2021 College Acceptance Rates: The Latest Admissions Trends

Padya Paramita

2021 College Acceptance Rates: The Latest Admissions Trends

It’s that time of the year again. Students who applied to college this admissions cycle have spent the last couple of weeks anxiously checking their email and clicking links in various portals to hopefully find good news awaiting them. Most colleges are done sending out their letters and acceptance rates have started to be released! Unsurprisingly, the top schools have continued to be incredibly competitive, while other colleges that have previously been considered target options are more selective than ever.

You may have just applied and received your decisions, or you’re preparing to take on the process and want to know how tough the admissions landscape currently looks. In this blog, we have outlined the 2021 college acceptance rates, analyzed this year’s trends in admission compared to the past, and gone over how you can prepare your application for top schools.

2021 College Acceptance Rates

The table below outlines the 2021 college acceptance rates for the top national universities and liberal arts colleges that have been publicized so far, arranged in order of most selective to least selective this year. We will continue updating the table as more schools announce how competitive the pool has been for the class of 2025.

School 2021 Acceptance Rate
Harvard University 3.4%
Columbia University 3.7%
Princeton University 4%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4%
Duke University 4.3%
Yale University 4.6%
Brown University 5.4%
University of Pennsylvania 5.7%
Dartmouth College 6.2%
Vanderbilt University 6.7%
Johns Hopkins University 7.4%
Williams College 8%
Colby College 8%
Swarthmore College 8%
Rice University 9.3%
Barnard College 10.4%
Tufts University 11%
University of Southern California 12%
New York University 12.8%
Washington University in St. Louis 13%
University of Notre Dame 14.6%
Wellesley College 16%
Colgate University 17.2%
Boston University 18.3%
Boston College 18.9%
Emory University 20.4%
University of Virginia 21%

Analysis of the 2021 College Acceptance Rates

Many colleges had its most selective admissions season to date, setting record-breaking low numbers for 2021 acceptance rates, including Duke, NYU, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. According to the Wall Street Journal, “a pandemic-fueled surge in applications translated into record low acceptance rates this year,” particularly for the Ivy League.

The Class of 2025 is the first group of students who had to prepare their application profile as the pandemic started. The early rounds were an indicator of just how competitive this cycle would get. As a result, many students applied to more schools, leading to campuses receiving record-breaking number of applications, therefore leading to greater selectivity. At Harvard, applications surged 43% over last year, whereas at Yale, the applicant pool grew by 33% since last year.

Emory received a record-setting 33,780 undergraduate applications this year, up 18% from the previous year and up 67% from five years ago. The number of applications for the class of 2025 rose by 10 percent from last year—to 10,395—according to a press release from Barnard. 

Cornell University has joined Stanford University in the list of colleges which will no longer publicize their acceptance rates. But, both of these universities are consistently selective (in 2019, Cornell admitted 10.6% of students, while Stanford accepted 4.7% of applicants in 2018) and you can bet that this year is no different. 

This was also the first cycle with test optional policies. At Duke, 44% of students did not submit any standardized test scores. 56.3% of Vanderbilt applicants voluntarily submitted test scores, and 61.1 percent of admitted students applied with test scores. At Pomona, 57% of the 748 students admitted to the class of 2025 elected to submit an ACT or SAT test score.

The top schools are celebrating diversity in their new classes. At Notre Dame, 48% of this year’s admitted students are international students or U.S. students of color. As part of the 11.1% increase in total applications, there was a 9% increase in international applications. 64% of accepted students at Barnard identify as women of color, and 19% identify as first-generation college students, in comparison to 62% and 18%, respectively, for the class of 2024. In Princeton’s admitted Class of 2025, 68% are U.S. citizens or permanent residents who self-identify as people of color.

In its press release, Tufts also mentioned the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on this year’s admissions. According to their Dean of Admissions, Applicants shared with us their own lived experiences with racism, and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on their own commitments to social justice. We read so many essays from students that are taking action to build more just, equitable communities.”

The Latest Admissions Trends

Now that you’ve gone over the list of the 2021 college acceptance rates, you might be wondering how these numbers compare to last years. The following table highlights how some of the most competitive schools fared this year alongside how selective they were in 2020. 

School 2021 Acceptance Rate 2020 Acceptance Rate
Harvard University 3.4% 4.9%
Columbia University 3.7% 6.1%
Princeton University 4% 5.6%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4% 7.3%
Duke University 4.3% 7.7%
Yale University 4.6% 6.5%
Brown University 5.4% 6.9%
University of Pennsylvania 5.7% 8.1%
Dartmouth College 6.2% 8.8%
Johns Hopkins University 7.4% 8.8%
Swarthmore College 8% 8.8%
Vanderbilt University 6.7% 9%
Colby College 8% 9.4%
Rice University 9.3% 10%
Barnard College 10.4% 10.9%

What a competitive application season! With the Ivies receiving a record-breaking number of applications, these numbers aren’t surprising. Even if they accepted a similar number of students, because the number of applicants was so high, the rate fell significantly. Colleges that brought big surprises in acceptance rates last year, such as Duke University, Boston University, and Colby College maintained similar numbers, demonstrating that admission at these institutions will stay competitive as interest in these schools continues to grow. 

How to Prepare Your Application for a Top School

If you’ve got your eyes on one of the highly selective colleges, you can see by looking at the 2021 college acceptance rates that you’ve got your work cut out for you. The number of applications at most colleges are at a record high—BU received a whopping 76,000 applications while the number of applicants at USC rose by 20% to reach over 70,000. Of course, you need to perform as well as you can in your schoolwork — challenge yourself by taking the most rigorous courses offered, such as AP and IB classes. Plus, you should practice hard to achieve a high SAT score if you’re able to take the test. Students who have submitted the score have an added layer to their application.

That said, if you’re preparing to apply to college this upcoming fall, things aren’t the easiest with the COVID-19 outbreak. Your classes might still be online, standardized tests are experiencing changes in format, admissions policies are changing, and more. These transitions might play a role in how your grades shape up. Not to mention the fact that SAT and ACT administrations keep getting canceled or postponed, and your activities might not be able to operate as usual! 

First, know that colleges are well aware of these changes—almost every university has gone test optional for the next cycle and some, such as the University of California has abolished the SAT score requirement altogether. This definitely takes the pressure off a little bit. It will be interesting to see the statistics for these schools next year and how the changes in policy will impact their acceptance data. Even if schools do not change their testing requirements, they will still read your application in light of the pandemic.

The 2021 college acceptance rates are undoubtedly competitive. The top colleges are still extremely selective and hold students to the highest of standards. Admission into universities that you might have considered targets or even safeties is tougher than ever. As you work towards your application, continue working hard in your classes, explore remote extracurricular availabilities, and carefully consider these numbers to prepare your list of reach, target, and safety options. Good luck!

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