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What Makes 2021 the Most Difficult College Admissions Year (until next year)?


How to deal with another historical low rate of college acceptance in the U.S.? Taking more AP courses? Spending more hours on extracurricular activities? Actually, most people chose to apply more colleges to “boost” their odds of accepting to at least one college. According to reports published by Common App, one of the most commonly used application submission platform, as of March 15, 2022 it has received a record high number of 1,182,322 freshman applications (an increase of 14.4% from 2019-20). Universities received a record high number of applications this year.





However, the former associate dean of admissions at University of Pennsylvania and former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall college, Sara Harberson, urged students to apply to fewer colleges, “for the benefit of [themselves] and every other student applying...to [prevent] another record-breaking application year from happening.” As the 2021 Application Season comes to its end, we know for a fact that her plead was not heard.


There are a number of factors behind this rapid increase in the number of applications submitted. Expectedly, students are applying to more colleges than ever, under the lasting influence of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Reports published by Common App confirms the trend that applicants are applying to more [colleges], on average, in 2021–22 than in 2019–20 (+6% from 5.30 to 5.62 applications per applicant).


It would be naive to assume that the continuing growth of the freshman application pool would cool off as the lasting effects of the pandemic begin to lift. The hard felt growing competition of college applications also has a lot to do with concentrating major choices among applicants. The most popular majors are undoubtedly engineering, computer science, among the other STEM majors. Applicants applying directly into these majors are facing significantly fiercer competition than others.


Take UC Berkeley, whose undergraduate engineering program is ranked No.2 by US News, for example. According to data published by the Department of EECS at Berkeley, admission rate for freshman EECS applicants for the academic year 2020-2021 is 5.2% (EECS only). Meanwhile, Berkeley’s admission rate for all freshman applicants is 14.5%. But even so, the Department of EECS still finds itself falling short of adequately accommodating all incoming students.


Evidently, applicants interested in studying popular majors such as engineering, CS, and other STEM majors face significantly more competition as applicants. Furthermore, as the former admissions official at the beginning of this article has pointed out, college admissions offices are facing unprecedented stress, burdened with more than ever applications pouring in and no support from the school. The surge in applications has led admissions offices to streamline reviewing of applications, which can destroy the very essence of “holistic admissions,” the approach used by selective colleges that focuses on the “whole student” rather than just GPAs and test scores.


Considering all that’s been said, we have begin to why the past application season had become the most difficult one ever. More applications are being submitted by students with generally overlapping academic interests, while admissions offices are heavily strained and had difficulty keeping up the holistic review process that allows them to see applicants in individual lights.


We all have heard stories, maybe from friend, or over the internet, about prospective STEM major students who had a perfect resume, flawless GPAs and test scores, and was still rejected by quite a few schools one would assume he or she as a good chance with. True stories or not, these cases are proof of a consented realization that an even, “well rounded” profile is not a winning hand anymore. All in all, it has become harder for students to self-distinguish as candidates and individuals to their dream colleges.


So, how to break the vicious cycle? Is it even worth to spend all that hard work to build the perfect profile anymore? Instead of questioning the value of hard work, it is worth keeping in mind that the meaning of hard work lies beyond admission results.



At Enlighteens Education, we believe that it is more important to help student to discover one’s genuine academic interest, or intellectual curiosity to borrow the beautiful phrase from Stanford University’s admission requirement page, rather than getting into the arm race of perfecting GPA, SAT/ACT test, and AP exams. After all, the personal growth is the best measurement of individual learning outcome as no two students are the same.

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