The Rover investigates test-optional policy, diversity, and Catholic identity in admissions
The University of Notre Dame’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions admitted the class of 2026 on Thursday, March 17th at 18:42 ET. In a change spurred by challenges from COVID-19 restrictions, admissions departments at top American universities, including Notre Dame, have implemented a test-optional policy for applicants. In addition to changes in application materials, factors such as virtual instruction due to COVID-19 restrictions and evolving university COVID-19 policies have altered the applicant pools and the traditional approach to college admissions.
The changes in approach coincide with trends with class profiles of the admitted students to Notre Dame, including the decreasing acceptance rate for the past two applicant pools. In 2021, Notre Dame admitted 3,446 students with an acceptance rate of 14.6 percent, while in 2022, 3,412 students were admitted with an acceptance rate of 12.9 percent. In comparison, the class of 2022, now seniors—was admitted with an acceptance rate of 17.6 percent.
The increased selectivity of Notre Dame can be attributed to the increase in applicants in both 2021 and 2022, said Don Bishop, Associate Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment at the University of Notre Dame. Bishop told the Rover that he believes that the increase in applications from 20,370 in 2018 to 26,504 in 2022 correlates with Notre Dame’s change to its test-optional policy in 2021.
“The test-optional [policy] for students with very top high school performances but lower test scores has increased those students’ willingness to apply to more colleges—and this is a good outcome,” Bishop said.
Bishop also remarked that the increased applicant pool reflects national trends. “Applications to all the top colleges jumped these past two years.”
He believes that this increase can be attributed to the supposition that, due to COVID-19 restrictions and their impact on traditional testing, colleges would not be able to rely on the usual data when reading applications. More students applied to top schools in the hopes that there would be a better chance for selection due to the necessary flexibility on the part of admissions offices, Bishop said.
“That did not occur. Class performance realities still anchored all of the most selective college decisions,” he explained. Without test scores available, admissions offices must rely upon class rank, extracurricular involvement, and other factors to determine whether an applicant is a good fit for the school.
While the standardized test has become less important in admissions decisions, Bishop expressed some concerns about the sustainability of the university’s new test-optional policy for applications.
“Prior to Covid, about 10 percent of an applicant pool at a test optional selective university were opting for the no test alternative. Right now, at many schools this is about 50 percent,” he said. In this year’s class of 2026, similarly to the admitted class of 2025, 33 percent of admitted students did not submit a test score to the university.
Bishop said that many students withhold their test scores from the university if it falls below the median from previous years. “If the trends we saw this year and last year persist, and if the students applying to the most selective colleges seem to withhold their test scores if their scores are below the median score for enrolled students, then it is likely that many of the most selective colleges will elect to return to requiring the test,” he predicted.
Referencing how some schools, including MIT, have reinstated the requirement for ACT or SAT test scores as part of the application, Bishop expressed concerns that applicants and high schools are “gaming the system.” He remarked, “High schools increasingly are altering rank in class data to cluster many students to be ranked number one in the class. Some schools are ranking as many as one-fourth of all their students as number one.”
In addition to an increase in applications, Notre Dame’s undergraduate admissions office has also reported a record-high number of students on the waitlist in the past two years. In 2021, 3,101 students were placed on the waitlist compared to the 3,446 admitted. In 2022, 3,046 students were waitlisted compared to the 3,412 students admitted. In 2020, even amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, only 1,777 students were put on the waitlist.
Bishop explained that the 71 percent increase of waitlisted students is intertwined with the changes in the test-optional policy. Not only is it more difficult to decide who should be admitted without the test score, but waitlist numbers are inflated in order for Notre Dame to preserve relationships with high schools and admissions counselors despite a decreasing rate of acceptance, Bishop claimed.
He told the Rover, “When you have a jump in applications like we did, you expand the waitlist to protect the high school counselors. It shows them that they were close.” Bishop clarified that it often takes several years for people to adjust to a more selective acceptance rate, but the wait-list sends the message of “denied with honors” and protects the credibility of the high school.
In the last two admitted student pools, Notre Dame has increased its percentage of minority students. In 2022, 41 percent of admitted students were persons of color. In 2021, it was 40 percent, with 36 percent in 2020 and 27 percent in 2019. The number has consistently rested around 30 percent for the last decade.
When asked about the increase in minority students among admitted students, Bishop cited a change in approach to attracting more low-income students: “We increased our recruitment of populations from lower-income well above any previous efforts to ensure the students we were attracting would be very top-level students.” He also claimed that the test-optional policy has opened the gateway for more lower-income students to apply to Notre Dame.
“Access for the lowest income Catholics will continue to add to our diversity,” Bishop explained. In reference to the primary focus of the admissions office, Bishop continuously emphasized the goal of increasing diversity of the applicant pool by appealing to lower-income Catholic students.
In further explanation of the Catholic identity of the university, Bishop noted that there has been little change over the past two years in the number of Catholic students admitted, which remains around 80 percent. Bishop also noted that it is now difficult to track religious affiliation because test agencies and the Common App no longer collect and provide data on religion.
In addition to no longer being able to retain this date from official sources, Bishop mentioned that 4 percent of Notre Dame applicants in 2022 did not answer the question regarding religion when asked on their specific supplemental application, compared to just 1 percent in 2021.
Don Bishop will retire from his role as Associate Vice President for Undergraduate Enrollment—a position he has held since 2010—on June 30th of this year. The university announced that Micki Kidder, the current vice president for University Enterprises and Events, will replace Bishop. Kidder, who received her MBA from the Mendoza College of Business in 2019, has worked in University Relations, the Office of the President, and is an assistant teaching professor of management and organization in the Mendoza College of Business.
The university will change the job title with Kidder’s installment, elevating the position from Associate Vice President to Vice President. Bishop told the Rover, “It is significant that the President has elevated the position to the Vice President level and also has it as a direct report to the Office of the President, with still a very strong link as well to the Office of the Provost.”
The Rover would like to congratulate Don Bishop on his retirement and echo Fr. Jenkins: “The University owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Don, who has overseen dramatic progress in our admitted classes and in the financial aid we were able to offer.”
Nico Schmitz is a sophomore from Los Angeles, CA majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. While he would have benefited from a test-optional policy when he was applying to colleges, his Latino heritage certainly helped him earn admission to Notre Dame. If you would like to see his ACT score breakdown, email him at email@example.com.