Long-term trends fuel most competitive admissions cycle yet
Editor’s Note: The Observer spoke with associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment Don Bishop to gain insight into the increasingly competitive Notre Dame admissions process. This article is the first in a series analyzing different trends and development in admissions.
Following two decades of the number of applicants surging, Notre Dame admissions are now more competitive than ever.
In the 2022 cycle, only 12.9% of applicants gained admission, and associate vice president for undergraduate admissions Don Bishop said deposits are ahead of schedule, meaning only a few applicants will be accepted off the waitlist.
“This year we’ve admitted 765 fewer students than we did in 2010, and we probably won’t have to admit many more. We might have to take some off the waitlist, but right now our deposits are running ahead,” Bishop said. “Not only do we have 12,000 more applications than we had 10 years ago, but we’re also admitting 750 fewer to get the same size class.”
Applications and student rigor increase dramatically
The increase in competitiveness over the last decade follows a nationwide trend at other top private universities. At Notre Dame, applications have skyrocketed 131% since 2004. Application numbers have risen in part due to a larger high school population and a trend in which students apply to more schools.
“Students used to apply to five to eight schools. Now the average is probably closer to 10 to 15 schools,” Bishop said.
Notre Dame applications increased by 2,369 in 2021 and 2,866 in 2022, significantly higher than the 834 average over the last 18 years in the only two years when applicants were not required to submit a test score.
The only other year with an increase greater than 2,000 was 2011, two years after Notre Dame adopted the Common Application.
The prevalence of the Common Application has played a large role in students applying to more schools, Bishop said. Once filled out, a student can send their Common Application to several schools, in some cases without tailoring the application to the specific school. Applicants to Notre Dame must fill out a supplemental application in addition to the Common Application.
“Any school that joined the Common App two things happened — they eventually got a boost in applications, but their yield rate went down,” Bishop said.
Notre Dame joined the Common Application in 2009 and initially saw small gains in the number of applicants along with slight decreases in the yield rate (the percentage of admitted students that enroll) in the two years following.
Despite the new ease of application, the yield rate gradually recovered in the following years, peaking at 58.4% in 2019.
The number of applicants is not the only thing that is increasing. The qualifications of each applicant are also reaching new levels.
Notre Dame’s applicant pool has seen the number of applicants that score within the top 1.5% of the nation on standardized tests increase by fourfold, Bishop said.
“Some schools make it part of their strategy to increase the applicant pool without trying to discern whether the student is a potential match,” Bishop said. “We’ve quadrupled the number of students at the very top of our pool, but we’ve not tried to quadruple our entire pool. We tried to do it more strategically for the students that we think have more of a likelihood for gaining admission.”
Recruiting strategy changes help drive increase in competitiveness
In addition to the introduction of the Common Application, Bishop partially attributed the spike in applicants to changes in the University’s recruiting strategies over the past 13 years.
In 2009, 14,357 students applied to Notre Dame, according to the University’s admissions data. In 2021 and 2022 respectively, 23,642 and 26,508 students applied. A rise in yield rate accompanies the jump in applications. In 2009, the University saw a 50.2% yield rate compared to a 57.8% rate in 2021.
Bishop began working in Notre Dame admissions immediately following his graduation, left to pursue other opportunities, then returned to Notre Dame in 2010 in his current position, initiating changes in how the admissions department reached out to students.
“I was brought back and given more resources, and we had a different mindset of how to do things, and it’s largely worked,” he said.
Changes implemented upon Bishop’s return included recruiting students beginning their junior or even sophomore year of high school instead of only during their senior year, placing a larger emphasis on the University’s academics when recruiting, increasing staff travel and interaction between applicants and current students and stressing Notre Dame’s friendliness and unique identity, Bishop said.
“A lot of students who are comparing us to other schools see the friendliness of the students and the willingness to help each other, and they compare that to the competitive nature of some of other places that they’ve gone to see,” he said. “They see more collaboration, more team orientation, more ‘I’m going to walk in the room and try to get smarter’ as opposed to this more narrow, frantic imperative that ‘I have to prove I’m the smartest person in every room I walk into.’ That is not the Notre Dame way.”
Bishop said the greater emphasis on the University’s academics during recruiting has largely led to the increase of the caliber of students applying. In 2005, 80% of the top test scorers who applied gained admission to Notre Dame, Bishop said. Now less than 40% of those top test scorers gain admission. This trend demonstrates the increase in the number of top test scorers applying and the weakened emphasis Notre Dame admissions has placed on test scores, Bishop said.
“We quadrupled the number [of top test scorers applying], so there’s still more of them in the class,” he explained. “Whereas they were 27% of the class back in 2005, they are now about 70% of the class, but it could’ve been everybody, so we’re not using test scores as much.”
Bishop looks to the future of Notre Dame admissions
Looking to the future, Bishop said admissions does not aim to further decrease their admission rate.
“A lot of our peers that are real competitors are at the 5 to 8% admit rates,” he said. “We’re not trying to be them, and we’re not going to be.”
At the same time, Bishop said there is no formulated plan to increase the class size or decrease the number of applicants by limiting the number of high schoolers the admissions department contacts.
One policy Bishop said admissions will evaluate is whether or not the University will remain test-optional. Beginning in the 2020-2021 application period, applicants have not been required to submit standardized test scores.
The change in policy is correlated with application increases of 2,369 and 2,866 in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
Bishop said Notre Dame has grown significantly over the past few decades and is already the third-largest school compared to other selective private research universities.
“Cornell enrolls about 3,300 freshmen. Penn enrolls 2,400. If we enroll our 2,050 goal, we’re the third largest,” he said. “In 2004, we were at 1988 … if you go back to 1990, we were around 1,900 students and in 1980 we were around 1,700, so we’ve already grown more than our peers over the last 40 years.”
While increasing the class size is a possibility, Bishop said more planning would be needed.
“The question stands: could we grow some more? That’s always a possibility. Because of the residential commitment and investment here, we’d need to have an economic model that hired more faculty and built more dorms,” he said.
Unlike some selective universities, Bishop said a lack of space is not the problem, pointing to the remaining nine holes of the Burke golf course.
“We’re not landlocked like somewhere like NYU or Harvard,” he said. “We have plenty of space to use but there’s a whole set of metrics there that you’re going to have to look at.”
Selectivity and Notre Dame’s unique mission are two considerations, he added.
“If Notre Dame’s trying to be one of the most selective schools, it’s much harder to have a lower admit rate when you’re larger than everybody,” Bishop said. “Remember, we’re not trying to appeal to everybody generically. We’re trying to appeal as a faith-based, leading Catholic university.”