This is the first in a four-part series on how the pandemic has affected the college admissions process.

As a college admissions adviser, I have seen firsthand how the pandemic has upended the college application process. In this series, I’ll explore the current landscape, offering an analysis of last year’s results, addressing how COVID-19 and equity are impacting college admissions, explaining how the test-optional movement is affecting admissions and providing tips and tricks for a strong application.

Many universities, including less competitive institutions, saw a significant increase in applications, a decrease in acceptance rates and an increase in yield for the incoming class of 2021. Some universities saw 30% increases in multiple categories.

The jump in applications was due in part to many schools going SAT/ACT test-optional or test-blind/free, due to a lack of safe test sites during the pandemic. Part three of this series will dive deeper into the impact and nuances of testing changes, but for now, more schools going test-optional encouraged applicants, including students of color and low-income students, to apply for admission to universities not normally on their short lists. The new testing paradigm is helping to level the playing field for students across different socioeconomic bands.

Historically, the average yield (the percent of admitted students who enroll) for the UCs is approximately 34%. Cases of higher yield are rare (even Stanford University only yields 68% of its admitted students), but this year, because of uncertainty around the pandemic and reopening, schools had an even harder time trying to predict yield. Would students stay closer to home? Would students still want to defer a year? What is happening with students who deferred last year?

Universities were also concerned about admitting too many students, and many chose to manage this by putting students on the waitlist. As it turned out, yield rates increased and very few schools went to their waitlists this year. At both UCLA and UC Berkeley, the yield rate shot up to 44% for 2021.

Difficulty in yield prediction has been a small-scale problem for years. For example, UC Irvine enrolled 800 more students than it intended in 2018. This was because more students enrolled than anticipated, as spots at more “popular” UCs and tier-one universities became more competitive. UC Irvine attempted to rescind 500 offers due to missed transcript deadlines, but after public outcry, it decided to allow all students who enrolled to begin in fall 2018. The effect was a decrease from a 37% acceptance rate in the 2017-2018 cycle to a 29% acceptance rate the following year. UC Irvine went from being one of the least competitive UCs to the third or fourth most competitive. The increase in applications during the pandemic meant that schools such as Boston University, Cal Poly Pomona, Purdue and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have overenrolled this year.

Ultra-competitive environment

What does this mean for the incoming class of 2022? Historically, when universities overenroll, their acceptance rates go down the next cycle, so students must have more “likely” schools on their list than ever before. This is not the same as simply applying to more schools, because that will only exacerbate the issue of declining acceptance rates. For a college to be a “likely” school, a student should be in the top 25% of the university’s admitted class, and the admissions rate should be above 30%. Students should not focus on the rank of the school, but rather look at the rank of the specific program they’re interested in.

The UCs were already tough to get into before the pandemic and then saw a 30% increase in applications this past cycle, without a corresponding increase in allowed in-state enrollment at this time. The UCs are looking for students in the top 10% of their graduating class – for Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, that’s a 3.95 unweighted GPA. All the UCs are looking for students to have at least taken AP Calculus and AP Biology, and the most competitive schools would like to see an AP class in every core subject.

This ultra-competitiveness is due to the sheer number of applications, as well as the UCs’ commitment to enrolling a student body that’s representative of state demographics, which means having 42% of students be from underrepresented backgrounds. Students from the Bay Area have been vastly overrepresented at the UCs for years. It may feel unfair as fewer Bay Area students are admitted in future years, but it’s actually leveling the playing field. For other in-state options, look at the CSUs, many of which have hidden-gem programs and are budget-friendly.

The ultimate goal of the college admissions process is for students to attend a university where they will thrive and come out healthy, successful and happy.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for College Unlocked. For more information, email hollis@collegeunlocked.com.

Shelby Stewart contributed to this column.