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University Applications are on the Rise

8 February 2021

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, more and more students in the UK and US are considering higher education.

The pandemic has caused potentially long-lasting effects on all aspects of the student experience. However, despite the uncertainty facing students applying for higher education courses, the UK saw a record number of applications among young people in 2020, while the US experienced astounding levels of competition for elite schools.

The United Kingdom

In July 2020, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK reported a record 40.5% of all UK 18 year olds having applied, as well as a 14.7% increase in applicants from outside the EU compared with the previous year; the number of applicants from China and India increased by 33.8% and 32.9% respectively.

Among the under-18 applications, a record 25.4% of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK applied before the deadline. These figures show a significant shift in young people's opinion of higher education; as Alistair Jarvis, chief executive at Universities UK, suggests, young people are beginning to “recognise the many benefits that a university education brings for their life chances, career prospects and their future.” Another factor that has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in applications is the lack of job security. The Institute for Student Employers found more than a quarter (27 per cent) of businesses reduced the number of graduates they recruited in 2020, and this trend is likely to continue in 2021.

But it is not only young people who are more likely to consider applying for higher education, UCAS recorded a more than 30% increase in the number of mature applicants (aged 21 or over) in 2020, the largest single year growth since 2009. When asked why they decided to apply now, many applicants expressed a desire to “work on the front line”, suggesting that job security is not the only motivation behind applications.


The United States

In a typical year, more than 1 million students travel from all over the world to study at US colleges and universities. And for elite schools, the 2020 cycle was no different. Harvard University recorded a 57% increase in applications from the year before, and admitted 148 fewer students, making it the most competitive early admissions season of the school’s history. Many students who were lucky enough to receive offers from top U.S. universities, including 20% of Harvard first-year students, chose to defer their admission for a year, in hopes that travel restrictions will ease and in-person classes will be able to resume. One factor that may have encouraged more students to apply in 2020 were the changes to the college admissions process. Last summer, more than 400 US colleges decided to stop requiring the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (American College Test) for admissions. This is up from 47 schools announcing going test-optional in 2019. Both the SAT and ACT are notoriously challenging, and require students to study independently for roughly an entire year before the exam.

The situation recorded by colleges such as Harvard, however, does not match that of many non-Ivy League colleges in the US, many of whom experienced a decrease in applications. According to the Common App, a popular undergraduate college admission application, the total number of students filing out applications for undergraduate admission fell for the first time last autumn, down 2% as of December 1st 2020. According to Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “The ‘elite’, or ‘highly branded’ as I like to call them, may have felt them [the effects of the pandemic] a bit less. Those institutions that were already on the brink of an enrolment crisis that has been exacerbated, they’re feeling it a little bit harder than others.”


Although the situation regarding higher education is rife with uncertainty, there are still a lot of things to feel positive about. About the situation in the UK, Clare Marchant, UCAS' Chief Executive, said: “At this moment, we’re seeing an encouraging picture emerge out of national lockdown, with currently more applicants than last year keen to expand their mind, stretch themselves, and seize the opportunities that higher education can offer.” If you are thinking about applying to higher education programmes in the UK or the US, get in touch with UK Study Centre to find out how we can help you on your journey.

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