As COVID abates, new trends emerge in college admissions
COVID brought new challenges to students and college admissions officers alike. With little notice, colleges needed to find new ways to evaluate students who could not readily access testing centers, and students needed to not only study in a remote environment, but shift their extracurricular and co-curricular activities to an online setting. With the past assumptions that ‘online work’ was somehow less rigorous and valuable than ‘in person’ work, COVID forced institutions to reevaluate the past assumptions–for better or worse. What are the new trends and changes we will see in this upcoming college admissions cycle?
As schools continue to remain (or test) the ‘test optional’ waters, admission rates at the top schools will continue to decrease given students are no longer partially evaluated by their standardized test scores. Applications will continue to go up to the top tiers since holistic review will mean an increase in attention paid to who the student is outside and beyond the classroom, encouraging more students to consider themselves competitive if they evidence a breadth of non-academic experiences that add to the unique diversity of elite institutions’ incoming class.
Furthermore, while students have become more interested in the top tiers, interest has waned for the lesser known schools. Applications to college have increased 11% with universities that had more than 20,000 students seeing a 16% increase in applications; any increase in applications will mean a decrease in acceptances. Perhaps because students now see they may be competitive at more elite schools (since standardized scores are optional), they are less likely to apply to a wealth of schools in the ‘safety range’. On the positive side, however, as these lesser known schools begin to struggle with enrollment, they may start to offer more incentives to full pay international students (e.g., scholarships). We have seen a number of lesser known institutions offer scholarships, or increase their scholarships, to entice international students.
COVID also affected travel, perhaps also contributing to the decrease in transfer student applications. For international students, this is an important fact to keep in mind: in the past, freshman applications have always been much more competitive than transfer applications. Should the reduced transfer student application trend continue and the freshman application competitive trend continue, the transfer path into a higher ranking school may become a much more viable option for students who achieve highly as a freshman at a lower ranked institution and then apply to transfer for sophomore year.
Additionally, early decision had — in the past — guaranteed a higher acceptance rate for students compared to regular admission (at most schools) but during this past admissions cycle, early admissions rates decreased, especially at the top tier institutions.
Colleges have also now begun to assess context much more intentionally than they have in the past, as so many students learned remotely and juggled a myriad of home responsibilities. Harvard, for example, speaks of considering student self care alongside an academic transcript. They may consider mastery at certain skills and knowledge, outside of what’s learned in the classroom. The question for applicants, though, is to assess which schools have the staffing to review such applications in depth in a truly holistic way; at a big state institution, admissions officers may only be able to spend six or seven minutes on each application as they review over 60,000 each application cycle.
Finally, even with test optional policies, students should plan to take standardized test scores. Students applying to the University of Pennsylvania saw 38% of its test takers apply without test scores during early decision, but only 24% of accepted students came from this category. Particularly for international students who may have less complex extracurricular backgrounds, this is essential for their application review.
Very importantly for international students, remember that test optional is not test blind. In other words, test scores still matter to some extent for admission when the policy is ‘optional’ so I would encourage students to still take the SAT or ACT. However, admissions are now going to highly value extracurricular and cocurricular activities so activities outside of the classroom now matter more than ever, not only as a means to build the resume but from which students can then highlight their adaptability, learning, leadership, and resilience in narrative form for their college application essays.