2020 was an unprecedented year in most respects, and the US university admissions situation was no exception to this. International applicants and their parents often asked me if competition would be more or less intense than usual. With a lot of chaos around the Covid pandemic, the election, and racial injustices in the US, they predicted fewer people would be applying there, though I never noticed a decrease in interest. As people are still asking me about this, it’s worth looking back and reviewing the admissions landscape of 2020-2021. Overall, the answer to these applicants’ question was no,
… it wasn’t easier to apply in 2020. The US admissions scene was, in fact, more competitive than usual.
For 2021 intake, applications were up across the board at competitive universities in the US. MIT saw an increase of 66% in the number of applications compared to the previous year; Boston University, Northeastern, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Brown applications were up 24%, 17%, 27%, 28%, and 27%, respectively.   
With unprecedented increases in the number of applications coming in, acceptance rates were lower than usual. Harvard, for example, had a significant increase in applications – more than 30% more applicants than in the previous year – and admitted 1,968 students out of 57,435 applicants at the undergraduate level, resulting in a record-breaking low acceptance rate of 3.43%.  Of course, it wasn’t just Harvard. The increase in applications to Yale was 33%, resulting in a record-low acceptance rate of 4.62%.  University of Pennsylvania, with an increase of 34% in applications, saw its acceptance rate drop to record-low 5.68%, down from around 8% the previous year.  Columbia saw a 51% increase in applications, and the acceptance rate was a record-low 3.7%.
These numbers take into account both domestic and international applicants. But for international applicants, things were not any easier. Applications to NYU from international candidates were up by 22%. For Boston University, international applications were up by around 10%; for the University of California system, also 10%; and for Tufts, 14%. Even for schools that are not as famous abroad, applications from abroad were up; for example, at Missouri State University saw an increase of 38% compared to the previous year.  And there was not typically a corresponding increase in acceptances. In some cases, the percentage of international students accepted even decreased. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, of the admitted students, international students make up only 11% this year, down from 14% the previous year. 
There are also some differences depending on where one is applying from. While applications from China decreased by 18%, the overall increase in applications from outside the US was due to increases from many other countries. To name just a few of them, applications from Canada increased by 22%; from the UK, 23%; from Brazil, 41%; and from India, 28%. 
We expect the US to remain a popular destination for international applicants this year as well. Schools are still test optional, the pandemic is more under control in the US than it was in 2020 (vaccines are widely available and the vaccination rate is relatively high), and President Biden signed several executive orders that set a more immigrant-friendly tone. Thus, international applicants in particular are advised to look beyond typical requirements or expectations when building their profiles, and also take into account the more competitive landscape (compared to the landscape before 2020) when selecting universities to apply to.
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