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6 College Admissions Trends to Watch in 2024

Country road with the date 2024 painted on it

Understanding the landscape of college admissions — and the ongoing shifts in that landscape — can help you manage your expectations and better navigate your college application experience. Here are 6 trends to keep an eye on in the coming year, according to admission experts.

1. Colleges are looking for alternatives to the personal essay

With 1 in 5 teens admitting to using ChatGPT to complete schoolwork, college admissions officers are becoming more vigilant about Artificial Intelligence (AI)-assisted essays. As a result, many colleges are looking at alternative ways for students to express their unique voices in their applications, and to ensure that those voices are authentic.

Students might see additional application requirements this year, such as portfolios of creative or academic work, interviews, and examples of graded class assignments. “We’ve noticed a trend in colleges like Princeton asking for past writing samples with teacher feedback, as evidence of students’ own writing, thinking, and synthesizing,” says Jen Turfler, a counselor with Blue Stars Admissions Consulting.

Students also might see new requirements for videos and interviews, similar to the optional “video introductions” that colleges like Bowdoin, Brown and the University of Chicago have offered for some time. “Changing the medium of delivery to audio/video ... gives a much better sense of how a student would engage in the classroom, or on campus, than the essay,” writes Rick Clark, director of admissions at Georgia Tech, in his blog.

Some students can now use video recording technology, such as InitialView’s Glimpse, to create and send video-recorded personal statements to colleges. Several colleges host these platforms on their admission websites and invite students to record themselves, sometimes answering randomly presented questions on-the-spot.  

To help students prepare for their moment in the spotlight, some admissions counselors now include on-camera interviewing as part of their college prep offerings. “Part of the work we do with students, starting in the ninth grade, includes interview preparation, positioning of the camera, and how to talk to adults in professional settings,” explains Turfler.

Even with these new options, it’s unlikely that the traditional written personal essay will go away anytime soon. “Most likely, college essays will remain important, although the nature of essay prompts could change somewhat,” predicts Meredith Graham, a counselor with the college advising firm Collegewise. “Specific details of students’ stories may become more important and it’ll be noticeable if those details are missing or not aligned with the applicant.”

2. Colleges and students grapple with AI

As AI becomes more widely used, colleges and students are experiencing the promises and pitfalls of this emerging technology. According to Graham, some college programs have added AI policies to their applications defining when and how AI can or can’t be used and she expects to see colleges do the same with applications.

Meanwhile, college counselors are encouraging students to be careful about how and when they use AI to apply to college. Many agree that using it for research and college list-building is fine but using it for any part of the essay-writing process is not.

“Nothing replaces the way free-writing helps a student get to know themselves, or the deep conversations students might have with teachers or mentors as they explore their writing and define their essay topics,” says Dr. Amy Morgenstern, founder and CEO of Blue Stars. “If a student skips these steps and goes right to AI, the essay will never reflect their inner life.”

Colleges, on the other hand, have been using AI to recruit students and even evaluate applications for some time. According to one survey, 50% of college admissions departments are using AI, mostly to review letters of recommendation, assess transcripts, and to communicate with applicants via chatbots or automated messages. The larger the school, the more likely the admissions professionals are to use AI. In addition, 85% of survey respondents said they use AI to be more efficient; 70% said they use it to make more informed decisions; and 56% said they use it to eliminate bias.

There’s no evidence, however, that colleges are currently using AI to make their final admissions decisions – at least for now.

3. Test Score Submission is Declining

According to the Common Application’s January 2024 report, just 4% of its member colleges required test scores in the 2023-2024 application season, down from 5% in 2021-2022 and down from 55% in 2019-2020.

At the end of the 2022-2023 application season, the number of students choosing not to submit test scores was just slightly higher than students who did submit them. However, in 2023-2024, for the first time since the boom in test-optional policies began, significantly more students (12%) chose not to report test scores. As stated in the Common App report, this trend could accelerate in coming years.

4. Direct admissions gains traction

Imagine getting an offer of admission from a college without filling out an application or writing a single essay? With direct admissions, this might be a reality for you. Direct admissions is an alternative application pathway in which colleges send non-binding admission offers directly to qualified students. Students don’t need to submit applications, pay fees, or wait to find out if they are admitted. Instead, a college reaches out to them with an admission offer before they even apply. The states of Texas and Georgia have been operating direct admissions programs for some time, offering automatic admission to their state’s public university systems to students who meet certain thresholds for GPA or class rank.

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision banning the use of race in college admissions, some colleges are turning to direct admissions to meet their enrollment goals and increase diversity on campus, and some are partnering with direct admissions platforms that connect the schools with students who meet their admission criteria.

In the Fall of 2023, the Common Application launched its direct admissions program, which helps 70 participating colleges connect with low income and first-generation students. From the Common App portal alone, more than 300,000 students received direct offers of admission. Direct admissions platforms are now available from companies such as Niche, state governments including Minnesota and Idaho, and individual colleges.

While many see direct admissions as a positive development, some counselors caution students to be aware of its limitations. According to Graham, “Students typically still need to submit applications in order to finalize those direct admissions offers, and the colleges still need to be affordable for the students in order for those offers to be viable. As long as those two pieces come together, then this is a fantastic option.”

5. Students with financial need are having to contend with FAFSA delays

In December of 2023, we saw the debut of a new and improved FAFSA. The new form is shorter than the previous form and the aid eligibility formula provides more aid to low income students. However, changes to the form postponed the release of the FAFSA by almost three months—giving students less time to apply for financial aid and colleges less time to determine their awards.

Colleges had expected to receive students’ FAFSA data by the end of January, but that deadline was thrown into question when the Department of Education announced it needed to make further adjustments to the form and formula.

As a result, students may receive financial aid offers much later than usual and may not have sufficient time to factor them into their college decisions. “Between the glitches with the rollout and the compressed timelines that colleges will have to review student information and provide aid packages to families, there’s a lot of potential for problems,” says Graham. “We might see a drop in the number of first-gen and low-income students starting or returning to college next fall because of these hassles.”

6. Colleges are abandoning legacy preferences

Legacy admissions, which gives an admission advantage to students related to an alumnus, has long been criticized for being elitist and unfair, privileging mostly white, wealthy students. In a move to make their admissions policies more transparent and equitable, several colleges ended their legacy admissions policies, including Wesleyan, Virginia Tech, Occidental College, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon. At the same time, state and federal lawmakers have written bills banning the practice, and in January, the U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into the University of Pennsylvania’s legacy admissions policy for possible violation of the Civil Rights Act. Given these actions, it won’t be surprising if more colleges end legacy admissions this year.

As some of these trends indicate, college admissions is evolving to meet the needs of both applicants and colleges. No matter how the admissions landscape may shift, it’s still important to focus on your academic goals and interests. If you keep your own college priorities in mind, you may be more likely to weather changes to the admissions landscape — and more easily find the colleges that are the best academic, social, and financial fits for you.

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