Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020

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Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020
Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020

Can the lessons of 2020 help us forge a better 2021? [Show summary]

For Admissions Straight Talk’s 400th episode, Linda Abraham reflects on a turbulent year and identifies the most important trends in higher ed admissions to watch in 2021.

Applying to graduate school: A journey of self-improvement [Show notes]

We’ve reached Episode 400! I feel it’s a milestone, and I’ve decided to do a little bit of a different kind of a show. I’m going to discuss two important developments of 2020 and their impact on applicants, their implications for you as you apply, and how you should deal with them. 

I also want to speak at the very end on a more personal and, hopefully, thoughtful perspective, a little bit higher level, more strategically, and share some thoughts as we are starting to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. This is a brand new year. The other perspective that I’m going to share will reflect a little of what I’ve learned from Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks, a favorite writer, thinker, and teacher of mine, who sadly passed away in November. His writings have relevance to many people and many situations, but specifically to grad school applicants, and I’m dedicating this podcast in his memory.

The rising number of graduate program applicants [2:16]

The first development that folks need to be aware of, and I’m sure you are aware of, is the surge. And no, I don’t mean the surge in COVID cases that we are tragically experiencing. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the surge in applicants to graduate programs across the board that is occurring this fall and winter.

What do I mean by that? Let’s give some examples. In December, NPR reported that 18% more applicants applied via AAMC to medical school than did a year earlier. Some school-specific numbers: Stanford, which also went test-optional, reported a 50% increase in applications. Boston University reported a 27% increase in applications. And when I spoke with Paul White of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in October, for Admissions Straight Talk’s 392nd episode which you can find at, he reported at that point an increase of 25% in applications to Johns Hopkins.

Business schools are also experiencing a surge in applications. They were experiencing a decline in applications that seemed to end for most schools with round two of last year and the recession’s onset in March of 2020. They have also seen a surge in applications this cycle. The stats for last year revealed 67% of MBA programs reporting increased applications per GMAC. The stats for this year aren’t out yet, but news reports, whether from The Wall Street Journal, Poets&Quants, or my conversations with admissions directors, all indicate increased application volume.

Law school applications have also soared. Through December 15th, LSAC reports a 38% increase in applicants (not applications, but applicants) year over year, a whopping 57.4% increase in applications year over year, and an almost 62% increase in applications over two years ago. Twelve out of 200 law schools reported a 100% increase in applications, and 106 out of 200 law schools reported an increase of between 50 and 99%, which means that well over half of law schools are reporting more than a 50% increase in applications. LSAC, conservatively, warns that it’s too early in the cycle to draw conclusions, since at this time last year, 34% of applications had been counted. However, I am concluding that with roughly a third of applications in, or presumed to be in at this point in time, the file numbers may not be this eye-popping, but there will be a marked increase in applications to the nation’s law schools. 

Various graduate specialties are also up: for example, Master’s in Public Health. ABC News, citing data from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, which has over 100 MPH programs participating in its Common Application service, reports a 20% increase in applications this year. Data science programs are mushrooming.

Strategies for standing out in a competitive applicant pool [5:29]

That’s the news; what can you do about it? We try to be very practical here at Admissions Straight Talk. I don’t like to just raise problems; I also like to suggest to you ways to deal with them. 

One thing I think you need to do, particularly this year, is be realistic. Apply mostly to programs where you are likely to get accepted. If your dream school is a stretch, I’m not saying you have to give up on your dreams. You can still apply to it, and you might get in because you really, really want to, and you can really demonstrate fit. But for the rest of the programs, make sure that you’re being realistic.

Number two, submit outstanding applications that show that you both fit in at your target schools and are a standout in the applicant pool.

Number three, apply to additional schools that support your educational and professional goals. So often, I see applicants write, “Oh, I want Top 10, or M7, or T14, or top 20.” That’s okay if you get in, and there can be reasons to want those schools, but beyond that, also think about your specific direction in your field and which schools are really good in that area, even if overall, they aren’t rated quite as high or rank quite as high. That way, you apply more thoughtfully, more strategically, and more successfully.

