ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / Navigating the College Application Process in 2023-24

Navigating the College Application Process in 2023-24

Joy Bullen
Written by Joy Bullen | April 17, 2023
Photo by Zen Chung

Admissions Trends and Tips from Jeff Selingo

For the third year in a row, the number of college applications submitted to top colleges was up, indicating that the application swell that occurred during the pandemic is now the norm. The number of students applying to college has stayed roughly the same over the past few years, but the convenience of online applications like the Common App and the rise of test optional policies has made it easier for students to apply to more schools. The increase in applicants is disproportionately focused on a relatively small number of top colleges.

More applications means more competition (theoretically), which means it’s more important than ever for students to understand the latest admissions trends and have a clear strategy for applying to college. Jeff Selingo, author of the popular college admissions book Who Gets In and Why and a journalist who has specialized in higher ed for decades, spoke on admissions trends at a recent webinar. We attended the webinar and pulled out some key insights and tips to help you better understand what's new in college admissions and create your strategy for navigating the application process during the 2023-24 season.

First, an important reminder: "Most schools admit most students."

In the webinar, Jeff Selingo calls out that it is not his intention to increase stress around what is already an incredibly stressful process for many families. At College Confidential, we wholeheartedly agree! We're on a mission to reduce stress and make applying to college an easier and more joyful process.

Selingo reminded students that there are around 4000 colleges in the United States, and approximately 1400 of those are four-year schools. Out of those 1400 four-year colleges, there are only about 200 schools that accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants. Out of the other 1200 four-year schools out there, the average acceptance rate is 65 percent.

“Most colleges accept most students,” Jeff Selingo reminded students and parents who feel their heart rate rising everything they even think about applying to college. With that in mind, with so many options to choose from, it’s still crucial to have a solid strategy for building your list and applying to the right schools at the right time.

1) Admissions Trend: Schools are admitting more early applicants

One major trend in recent years is the rise of more application deadlines and early options, such as Early Decision (ED) I and II and Early Action (EA). According to the Common Application, 37 percent of its member schools now offer some EA/ED options. In the past, colleges admitted a small percentage of their applicants via early admissions, but the rise in applicants has made it more important for schools to be able to more accurately protect their yield, or how many students will attend. Binding options like Early Decision I & II mean colleges can be assured that the student they admit will actually attend. And even non-binding Early Action gives schools a better sense of which students have put them at the top of their lists.

Early admissions options also extend the length of the college review period. Since early applications are generally due in the Fall and reviewed in November and December, schools don’t have to invest in hiring more readers to meet increased demand during the peak review months of January, February and March. All of this means that schools are admitting a much larger percentage of their class during early application deadlines and then deferring large numbers of applicants to the regular admissions cycles.

Take Clemson University, for example, which offered Early Action (EA) for the first time this year. Clemson received a total of 58,000 applications for an incoming class of 4,500 students. Of these, 26,000 applications (or 44 percent) were submitted Early Action. Clemson deferred 15,000 of those applications to the regular decision cycle to be reviewed again alongside the other 32,000 applicants who did not apply EA. Yes–you read those numbers correctly. Clemson deferred enough early action students to fill their incoming class three times over.

2) Application Tip: Create an early decision strategy by summer or early Fall

According to Selingo, this trend towards more early acceptances doesn’t necessarily mean that all students should apply early. Students who want to be able to compare financial aid packages may be better served by skipping the binding commitment of ED, though early action could still be a viable option. It does, however, mean that all students should have a well-considered application strategy, even if that strategy is to forego applying early. Creating a solid early application strategy requires having a good handle on your college list during the Spring and Summer before applying and weighing the pros and cons of the different admissions deadlines.

When researching schools, look at the percentage of applicants they admit early. (If the info is available, you can find the ED/EA acceptance rates from the Common Data Set on College Confidential’s school pages, under the Admissions tab for each school. See an example for Kenyon here, which accepted 62 percent of students who applied early, compared to an overall acceptance rate of 37 percent.)

If your top choice school admits a significantly higher percentage of its incoming class early, it might be a good idea to consider an early application. Students may also want to consider which schools to apply to EDI, EDII and EA. Yes, you can apply to more than one school early, as long as you approach it thoughtfully. If applying EDI, choose a school that you would be thrilled to attend if you were admitted. If you don’t get in, have your application materials ready to submit for EDII or EA at your second choice school. Students can apply to both ED and EA to schools, as long as they understand that if they are offered admission to both schools, they must go with the ED school since their application came with a binding commitment.

3) Application Tip: Don’t Waste Application Space Explaining Your Weaknesses

Filling out college applications takes a lot of time, but that doesn’t mean colleges spend a lot of time reviewing them. Selingo says that, on average, admissions officers spend between 8 and 12 minutes per application, and sometimes much less. When completing your application, focus on “putting your best foot forward” and highlight the items that make the best case for why you belong at their school.

