Updated: Feb 2, 2021
We've been asked many times over the past several months: How do you think the pandemic will affect my college admissions chances? It was reasonable to anticipate that overall odds might improve because fewer students would apply, perhaps because a virtual college experience is arguably no experience at all, or that travel restrictions would eliminate competition from overseas applicants.
As it turned out, everybody understood that fully analog campuses would reconvene in the fairly near future. International applications surged dramatically following the November elections and anticipated changes in immigration policies. Some theorize that the inability to visit campuses in person prompted wary juniors to hedge their bets by applying to a longer list of schools. Or, maybe students simply had more time on their hands and nothing better to do than apply to more schools!
The real game-changer, apparently -- albeit almost exclusively among the most selective schools -- was the decision to go test-optional.
Harvard, for example, reports that it received 42% more applications than last year. So great was the crush that the school says it will delay its decision date from March 26 to April 6. Harvard also deferred about 80% of its early applicants to the regular pool, and accepted just 7.4%, a record low. In addition to going test-optional, Harvard attributes increased applications to its strong financial-aid program and online recruiting efforts.
Colgate University, not an Ivy but certainly highly selective, admits it was "shocked" to see its applicant pool increase by 102%! This means its admit rate should drop from around 30% to maybe 17%. Colgate also went test-optional, and similarly credits its unprecedented popularity to removing student debt from its aid packages and strong online recruiting.
While admissions data are limited at this point, Harvard and Colgate are likely leading indicators of the admissions situation at other highly selective schools. Yale's early action applications increased by 38% and it accepted 10%. Duke's early applications were up by 16% while its admit rate dipped from about 21% to 17%. Tulane's early admissions pool increased by 35% and its overall admit rate is expected to drop to 12%.
Preliminary information further suggests that the top schools are filling about half of their classes through early admissions.
Several top schools have announced they will continue test-optional policies at least through next year (Columbia, Williams and Amherst among them). However, it is important to understand that not all test-optional policies are created equal. Georgetown, for instance, accepted about 11% of its early-decision applicants, but only about 7% of those did not submit test scores. Cornell has indicated it expects scores unless the applicant provides a good explanation for not submitting them.
The situation is different at Tufts, where 57% of applicants did not submit scores and 56% of those were admitted, and Williams, where 46% didn't submit, and 43% of them got in. So, if you plan to go test optional, look for schools like Tufts and Williams that sign a so-called Test-Optional Pledge, meaning that they really, truly, do not discriminate against test-optional applicants.
They may, however, exert greater scrutiny over the rest of the application, especially your extra-curricular activities, essays and teacher recommendations. It is more important than ever to take care that your outside activities support your academic interests and help tell a cohesive story about who you are and what you hope to achieve.
Colleges are not necessarily expecting you to pick a major, much less a career, but they do want some idea of where you think you might be headed. Your main essay likely will also receive more weight, along with your supplemental essays, especially why you are applying to their school.
Teacher recommendations can be tricky in a virtual learning environment, where it may be harder to establish personal connections. Clearly, making that effort is more important than ever.
While submitting test scores may be an option, embracing these emerging realities of college admissions is not. To an unprecedented degree, it is critically important to strike a balance in your college search, to build your story and with it your strategy, and to find your perfect match with a considered set of colleges that is every bit as realistic as it is aspirational.