Finally, demonstrate interest in the schools that you are applying to. Now, how can you do that? Isn’t submitting an application  a demonstration of interest? It is, but there’s more you can do. Obviously, every applicant is demonstrating interest in that way. First of all, make sure that your application shows fit with the program’s strengths, its values, and its mission. Also, attend online events for applicants. You can’t visit now, but attend those online events. Doing so is a demonstration of interest, and it also will means that you have better information that you can include in your application, or when you interview, or in updates. Try to interact and communicate with current students and recent alumni, so that your application can reflect insight, your efforts, and your genuine informed interest in that particular program.

The increasing availability of test-optional programs and test waivers [7:55]

Who should take advantage of test waivers, and who shouldn’t? There has been a trend to go test-optional in undergrad admissions for several years, but it really hadn’t influenced grad admissions until the COVID shutdown. Suddenly, applicants could not take the MCAT, the LSAT, the GMAT, or the GRE. Within a few weeks of the shutdown, the GRE, the GMAT, and a little later, the LSAT, were widely available online. The MCAT remained offline and became available only at the end of June in 2020. Some schools, at the time, decided that they were going to expand the number of tests they were accepting. Others decided to allow you to apply and then get the test score in. The schools were trying to adapt to the situation as much as we were trying to deal with it. Let’s look at what happened in a few different fields.

With most medical schools, the overwhelming majority are continuing to require the MCAT, but some, notably Stanford and the University of Wisconsin, have gone MCAT-optional for this application cycle. In the law school world, I couldn’t find any LSAC law schools that are now test-optional. In business schools, it was a little bit different. The trend over the last 10 years has been for business schools to accept an increasing number of tests. The trend started first with the GRE. Again, that was about 10, 12 years ago, and last year, some schools started accepting the Executive Assessment for their full-time MBA programs, even though that test was originally designed for executive MBA programs. When the shutdown hit, schools started accepting a broader collection of exams: LSAT, MCAT, SAT, ACT, and I think one was accepting the Chinese University Entrance Exam, and some schools waived the GMAT for the end of last cycle.

This year, more schools are going test-optional or allowing applicants to request test waivers. A few examples would be MIT Sloan, Ross, and UVA Darden. There’s a list on the Accepted website where you can see which MBA programs are test-optional or are offering waivers. Many other grad programs have gone test-optional or allow applicants to apply for waivers, including most MPH programs. But you have to make sure that you know what your target program’s requirements are. Obviously, if some require the test and some don’t, you’re going to have to take it, and you’re going to have to prepare for it.

When to accept a test waiver, and when to take the test [10:22]

What should you do if your target schools are test-optional, or you’re applying intentionally and exclusively to test-optional schools? What if you really have that choice? The test is either entirely optional or you have test waiver options. 

What should you do? Should you jump up and down because you do not need to pay for, sit, or study for this exam? Maybe. If you have a great academic record, as well as all the other experiential must-haves and nice-to-haves that your program seeks, yes, jump up and down for joy. You probably are fine applying without the exam. Those are the people whom the schools would be happy to accept, and they won’t pay that much attention to your exam.

If however, your undergraduate record reflects underachievement on your part, or is below average or lacking in some way for the programs that you’re applying to, you probably need the test score to present evidence you can handle the program. I’m sorry to say it, but you will probably enhance your chances of acceptance by studying, paying for, and taking the exam. That’s probably not what you want to hear, but I’m supposed to be a reality check sometimes.

What if you are a bad-test taker and your undergraduate record reflects underachievement on your part or is not competitive at your target programs? Then you probably could better spend your time, money, and energy to show academic ability in other ways if the programs you want to apply to don’t require the test.

