."
Her daughter was ultimately accepted by USC. However, USC was the last program to notify her of its decision and the mom sent this email before they found out. They hired us again to help with her PhD applications two years later.
Moral of the story: If, at some point, you feel that College Zoom has failed you, you should know that it's perfectly okay to vent that to us. We've lived this merry-go-round of emotions for 11 years ongoing, and we're here to help. Statistically, when the dust settles, we'll likely become your hero again. Just stay the course and keep us updated and included.
Taste What The Emotional Roller Coaster Feels Like
Here is a different letter by an extremely upset parent from last year:
"So it has become very clear to us that the underlying cause behind the great number of rejections [our son] received is because of the manner in which he was presented to the schools. When I first talked to you, I clearly explained that he didn't have an earth shattering story. After you and him talked, I was assured that he had enough activities and involvement over the years to convey notable stories.
We hired you on the basis of your confidence to build his application as one that would stand out and ultimately gain admission to some of his schools of choice. Upon hearing back from all of his schools, it is clear that your company's services didn't do anything to help him obtain an acceptance letter from any of his seven top [Ivy League] choices. His High School counselor wrote to us and also talked to [our son] in person, and basically said that without something new and very compelling, doing an appeal would not be a good use of anyone's time. She was very pragmatic and suggested he focus on what is, and moving forward it. [i.e. with UCSD]"
Her son was waitlisted by his first choice school Cornell, and we forced him to appeal despite the family's very passionate protests and intense desire to not be disappointed again. They felt that, because UCLA and UC Berkeley, which had higher acceptance rates, said no, there was no point. The parent also said that the school counselor again asserted, "Unless he has a super compelling story to tell of something new that was not in his application, his appeal will not be considered."
Before you continue reading to learn what happened. Ask yourself, "What would I do? Appeal or not appeal?" Then, watch this 1 minute video of a baseball play on YouTube, which is a perfect metaphor for the appeals process. Choose one player from the video that you want to be like (link) and then continue reading below.
Cornell accepted him on appeal a month later. The family was in total disbelief. The previous year, in 2018, Cornell had accepted only 75 students from their waitlist. In 2019, however, Cornell accepted more than twice that amount, 164.
Here's the emotional rollercoaster part. Previously, before the student had received any of his decisions, he felt exceedingly confident and his parent emailed us this:
"Thanks for all of the good support provided to [our son]. I believe the process you put him through really made him dive deeper into himself and have a better understanding of the reasons why he wants to pursue admission into the [Ivy League] colleges he selected. Not sure he really understood the "why" before. So thank you for that."
You may feel equally as confident right now. However, like this student, panic may set in after a wave of rejections and/or learning of your classmates' results. That's when his mom texted:
"This is crazy....kids are not getting into their target schools! Terrible! None of this makes sense. Kids are afraid and confused. If [our son] can get into UC Berkeley, he'll be very elated."
The next major email his parents sent was the angry one that appeared first in this section. Brace yourself. College decisions can be an emotional roller coaster.
Moral of the story: Persist. Rather than dwell on bad news, productively focus your effort into an appeal or waitlist letter. It helps to pour your energy into something productive. Don't panic until all of your college decisions have come out. Then, if you are not satisfied, submit an appeal. The best thing you can do is steel yourself and see the game through. Don't throw in the towel prematurely.
Success Is Not Always Clean, Pretty, or Achieved on the First Try
The reason College Zoom currently has the best success rate in the country (as of 2020) is not because our students always receive their acceptances cleanly and perfectly on the first attempt. We're #1 in our industry's success rate because, after initial outcomes are released, we urge students to write their appeals more intelligently and persuasively than other students. More commonly than you might expect, we have to encourage students dig in and claw at the appeals process. Push forward when most students, school counselors, and parents lose hope and don't see the point. That is what makes the difference.
Not all colleges allow appeals, so if you receive bad news, your first step is to educate yourself on the specifics of each college's appeal policy and learn if appeals are accepted. Note: If you're waitlisted, most colleges will allow you to submit a letter of continued interest, which is essentially the same thing as an appeal. Learn more about what makes an appeal argument compelling here.
Important: Do not succumb to senioritis. Senioritis will kill any appeal's chances of success by robbing you of any compelling new information to report. Instead, keep striving to build upon your achievements and gains. Show colleges that you're even stronger than you were when you applied.