Record-Low College Acceptance Rates

Record-Low College Acceptance Rates

At this point in the summer, most upcoming seniors start (or continue) to panic about college applications. And the first thing most of these students do is Google their dream school’s acceptance rate.

This year’s upcoming seniors were in for an unpleasant surprise–acceptance rates from the 2020-2021 application cycle had plummeted from previous years.

2019-2020 Acceptance Rate
2020-2021 Acceptance Rate
Harvard University
Yale University
University of Pennsylvania


The above schools are just three examples of top universities that had almost halved their already low acceptance rates this year, directly attributed to record-shattering numbers of applications and a generally set-in-stone number of available spots.

Record-High Application Numbers

Harvard University reported a 42% increase in applications, leading to a one-week delay in delivering decisions in 2021.

MIT reported a 66% increase, yielding a record-breaking total of 33,420 applications.

Boston University reported 24% more applications, totaling 75,559.

But why? Two large factors: the test-optional policy and pandemic-related uncertainty.

Test-Optional Policy

Traditionally, when a college adopts a test-optional policy, it sees a rise in applications, and thus is forced to be more selective. During the 2020-2021 application cycle, almost all schools went test-optional, and this trend stayed true for all schools through the pandemic. With all of the test cancellations that they were faced with during 2020, students who would not have considered such selective schools due to prohibitive standardized test requirements were now eligible to apply.

But this doesn’t mean that less competitive students were flocking to highly selective schools! Admissions officers have reported although applicant pools grew larger, they were no less competitive than other years. Brown University Dean of Admissions Logan Powell stated, “[T]he University likely could have admitted ‘two or three’ classes with nearly ‘indistinguishable’ academic credentials to those of the admitted students.”

It is largely unlikely that colleges and universities that have already adopted the test-optional policy will reverse their decisions. So, this trend will only continue in the coming years. 

What does this mean for me?

This means that test-optional doesn’t really mean test-optional! You need to take every opportunity to stand out, and this starts with an impressive academic and testing profile.

This also means that you need to have higher scores to stand out. Because test scores are optional, students who submit test scores will likely be submitting top test scores. And in order to compete with these scores and actually get the substantial boost that SAT or ACT scores can provide for you, you need to have the best possible test scores!

At MEK Review, we have resources for you to prepare for your next test! Start off by signing up for one of our test events so we can see where you stand, and check out our College Test Prep programs to see what we can offer for you!

Pandemic-Related Uncertainty

With the looming COVID pandemic, it was difficult for anyone to predict how admissions trends may change. Test cancellations and the rocky transition to remote learning left the largest parts of the college application up in the air. Thus, students applied to more colleges in an attempt to cover all of their bases and maximize their chances of acceptance to the most number of schools. Even in the Road Map to College program at MEK Review, we saw students apply to an average of 3.4 more schools than in students in previous years.

What does this mean for me?

This means two major things for students: a more competitive applicant pool and a more actively moving waitlist.

As stated before, you need to take every opportunity to stand out within this highly competitive applicant pool. Plus, with the uncertainties of last year no more certain this year, the qualitative parts of the application have become more important:

  • Application essays
  • Recommendation letters
  • Extracurricular activity involvement


Despite many students’ assumptions that admissions officers do not have the time to read their application essays or other application materials in great detail, every item in the application is indeed reviewed in detail!

Princeton University Dean of Admissions Karen Richardson put it best:

[T]he holistic process employed by the admission team — which places each student in their “individual context” — is more important than ever given the variable academic and extracurricular disruptions experienced by students.

“There was an opportunity for students to talk about the disruption that COVID-19 had on their academics or their extracurricular or on family. And so we definitely made sure to read those pieces of an application before we even go into everything else. We also, as we do every year, paid special attention to teacher recommendations, where schools were given the opportunity to tell us how things within the school have changed.”


At MEK Review, we are here to provide admissions guidance for every step of the way! Our Road Map to College program provides step-by-step, A-to-Z guidance on the entire application and works as your companion and mentor as you go through the stress of the college application process.

If you want focused guidance before senior year, check out our Pre-Road Map to College program, which provides guidance on extracurricular activities, academics, standardized testing, and more!

Get Started Today!

The journey to a successful college application starts the minute you step into high school. In 12th grade, it becomes time to package the grades, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and experiences that you have accumulated throughout high school to make your college application the most accurate and most favorable representation of your efforts.

Go on that journey with MEK Review! We have resources for every step of the way:


Plus, take advantage of our 15% Early Bird Discount* when you register by August 26th!

Don’t miss out on this opportunity to make your college application profile the best it can be.


*Does not apply to One-on-One Tutoring and Academic & Admissions Counseling

Jaehee Ahn

Jaehee Ahn is MEK Review's Director of Academic Counseling Services and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. She is also an alumnus of MEK Review's SAT Prep program. If you have any questions about our College Counseling programs or wish to set up a consultation, you can email Jaehee at


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