Most medical schools are still requiring the MCAT, so this probably is not that germane to med school applicants, but you might consider a postbac program for medical school students. If you’re applying to MBA programs, you have more options. There’s HBS CORe for graduate management education. You could consider pursuing the CFA or, the Certified Financial Planner, if it’s relevant to your goal. Perhaps just go for relevant graded courses, especially if you don’t have the business course options that I just mentioned. We’ve seen that work very effectively with clients, where they take courses in a new field of interest, and they get A’s in them. It could be an online four-credit certificate program or another degree, or just coursework with A’s. The point here is that, with the application surge and with some schools going test-optional, you have to assess whether you need that test to reinforce the idea that you can do the work in the graduate program that you are applying to.

Reflecting on 2020 [13:19]

When we first started Admissions Straight Talk back in 2012, I can’t say we were regular. We didn’t necessarily do it every week. But since 2013, it’s been week in and week out, and that’s how we got to number 400, and I’m rather proud of that fact. I’m going to take advantage of my pride and use it as an excuse to share some thoughts on a higher plane than my usual tactical approach for some recognition about events this year, and also some recognition and admiration for you, my listeners and graduate applicants.

I’m drawing here a lot on what I’ve learned by reading and following Rabbi Lord Dr. Jonathan Sacks, who I mentioned earlier. He’s a writer, thinker, and teacher whom I admire greatly, and I also mentioned earlier that he passed away in November. He was eulogized by people from a broad array of fields, and places, and geographies. I feel that I, along with the rest of the world, have lost a mentor, moral voice, and valued teacher. Here are a few lessons I gleaned from his work and teaching, which I think are relevant to applicants about to embark on a major self-improvement project. And that is what higher ed is, at this very tempestuous time in history, a very uncertain time in history.

2020 was a bad year. I don’t want to minimize that. But there were silver linings amidst the tragedy and the suffering, and yes, the many deaths. That means that people are grieving and hurting. I don’t want to minimize that, but I do think it’s really important to recognize some of the silver linings. It’s important to recognize those who showed up with heroism and courage every day, day in and day out: the essential workers in hospitals, and grocery stores, truckers, whatever their field, that just kept on going. Rabbi Sacks pointed out also that the pandemic is one of the few times in history when all of mankind, including those essential workers, was fighting the same enemy, despite the divisions and divisiveness in other areas in our time, and even despite the disagreement that existed and exists about how to fight COVID. We all had the same enemy, and this is possibly the first and only time in history where that was true. Let’s recognize and celebrate this fleeting, and yes, admittedly tenuous, unity.

One result of the pandemic, I think, is a little humility on the part of mankind. A tiny, tiny microscopic microbe is throwing us for a loop, and with all our sophistication, and our technology, and our travel to the far corners of the universe, we had to pause and regroup. We had to realize that we are not always in control. Now, while a little humility is a good thing, paralysis is not, and one of Rabbi Sacks’ fundamental teachings, which I definitely share, is that we are empowered to change and improve. Our destiny is influenced by events and by our past, but not determined by them. We always have the choice of how to respond, and we should never give up hope, as we attempt to create a brighter and better future.

Education is fundamentally about improvement, and your applying and pursuing an education shows your commitment to improve yourselves and society, and that too, needs to be recognized and celebrated. For those of you dealing with either prior academic issues or obstacles to the pursuit of your dreams, you may need to work a little longer, a little harder to get you where you want to go. But in most cases, you can get there, or you can get awfully close to it. You can change. Your past is not your future, and it doesn’t dictate your future. You can change.

Finally, as his daughter eloquently stated at his funeral, Rabbi Sacks firmly believed that problems are there to be addressed and solved, not merely put up with. He firmly believed in the power of change and our ability to change, and I know that so do many of you, because I’ve had the privilege of reading and reviewing many personal statements, statements of purpose, and application essays. They frequently discuss how you want to use your graduate education to solve a problem, to improve yourselves and society, and to contribute.

As we move deeper into 2021, please don’t lose that commitment to self-improvement, and as Admissions Straight Talk returns to its regular programs, with little or no pontification from me, I’d like you to give yourselves a pat on the back and celebrate both your ability to change and your commitment to self-improvement, as evidenced by your pursuit of additional education. Congratulations for not letting the turbulence of 2020 stop you from pursuing your dreams and improving the world in 2021 and beyond.

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