Everything We Learned from the 2023 Regular Decisions

The trends: deferrals becoming waitlists, a rise in alternative entry programs, and a tough year for business majors.

Every year, around this time, we’re asked questions like: So, how did your students do? If Amazing Student X didn’t get into Selective University Y, who does? What are some of the trends you’re seeing? How can admit rates be so low? When will the madness end?!

First, overall, our students did great! We are so proud of them and all the work—and, even more importantly, the self-reflection—they put into this process. Many are still deciding where they will attend, so we’ll share some updates on where our Class of 2024 is headed later this spring.

While we wish we could tell you when the madness will end (if only!), in the meantime, we can share a few trends we have noticed as the year wraps up:

Deferral into Waitlist: Admissions Limbo

All of the trends we noted in our recap of early results held true; just imagine the deferrals turning into waitlists, and, well, you get the picture. Higher ed reporter Jeff Selingo’s recent op-ed dives into more of how colleges use deferrals and waitlists as yield management strategies. This practice — exasperating as it might be for students who have to wait months for their final decisions — isn’t going anywhere.

The takeaway:

Students in the Regular Decision pool should be prepared for a fair number of waitlists along with acceptances and denials, and should think through their individual waitlist strategies in advance.

Congratulations! You’re Admitted…and You Start in 2029!

We’re being facetious, but the number of alternative entry programs has continued to grow in the college admissions landscape as a way for colleges and universities to stagger entry and preserve on-campus housing and resources. Many of these programs, like Cornell’s guaranteed sophomore transfer and Middlebury’s Spring Start, have been around for a long time; others are a bit newer, like Boston University’s College of General Studies, which used to start in the fall, but now is exclusively a second-semester start. Northeastern is perhaps the most notable user of this kind of approach—this year, some students were admitted to a program in which they’ll spend the first semester in London, the second in Oakland, CA, and then finally move to Boston in their sophomore year.

The takeaway:

Spring and sophomore start programs allow colleges to take more applicants, and checking “yes” when asked if a student is interested can give them another chance at being admitted. However, while these programs are great fits for some students, they’re not great fits for everyone, so students should research the programs before they apply!

A Brutal Year for Business Applicants

Certain majors have historically been oversubscribed, which makes them extra difficult to be admitted to, depending on how an admissions office considers major in the process (computer science is a classic example of this). Business has always been tough, but this year, we saw a marked increase in selectivity across the board in business programs. For example, nearly every business applicant we saw apply to Penn State’s Smeal College of Business was offered admission via the 2+2 program, rather than direct admit to University Park, the main campus, a marked change from last year and previous years.

The takeaway:

Expect competition for business applicants to become even fiercer. While this doesn’t mean students passionate about business shouldn’t apply, it does mean they should understand how selective the business program within each college to which they are applying is in order to make an informed decision about their application. It also means that students interested in studying business should be thinking about how the choices they make earlier in high school, from taking challenging math courses to pursuing business in extracurricular activities.

Where Have All the Targets Gone?

As happens every year, many acceptance rates at selective and highly selective colleges got even smaller. We won’t amplify those numbers here, both because we think it’s important not to use selectivity as a proxy for fit and desirability, and because, frankly, the difference between 3.4% and 3.1% isn’t particularly meaningful.

What is meaningful is looking at some shifts over time. Schools that we might have considered targets or matches for some of students just five years ago have dramatically lower acceptance rates now. Some examples are shown in the chart below:

The takeaway:

Students’ lists and understanding of what qualifies as a reach school are necessarily shifting. Schools that even five years ago might have been a target or low reach may be high reach schools now, based on the volume of applications and increased selectivity. This doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t apply! But it means that their decisions for early applications (especially Early Decision) and an Early Decision II plan are more critical than ever. It also means that, for some students, there might be a bigger gap between the acceptance rates at their reach schools and what we can safely call target and likely schools—and this is normal!

Again, despite what US News’ algorithm might tell you, selectivity is not synonymous with excellence. This is important to keep in mind when building your college list—and the downward trend at some popular schools reinforces how critical it is to learn about and engage with schools at every level of selectivity.

Need more personalized guidance on working through your waitlist strategy, assembling a balanced school list, or cultivating a high school experience that supports your highly selective major? Contact our college admissions team.

Caroline Hertz