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In the U.S., it’s Thanksgiving week. While I’m sure 2020 is a year most of us will want to forget, I’m thankful to all of you for your support of this reimagined newsletter over the last year. In a future edition, I’ll be including a link to a reader survey to see how we can improve the newsletter for next year.

? In case you missed it: My latest book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was named one of the 100 notable books of 2020 by the New York Times.

To celebrate, and in anticipation of holiday gifts, here’s a special offer: I have a limited number of pre-order book plates left. These are numbered and signed by me and they can be placed inside the book.

  • These were hand drawn by my dad (see design at the end of this newsletter).
  • 1.) Get a copy of my book for yourself and another one as a gift. 2.) Fill out this form. 3.) I’ll send you two signed book plates: one for your book and one for the gift.
  • This is a limited-time offer until supplies run out.

The Future of Testing

Among the many industries that will be thankful for life to return to some sort of normalcy after the pandemic is the standardized testing industry, specifically the ACT and SAT. The question, however, is what the new normal will look like for the tests.

Over the spring and summer as the ACT/SAT canceled tests and hundreds of colleges — including highly selective ones — joined the test optional movement (at least for this year), I asked a group of admissions deans to forecast the percentage of test scores they’d end up receiving this year.

  • Many were flying blind — this would be their first year without requiring tests, and as I’ve written in previous newsletters, everything in admission is based on historical trends.
  • Still, most deans forecasted somewhere in the range of 50–75% of applicants would submit scores.

The numbers: In recent weeks, as applications have been arriving at colleges for early decision (or regular admissions), I made another round of calls and emails.

  • Few schools want to publicly release the numbers of student submitting scores so early in the process, partly out of fear a low number might encourage a wave of applicants who have no shot of getting in.
  • So far, the number of applicants with test scores is lower than what was expected.

What I’m hearing: Here’s a snapshot of the percentage of students who have submitted scores, with some context for the type of institution based on their acceptance rate.

  • Private research university (<10% acceptance rate): 70%
  • Public research university (<60% acceptance rate): 30%.
  • Public university (<80% acceptance rate): 25%
  • Public research university (<25% acceptance rate): 69%
  • Private research university (<20% acceptance rate): 43%.

From the dean of admission at the final school on the list above: “We’re seeing big gains in diversity. Very pleased about that and it’s something that will make a return to required testing harder to do.“

The most extensive report I got was from a large public research university with a national footprint (<60% acceptance rate):

  • 59% with test scores, but big differences by residency and major.
  • 56% in-state. 75% out-of-state. 43% international.
  • 75% engineering. 55% business. 35% education, social work, general.

From the dean of admission at this school: “Based on what we heard from in-state privates who were test-optional, we were guessing test-optional would have been 10–15% if we had gone test optional in a ‘normal year.’ So this is about double what we expected.”

What I’m watching: Florida, Florida, Florida.

  • The 12 universities in the State University System of Florida, including the University of Florida, are among the few big schools that haven’t gone test optional.
  • So far, the universities are seeing a 50% drop in applications compared to last year.

What’s next: Earlier this month, 30% of the students who registered for the SAT were unable to take the test because of testing center limits or closings. That number was running closer to half earlier this fall.

  • As we enter 2021, more high school juniors than seniors will be taking the tests. If their tests are canceled in close to equal numbers to what has happened this fall, colleges that went test optional for a year will have to make a decision about whether to extend that for the Class of 2022.
  • Expect the most selective colleges that are test-optional for a year to hold off as long as possible on that announcement — late spring/early summer — to see if testing returns to any sort of normalcy

Bottom line: The early numbers indicate that, in general, the more selective the university and the more selective the major, the higher the percentage of students submitting scores. Those are the institutions most likely to return to testing after this is over, along with some big publics with overwhelming numbers of applicants or where there will be political pressure to require test scores. But we’re probably talking perhaps dozens of institutions, not hundreds.

Home for the Holidays

The median miles between high school and college: 116 (Source: Naviance)

With more families expected to stay home for Thanksgiving this year, I’m also seeing in various surveys that high school seniors might want to do the same when it comes to going to college: enroll in a school that’s close to home.

Why it matters: Student migration to college over the last 40 years has been one of the biggest reasons why some schools have become so much more selective.

  • As I chronicled in my new book, it’s not that there are so many more top-notch students applying to college; it’s that the top ones from Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and Buffalo are now all applying to the same selective schools. And they’re applying to way more of them.
  • There’s no denying that the competition for a seat at a specific college is much tougher for today’s students than it was for their parents.
  • But it’s not true that getting into any selective college is actually that much harder. Even top colleges accept higher numbers of students than they need because they know only between a third and a half of those accepted will say yes to their offer.

Time travel: This is one of my favorite clips to show — acceptance rates of the U.S. News & World Report rankings when I was applying to college in 1990 (the number on the left is average SAT score).

From U.S. News America’s Best Colleges, 1989

The numbers: Since 1998, seven states more than doubled the number of high school students who left to go to college: Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas.

Bottom line: I’m a bit skeptical about what a teenager tells a survey in 2020 compared to where they submit a deposit in 2021. But if student migration patterns do change, when combined with demographic shifts in the coming years (fewer high school graduates in the Northeast and Midwest), we could start to see acceptance rates rise again at some selective schools, especially those not at the very top of the rankings.


A Tale of Two Jefferson Counties
Just 20 years ago, Al Gore and George W. Bush split the 100 most-educated counties in the nation. This year, Joe Biden won 83 of them, write Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood. (

New International Enrollment Data Should Worry College Towns, Too
International education is big business, but in the United States, unlike places like Australia, we don’t talk about it that way, writes Karin Fischer. (

How Has the Pandemic Changed College Admissions?
High school seniors are feeling the disruption of the pandemic as they tackle the college admissions process. I joined fellow author and New York Times Adolescence columnist Lisa Damour on her podcast to answer questions about applying to college in a pandemic. (


Something to think about in the college search…

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

And here’s a picture of the book plate (yours will be signed)…

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...