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2021 College Admissions: Five Things to Know NOW

The pandemic’s ripple effect on the college admissions landscape will continue to impact this year’s graduating class. As we reported last winter (Class of 2025—The Big Squeeze) the record-breaking volume of applicants reported by universities was due, in large part, to test-optional policies that will continue in part this year (and perhaps beyond). If you are a rising senior, or the parent of a college applicant, you might be wondering how admissions metrics have changed in the past year, and what you should know moving forward as you plan college tours and create a strategic application strategy. As always, we encourage our students to use their summers wisely. This year, it’s especially important that students set aside time for test prep and campus visits before senior fall begins.

Here at Top Tier Admissions, we have been keeping tabs on the application data and the changing expectations of college applicants.


1. Demonstrate Interest

College campuses are reopening! We expect that, by late fall, most colleges will offer some sort of on-campus opportunity for prospective students. With this comes the chance to show your genuine interest in a particular school. Remember, colleges care a lot about their yield. This means they are more willing to accept students who “like them back” (this is especially true at smaller schools) and have taken action to demonstrate their interest by signing up for alumni interviews, attending virtual events and info sessions, and (if possible) making the effort to visit campus. Make sure you have also signed up for the mailing lists at all schools of interest and actually open the emails they’ve sent you—this is how you’ll know about upcoming virtual or in-person events that require pre-registration. During the pandemic, colleges made an effort to improve and expand their virtual offerings to help students get a sense of their school community and opportunities. At Columbia University, for instance, you can attend the following virtual visit opportunities:

  • Virtual Information Sessions every day Monday to Friday and select Saturdays
  • Live Virtual Campus Tours every day Monday to Friday and select Saturdays 
  • Introduction to Columbia Engineering sessions every Tuesday starting June 1
  • Specialty Student Panels bi-weekly starting June 1
  • Student Q&A Chats every Thursday starting June 3
  • Application Advice Series on July 8, July 15, and July 22

Last year, because students couldn’t visit colleges in person, they tended to apply to schools based on name recognition, sight unseen. This is one explanation for the huge increase in applicants to top-ranked schools.


Read up on colleges that might interest you to get a sense of how each school has a different academic flavor and personality. We highly recommend for planning purposes and inside information from current students, College Scoops – (you can use our special discount code: TTA2021) along with and YouVisit which has over 600 free virtual college campus tours.)

2. Prioritize Testing (It Still Matters!)

Don’t wait until the fall semester to begin your test prep—you’ll have enough on your plate with senior year classes, extracurriculars, and other obligations (not to mention the college applications themselves). As vaccination rates have increased, test centers around the country have reopened and there are more opportunities to take (and retake) the ACT or SAT. If you attend a private boarding school with an on-campus testing site but do not submit scores, admissions officers will assume that your scores were weak. On the other hand, submitting strong test scores serves as yet another data point that sets you apart from other applicants.

SAT Tutoring

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Despite official test-optional admissions policies at top schools, the students who applied with strong test scores had a significant advantage. Three out of every four students accepted Early Decision at Penn submitted test scores. At Georgetown University, only 7.34 percent of applicants who did NOT submit standardized test scores were actually admitted. There are some notable exceptions to this rule (for instance, the UCs, which have opted for a standardized-test-blind approach to admissions through at least 2025) but it’s clear that, on the whole, the SAT and ACT still carry a lot of weight.

ACT Tutoring

Our renowned ACT tutors routinely help students make enormous gains in their scores.

3. Reassess Your Range

The increased selectivity at top colleges across the board comes with another hard truth: schools once considered “safeties” may no longer be in range, even for students with strong scores and grades. We have tracked some of these changing admissions numbers over the years on our website, see Selective Schools Admit Stats. NYU, for example, had a 32.39 percent overall acceptance rate in 2017. This year, it fell to 12.8 percent—a historic low. Likewise, Tufts University, which had an admit rate of 18.73 percent in 2017, fell to 11 percent this year after a 35 percent increase in applicants (more than 31,000 students applied).

Not sure of your range? Check out our College Admissions Calculator to understand your Academic Index (AI). Keep in mind, however, that your AI doesn’t factor in course rigor or AP scores, which are also key metrics that help determine rank.

4. Identify Possible Hooks

If you think you might be a hooked candidate, this summer is the time to take action. Nearly half the accepted class at top colleges have a “hook” of some kind. Hooks are characteristics that reflect institutional priorities; hooked candidates might include recruited athletes, under-represented minority students (black, Latinx, Native American), first-generation college students, legacy applicants, development interests, and institutional VIPs. This means that, for non-hooked candidates, the odds of admission are actually about half of the stated percentage.

Based on last year’s admissions data, it’s clear that college are committed to recruiting a diverse class and have expanded partnerships with college access groups that support lower-income students, first-generation students, and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds (these include programs like QuestBridge). As part of this diversity recruiting effort, many schools have launched selective, all-expenses-paid, fly-in programs for students who otherwise could not afford to visit campus. If you are a student from a historically underrepresented background (including low-income and/or first-generation students), consider applying to one of the following programs, and explore similar programs at other schools of interest. These programs typically allow prospective students to attend information sessions, attend classes, stay overnight in a residence hall, tour campus, eat in the dining facilities, and get to know faculty, deans, and admission staff. Note that application deadlines are often as early as August.

5. Create an Early Strategy

This year, more than ever, college applicants would be wise to take advantage of an early strategy. Early Decision is a binding program. This means you are committed to attending the school you have selected and have to withdraw all other applications if you are accepted. You can only apply to one ED school. Some students have trouble with this commitment and want to wait until the Regular Decision round to weigh their options. Doing so, however, forfeits this huge boost to your odds of acceptance.

See, for example, this year’s admissions statistics for the Ivy League schools that offer Early Decision versus the regular decision ONLY round:

Brown University

Early Decision Acceptance Rate: 15.97%
Regular Decision Acceptance Rate: 4.03%

Columbia University

Early Decision Acceptance Rate: 10.10%
Regular Decision Acceptance Rate: 2.90%

Dartmouth College

Early Decision Acceptance Rate: 21.25%
Regular Decision Acceptance Rate: 4.6%

University of Pennsylvania

Early Decision Acceptance Rate: 15%
Regular Decision Acceptance Rate: 5.15%

At schools that offer Early Action (a non-binding option), the strategic boost is not as dramatic. However, there are still less applicants in the Early Action round vs. Regular Decision, which means admissions officers will have more time to read your application materials and appreciate your essays. For more data, see our Admissions Statistics for the Class of 2025.


Last year, acceptance rates were affected by the many students (sometimes up to a fifth of the freshman class) who deferred because of the pandemic. Colleges had to “reserve” a lot of spaces and took fewer students as a result. With campuses reopening, this trend is unlikely to continue. Need help? Not sure where to begin? We’ve got you covered. Contact us today to learn more about our college admissions counseling services.

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