Unless you have a really extenuating circumstance, don't waste valuable application space explaining away the weak parts of your applications. Focus on your strengths and on showing the admissions committee who you are and what matters most to you. Be sure that everything you do share is easy to understand, because admissions officers won’t have time to google words or abbreviations to figure out what they mean. Avoid using acronyms and school-specific jargon that might confuse the reader.

4) Application Tip: Choose your classes and your recommenders wisely

Admissions officers will look at your transcripts, and they’ll be looking to see not only the classes you took, but the classes you didn’t take. Did you challenge yourself? Colleges will want to know if you took advantage of the classes your school offered and took at least some of the most challenging courses available.

Recommendations are another part of the application that admissions reps do read carefully, so choose your recommenders wisely. Pick people who know you well and can speak to your specific strengths.

5) Admissions Trend: Test Optional Policies Are Here to Stay

Another trend that has emerged in recent years is the move toward test-optional admissions. Since test centers were closed during the pandemic, many schools decided to create a temporary test-optional policy for students. Since then, a lot of schools have extended the policy, or even announced that they’ve decided to go permanently test optional, or even test blind. The rise of these policies has been relief for many prospective students, but left others more confused than ever.

6) Application Tip: Take the Test And Then Decide Whether To Submit Scores or Not

To submit, or not to submit? That is the question. Before deciding whether to submit your scores, Selingo highly recommends that students prepare for and take the ACT or the SAT. Once you have scores are in hand, they can be your most useful tool for deciding whether to submit or not.

First, take a close look at the SAT and ACT ranges for schools on your list. (If available, you can find test score percentiles and the number of students who submitted scores on the Admission tab of the college profiles. See this example from NYU.)

If your scores fall in the top 25 percent of all applicants, it’s almost definitely a good idea to submit them because they will only help your application. If your scores are above the 50 percent range but below the top 25 percent, you may want to submit scores, especially if your GPA is below average for the school or other areas of your application are less competitive. If your scores are below the 50 percent range for admitted students, and the school you're applying to is test optional, it’s probably best to skip submitting them.

Interestingly, Selingo noted that students with a B+ and A- averages were more likely to submit their test scores than students with solid A averages, most likely because they thought high test scores would help balance out their GPA. Students from high income zip codes, who historically have performed better on admissions tests, were also more likely to submit their scores.

Selingo also recommends that students ask their high school counselor where their test scores fall compared to other students at your high school. If your scores are significantly higher than the average for your high school, it might be a good idea to submit them because that will show the admissions committee that you did better than peers with access to similar test prep resources.

And last but not least, remember that schools with test-optional admissions may still consider test scores when offering merit-based scholarships and grants. If you’re on the fence about submitting your scores, inquire about how test scores factor into scholarships and other merit aid.

7) Admissions Trends: Some schools are ”Buyers” and some are “Sellers”

More applications than ever means more rejections than ever too. But remember what Selingo said, ”Most colleges accept most students” and the swell in applications is mostly focused on a relatively small number of top colleges. When crafting your list, consider including some of the schools that are still clamoring for students.

Selingo likes to think of these schools using a concept he created that categorizes schools as either “Buyers” and “Sellers.” A “Buyer” is a school that is in high demand and doesn’t need to offer discounts or merit aid to attract students. What makes a school a Buyer or a Seller is a little bit complicated, but an easy rule of thumb is that a school that accepts fewer than 30 percent of all applicants is most likely a Seller, and one that accepts more than 30 percent is likely a Buyer. This criteria doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the education or even the academic background of students. It only reflects how popular and selective a specific school is right now.

8) Application Tip: Aim to apply to around 10-12 schools, including some "Sellers"

These days, some students apply to upwards of 20 schools, but Selingo doesn’t think that’s necessary. He recommends creating a list of about 12 carefully-chosen schools, including 3-4 reach schools, 3-4 target schools, and 3-4 likely schools. To determine which schools belong in which bucket, refer to the schools admissions data. A reach school is a school where your GPA and test scores fall below the 25th percentile for admitted students. A target school is one where your scores are solidly average for admitted students, and a likely school is one where your scores are in the top 25 percentile.

When choosing likely schools, it’s important to look at the financial piece of the puzzle too, especially if you’re planning to use financial aid. But when applying to colleges, it’s crucial to have at least some Sellers on your list because Sellers are more likely to admit applicants and more likely to try to entice admitted students to enroll by offering tuition discounts or merit scholarships.

You can see a full list of schools considered Buyers and Sellers on Jeff Selingo’s website.

Applying to College in 2023-24?

Connect with the CC Community

Discuss all things college admissions in the CC Community, the oldest and largest online forum focused on applying to college.

Written by

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen is College Confidential's Senior Editor and Head of Content. She is a graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She also earned a master’s in Psychology from The New School for Social Research in NYC.

Before becoming a full-time writer and editor, Joy coached thousands of prospective and enrolled college students on admissions and academic and career success. She also managed a team of academic and career coaches and consulted with universities on how to create programs that have better outcomes for students.

More on Applying to College

See all
typing at computer- karolina-grabowska-6958506-resized

Authentic Voice in College Essays

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an ess…


College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship