PART 3: Building the Class
The final installment in our three-part series that looks at how the admissions process will need to adapt this year due to COVID-19.
Part one of our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series looked at how COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional markers of achievement that admissions officers have historically relied upon to make admissions decisions: testing and transcripts. Now more than ever, the qualitative aspects of a student’s application—curiosity, character, impact, resilience—things that can’t necessarily be quantified in a test score or grade—will take center stage. Does that mean that every bright, kind, high impact applicant has a chance at Harvard this application season? Not quite.
Part two of our series focused on key personal factors that admissions officers will seek as they review applications: curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. This cycle, in the absence of traditional, quantitative measures, these qualitative factors will play a key role.
FACTORS THAT WILL SHAPE THE SELECTION PROCESS
In the final segment of our three-part series, let’s look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions leaders need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class? Read on to learn more.
Will there be enough seats in the first-year class?
An unprecedented number of Class of 2024 students admitted to top colleges last year have deferred their enrollment for a year. A recent report in the Boston Globe, noted that 20 percent of Harvard first-year students opted to defer their admission, nearly three times the normal rate. At MIT, 8 percent of first-year students deferred, up from normally around 1 percent, according to the university. At Williams College in Western Massachusetts, 90 students took a gap year instead of the usual 25. And at Bates College in Maine, 10 percent of students have requested deferral, up from 4 percent.
Managing enrollment for the fall of 2021 is a key question that university leaders are grappling with as the new admissions cycle begins. At Harvard, for instance, the threefold requests for a gap year, translates into 340 students enrolling now with the Class of 2025. How will the university accommodate these extra students, and will it have any negative consequences for students applying in 2020/2021?
Harvard has indicated that it hopes to secure additional, overflow housing in Cambridge next year to accommodate the extra students and look for other ways to manage enrollment, rather than admitting fewer students in this admissions cycle. Anecdotally, we’re hearing similar messages from other top institutions. Some schools, such as Connecticut College, have changed their policy on students living off campus and selected seniors are now allowed to find local rental options. Plenty of schools have turned dorms into quarantine facilities, losing more beds for students, so this will be an interesting factor to watch.
Increasing an incoming class by 8, 10 or 20 percent creates pressures throughout the university beyond just housing – first year advising, first year seminars, demand for prerequisite courses in popular majors, etc. – and all require additional financial resources. It’s still too soon to tell what measures schools will take to adjust to all of these changes, but the challenges resulting from a super-sized Class of 2025 will likely impact universities for four years.
How competitive will the process be?
In a normal year, the admissions process at top schools is very competitive. The extremely high entrance criteria at top tier colleges have produced a ripple effect, and now all of the top 50-100 schools have tougher admissions standards. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Hopkins have single digit admit rates. UC Berkeley and UCLA admitted 15 percent and 14 percent of their applicants last year, respectively. Even schools like Northwestern (9 percent acceptance rate), Georgetown (15 percent acceptance rate) and Colby (9 percent acceptance rate) are becoming extraordinarily competitive in their admissions processes. A school like Vanderbilt University had a 40 percent acceptance rate in 2005 and a 9 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2024.
Will we see similar admit rates this 2020/2021 cycle?
Although some repercussions from the pandemic may depress the number of students from around the world who apply to top colleges because of visa issues, fear of being unwelcome in the U.S., and fear of illness, other factors—namely the move to make the SAT/ACT optional for students applying to college this fall—will likely mean more students will throw in applications to the top colleges. This will be especially evident at the universities that offer generous, need-based financial aid awards.
Schools with non-binding early action programs are very likely to see an increase in applications this fall, especially since many of these schools are test-optional for the Class of 2025. Schools that are likely to see surges in early applications include Harvard, Yale, MIT, CalTech, and Stanford. Georgetown, too, newly flexible with testing requirements, could also see an uptick, although that might be counterbalanced by a decrease in applications from international students, likely a big source of applications for the university.
The situation will likely be very different for schools that offer binding early decision programs for two reasons. First, without the opportunity to visit schools in person, many students and parents are hesitant to lock into a school now. Instead, they’re hoping to visit colleges in the spring before making a final decision. Second is the question of affordability, always a consideration for many families and because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, even more so this year. Outside of the Ivies, few colleges and universities offer significant need-based aid. Families will want to see a broader range of financial aid offers and work to get the best possible financial aid package for their students. Schools that may see downturns this early cycle include places like Dartmouth and UPenn (who had decreases in ED application volume last year), Emory, Vanderbilt, Tufts, NYU, and many of the small liberal arts colleges.
Greater reliance on early decision
As we’ve discussed before, applying to a school Early Decision can double or even triple your odds of admission in some cases. The Early Decision applicant pool is usually much smaller than the applicant pool in the regular round, which allows admissions officers to spend more time reviewing each application. What’s more, schools that offer Early Decision generally fill about half of the incoming class in the early round. As a result, your odds of admission are always higher in Early Decision than they would be in the regular round. For example, last year Columbia had an early admit rate of 14.57 percent and a Regular Decision admit rate of 5.10 percent. (For more on the early admit rates for some of the very top schools, take a look at the data we’ve collected here.)
For those schools that have binding early decision programs, it’s likely that we’ll see more students admitted through this option. Driving the greater use of early decision by colleges will be the desire to have more certainty in a time of great uncertainty. Having a larger cohort of students admitted early decision means greater control of yield, a better sense of how many students to admit in the regular process, and more control over financial aid expenditures.
Demonstrated interest and yield predictions
Just as greater numbers of students and parents are expressing hesitation about commitment, admissions leaders will be looking at their yield projection models, trying to figure out who will come if offered admission. For all but the most highly-sought after schools, predictive modeling around yield goes hand in hand with the selection process.
Without traditional campus visits—or admissions officers’ annual spring and fall recruitment travels to communities around the country and around the world—demonstrated interest will be gauged through digital interactions this year. What this means is that the vast majority of private colleges and universities (and top public universities with significant numbers of out-of-state applicants) will likely place weight on points of digital contact when evaluating your application: a virtual visit to campus; registration on their admissions pages and social media platforms; the regularity with which you open the college’s emails and take action based on those emails; an online interview (if offered – either before or after filing your application); and the depth of your contact with the admission representative who covers your area.
Demonstrated interest is going to be more important than ever this year. Colleges want to know that if they admit a student, that student will attend.
Applying to college is stressful even under the best of circumstances. For students applying to college this fall, anxiety levels are soaring. Despite that, you can take control of this process and ensure that YOU put your best foot forward.
Admissions officers will understand that these have been extraordinarily difficult times for high school students and they will keep that context squarely in mind as they read your application. They know that testing centers have closed without warning, leaving thousands and thousands of students in the lurch. They know that grades, classes and activities have been disrupted, that connections with peers and teachers aren’t the same virtually as they are in person.
NO FREE PASS
That’s not to say that this year’s senior class has a free pass when it comes to admissions. Now more than ever, you need to show your curiosity and intellectual engagement, your resilience and maturity, your contributions to family and community, your engagement with critical issues of our time, and your actions—large or small, global or local—to make our world a better place.