Expert Admissions co-hosted a webinar covering trends in applications, how Covid impacted this year’s admissions results, and the future of standardized testing. Here are some highlights from the conversation.
The Year at a Glance
Highly selective colleges and universities saw record numbers of applications this year.
The trend was primarily fueled by the widespread adoption of test-optional policies, which led many students to believe their odds of acceptance would improve. Though that’s a misleading oversimplification, some students who were otherwise extremely competitive candidates were able to strategically withhold test scores that might otherwise hurt their applications.
We’ve also learned that students applied to more colleges this year than is typical. This was likely fueled by uncertainty about their future priorities as pandemic conditions continue to change.
With the dramatic increase in applications came a staggering drop in acceptance rates.
Test-optional policies are likely to persist beyond this response to pandemic conditions. It’s actually in the colleges’ interest to continue to be test-optional! It affords the schools maximum flexibility in terms of holistic admissions, and it keeps their rankings high when they receive more applications.
Though we predict long-term maintenance of test-optional policies, the official word is this:
- Current juniors are assured that most schools will be test-optional when they apply in the fall of 2021.
- For current sophomores, some schools have already announced that they will be test-optional, while others are saying they have yet to decide on their policy.
- For current ninth-graders, we just don’t know. Most colleges have not announced their policies that far into the future.
Even for current juniors, it’s important not to think of this as a free pass. It’s still in your best interest to submit strong scores to colleges. You might find that you get scores that you’ll want to send to some schools and not to others. You can be successful in the application process without scores, but you’ll also have better predictive ability and a better chance of being admitted to certain schools with test scores in your application.
While the SAT and ACT are being administered as in-person tests with appropriate safety precautions in place, the AP exams are being offered in person, online, and in a hybrid format.
There are important differences between the SAT and the ACT, and the best way to determine which test is right for you is to take a full-length diagnostic test under realistic conditions. We recommend students take their first diagnostic test in 10th grade. The SAT contains 2 sections: Math and Verbal. It involves more conceptual puzzles and less straightforward testing of content. Unlike the ACT, students generally feel they are able to comfortably complete the SAT in the time allotted. The ACT, by contrast, gives you extremely limited time, but is more predictable in the content it will test. The ACT contains for sections: English, Reading, Math, and Science Reasoning. There have also been changes to the SAT this year: the essay section has been dropped, and the Subject Tests have been eliminated.
- Early Decision is a binding plan, which means that you agree to enroll if you’re accepted. It’s in the interest of colleges to accept ED candidates because it improves what’s referred to as their “yield” – the number of accepted applicants who ultimately enroll. Yield is part of the calculation when colleges are ranked, and higher yield means higher rank. Because ED is binding, you can’t apply to more than one school under this application plan.
- Early Action can be a great choice for students who want to try for a smart reach school but aren’t completely certain that it’s their first choice. EA is non-binding, so while you will find out earlier if you’re admitted (December or January), and the school will agree to hold your spot until the universal reply date of May 1, you can still choose to enroll at a different school.
- The Regular Decision (RD) cycle can create surprises and confusion for parents and students. In RD, you may find that you’ve been accepted to a school you thought would be more difficult to get into but denied by what you thought was a reasonably safe target school. That’s holistic admissions! Acceptances are about so much more than numbers. You need to really understand the schools you’re applying to so that you know it’s a good fit and can present a compelling case that lets the college see that you belong there.
Considering college fit is what ensures that you’ll be happy at any of the schools to which you apply. It’s about how the vibe of the campus and the student body fit your academic and social needs. Every student will need to apply to a range of schools, some of which are “safer,” or more likely, options than others. But finding your safety schools might be trickier than you think. You need to understand how each particular admissions office makes their decisions. At some schools, they will waitlist or even deny extremely strong applicants because they don’t expect them to actually accept an offer. If that’s how they make decisions, then it’s not really a safety school! You want to make sure you have a school on your list that’s more straightforward in their admissions decisions.
When it comes to building your college list, the campus tour has always been one of the most fun ways to get to know a college better. We’re cautiously optimistic that campus visits will be more or less back to normal in the fall. Though some colleges are currently offering in-person tours, they are limited by social distancing requirements. We recommend waiting until the fall to tour if possible. The summer has never been the best time to visit college campuses because you don’t get a sense of what the school is like when classes are in session. The fact that most colleges have moved their summer programs online this year will only exacerbate the feeling that the campus is a ghost town. If the summer is the only time you’re able to visit, try to keep your expectations realistic. Just seeing the buildings may be underwhelming, so remember that this isn’t representative of life on campus.
We received some questions about whether there’s anything you can do if you’ve been deferred or waitlisted. The reality is that deferrals and being put on the waitlist are statistically likely to turn into denials of admission. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do! Look carefully at your applications again and try to identify any gaps or missteps. Whether you’re deferred or waitlisted, you can submit updates that strategically serve to fill those gaps and strengthen your application. If you’re put on the waitlist, you may be asked to submit a letter of continued interest; this is your opportunity not merely to assert that you would go if admitted, but to add substantive information that will stand out to the specific school you’re writing to. As much as it may feel like the process is happening to you, you do have a lot of control if you understand the process and really know the schools on your list.
For more on these topics, you can watch the webinar at the top of the page.