Applying to college can be an arduous process, and hours spent responding to prompts and trying to find ways to stand out from peers on paper can create a fear of rejection for many students.
To minimize that stress, more colleges, university systems and companies have moved toward a different application process known as direct admissions.
What Is Direct Admissions?
Under the direct admissions approach, a college makes an offer of admission before a student has even applied – if they meet certain academic and, sometimes, demographic requirements.
“Our goal with this is really to focus on those students who might think that they aren’t ‘college material’ for lack of a better word,” says Jay Rothman, president of the Universities of Wisconsin, formerly the University of Wisconsin System. “This will give them a signal that yes, in fact, they are.”
While not a new concept, direct admissions is having its “moment,” says David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University in Virginia. That’s in part due to the Supreme Court’s decision on race-conscious admissions and fear of an upcoming enrollment cliff, he suggests.
“I think it’s very possible that in five to 10 years, you’ll see that this could very well become the new model of how most institutions are looking at making their admission decisions,” Burge says.
How Does Direct Admissions Work?
The process varies slightly depending on a school or company.
For instance, as part of the Common App’s Direct Admissions program – which was piloted in 2024 – participating schools set eligibility criteria such as a minimum GPA and state of residency. Students also must be first-generation, live in a household that has an income below the national average or be eligible for the college application platform’s fee waiver.
Students who meet these standards are identified through their responses on the Common App. An offer of intent is emailed out by the Common App and dean of admissions from the particular institution. That offer can only be accepted once a student submits an official application and the college verifies the information.
“While we certainly try to avoid these situations as much as possible, certain students who received an offer may not be eligible for direct admission following a closer review of the students’ official documents, such as school reports and transcripts – depending on each college’s unique requirements,” Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, wrote in an email.
The full-scale program was officially launched in November 2024, with admission offered to more than 300,000 first-generation and low- and middle-income students across 28 states, according to Rickard.
Schools With Direct Admissions Programs
GMU is one of many schools participating in the Common App’s program. Of those 2,000 students who were offered direct admission to GMU through the Common App in January 2022, 232 students accepted and applied, and 32 officially enrolled. Of those students, 59% were underrepresented minorities, 37% were first-generation and 20% were residents of rural communities, according to the school.
Like some other schools, GMU also created its own program this year by partnering with eight Northern Virginia high schools that provide some academic information about their students. Similar to the Common App program, students are then notified and are required to complete an abbreviated application to officially claim their offer. A student’s transcript is also verified, once submitted by the high school.
“From an institutional point of view, it’s in our best interest in the communities that we serve, in our case Northern Virginia, to make sure that we are serving all students who could be successful at Mason, but for whatever reason are choosing not to go to higher education at all,” Burge says. “So it gives us an opportunity to really engage with students directly and let them know that we believe in them to the point of willing to offer them admission without them doing the normal process of an application.”
Direct admissions is not for every school, however. Highly selective schools, for instance, are not using this practice.
“The reason for that could be … that those schools are already getting (a) tremendous amount of applications,” says Denard Jones, lead college counselor at Empowerly, a college admissions consulting company. “Just the move to test-optional during COVID has already changed the landscape so much for those universities. You have so many more students that are just willing to throw their name in the hat, if you will, for that.”
How Does Direct Admissions Benefit Students?
Applying to college can cause anxiety for students and their families, and many experts say direct admissions eliminates that stress.
“I can think back in my own history, filling out applications, checking the mailbox and having that anxiety about will they, won’t they like me enough to offer me admission?” Burge says. “There are schools that I took off my list because I thought, ‘They don’t want me.’ This program just looks talented, college-ready students in the face and says, ‘You will be successful here. And we want you to be successful here. Let’s reduce the anxiety of the application for you a little bit.'”
Reducing that stress and eliminating barriers like application fees helps diversify the application pool, experts say.
“Lots of folks don’t even have connections to their school career counselors in these bigger high schools or if they are in rural places,” Jones says. “To me, this is a great opportunity for connecting with folks who you know have the academic prowess to go to college, but might not be as well-vested in the process and well-versed in it.”
In addition to providing more access to education, direct admissions may introduce students to schools they might not have heard of or originally considered in the application process.
“If it’s a school that maybe you hadn’t heard of or know much about, it’s probably worth your time to go on a tour or just check out their website and see if it could be a good fit for you,” says Jordanna Maziarz, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University in New Jersey, a participant in the Common App’s Direct Admissions program.
“Because you never know what school is going to end up offering you a great financial aid package or end up being just a really good fit for your future home for the next four years. I would say it’s definitely worth pursuing and worth exploring to see if it’s a good match for you.”
Downsides to Direct Admissions
On the college side, direct admissions can make it difficult to gauge enrollment rates – the number of accepted students who actually attend a school – experts say.
“I think the yield for universities is so unpredictable with this,” Jones says. “We like to know what our numbers are going to look like after early decision, early action or regular.”
Chuck Knepfle, vice president for enrollment management at Portland State University in Oregon, a participant in the Common App’s Direct Admissions program, says some people may view the direct admissions process as a privacy violation.
“Not in the legal sense, but, ‘Hey, why in the world are you telling me I’m admitted? I have no interest in you,'” he says. “And theoretically, I think that could hurt our reputation if we are seen as too aggressive. I think if people don’t dig into it, it could be seen as a financial grab for us. We don’t charge these students to apply, but I’m sure there are direct admissions programs where schools are requiring an application fee. And that could be seen as a negative where the school is just trying to profit off of something.”
Direct admissions can make the college decision-making process tougher if a student is accepted by multiple schools through direct admissions. Additionally, depending on the school, not all majors are eligible and some academic fields have additional admission requirements.
“Some programs require an audition or a portfolio review, so those aren’t really compatible with providing this kind of offer,” says Maziarz. “Programs that are much more competitive and have a higher GPA requirement than generic admissions, those are ones that we haven’t yet experimented with including for direct admissions.”
Experts advise students to be wary of scams and to be careful about giving out personal information.
“Just make sure they look into it, verify that it’s actually coming from who it says it’s coming from and consider it a compliment that they’re being admitted somewhere,” Knepfle says.