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Class of 2025 – The Big Squeeze

Another year for the record books, as top colleges and universities see their overall application volumes soar in this most unprecedented cycle. Among the eye-popping statistics we’ve seen, NYU tops 100,000 applications, Harvard’s pool grows by 57 percent, and Colgate receives double the number of applications as compared to last year.

TEST-OPTIONAL = DRIVING FORCE

This year’s across-the-board test-optional admissions policies at top colleges are driving the increased volume, but so is nervousness about getting in. After record early admission application growth in the fall that saw greater numbers of students deferred or denied than in previous years (80 percent of Harvard’s early applicants were deferred, for instance), students naturally sought to maximize their regular decision admissions prospects by casting as wide a net as possible. Although we haven’t seen any data from the Common Application on the average number of applications submitted per student, we’d wager that its higher than last year given the heightened uncertainty.

So now what happens? Will anyone get in? Is it even physically possible to read all those applications in the time allotted?

Admissions staffs will surely be working overtime, hiring additional outside readers to get through the volume, and looking for systematic ways to speed-read their way through their applicant pools to figure out who’s a viable candidate and who’s not. Some have even pushed back their notification dates. We know so far that Harvard, Penn, and Princeton will release decisions in early April, giving themselves one additional week to complete the process.

EYE-CATCHING DATA

Most likely, as admissions readers first glance through files, they’ll be looking for the following:

  • Markers of academic achievement: grades, rigor of program, and any standardized testing that students share (SAT, ACT, subject tests, and APs)
  • High-level academic awards and recognition
  • Evidence of impact and distinction beyond the classroom
  • Hooks – legacies, underrepresented students, first generation to college, low income (most recruited athletes are admitted in the early process)
  • Demonstrated interest – especially at colleges where yield is more variable

If you have them, you advance. If not, you don’t.

It was interesting to note that despite its test-optional admissions policy this year, Georgetown released data on its early admissions cycle noting that only 7.34 percent of applicants who did not submit standardized test scores were actually admitted. They also made note of the average test scores of those who were admitted—middle 50th percentile on the ACT between 33-35 and for SATs, 720-750 (reading) and 730-90 (math)—continuing to reinforce the importance that Georgetown places on strong scores.

DATA IS KING

Another way that admissions officers will look to make sense of these large applicant pools is to review students in their school groups. If 20 students applied to Colby from a single high school or 100 students applied to NYU from the same school, it’s a sure bet that applicant data will be sorted in descending GPA order (remember, applicants were asked to self-report GPA on their Common Application). Readers will focus attention on the students at the top of the pack in each high school – those students whom they see as most likely to be admitted — and only have time for a cursory peak at the others.

No doubt about it. To make sense of this record-breaking volume of applicants, colleges and universities will have to be more objective and data-driven in their decision making. You simply can’t hire enough people to read all those applications and schedule enough hours of committee meetings on Zoom to talk about each one.

With artificial intelligence finishing our sentences, detecting tumors more accurately than doctors, screening resumes at large corporations, populating our playlists, and driving our cars, can AI-driven changes to the selection process at top schools be far behind?

There’s nothing artificial about Top Tier’s intelligence as we strive to make the admissions process less confusing for families and help students create an action-based roadmap to college success. Learn more about our work here.

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Class of 2025 Early Admissions Trends

It’s here! What you’ve all been waiting for, Top Tier’s annual deep dive analysis into this year’s early admissions round. Let’s get started…

Looking at the chart below, which of the following can you infer?

  1. More students apply early to a dream school and application volumes soar.
  2. Selectivity increases as admit rates plunge, especially when these schools don’t materially increase the number of students admitted early.
  3. Virtual recruitment events proved to be highly successful, with top schools reporting greater engagement with prospective students than ever before.
  4. An even more challenging RD round is in store for everyone, the result of continued increases in application volume and the need to admit fewer students to create space for students who took gap years and to carefully manage admit rates and yield.
  5. All of the above.
Early Application Volume - Class of 2025 vs 2024

*UC = University of California system. Although the UCs don’t have an early program, growth in their 2025 application volume is included for comparative purposes.

ALL OF THE ABOVE

If you chose “5”, you’re right. The robust growth in applications to top private and public universities around the country in the early round shattered records. Driving the growth in application volume: COVID-19. Just like every other aspect of our lives, the pandemic upended application projections and yield models.

Early in November, the first data released by the Common Application pointed to a 7 percent drop in the number of low-income students along with those who are the first in their families to attend college and a decrease in applications at the less selective public and private universities that draw a greater proportion of disadvantaged students.

These are important data points that underscore inequities in access to education but don’t tell the entire story.

CLARITY IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

Among the top private universities and public universities that have shared their early data, a clearer picture emerges. Applications have soared at selective and well-resourced universities. Fueling the growth are likely at least three factors: 1) pandemic-era test optional admissions policies at every top college and university in the country; 2) strong need-based and merit aid programs that make top public and private universities even more appealing in this time of significant economic disruption; and 3) aggressive virtual recruitment efforts on behalf of top schools to reach prospective applicants everywhere.

A note about virtual recruitment caught our eye. Yale reports that over 47,000 prospective students registered for joint virtual events featuring Yale, as compared to only 8,500 in 2019.

Without a doubt, testing has always been a real or perceived barrier to entry at the nation’s top schools. As colleges have shared details about who they admitted in the early rounds, we can see that in this new, test-optional admissions environment colleges pushed aggressively to increase the diversity of their early cohort (a typically non-diverse group of students). Some data points that underscore this push:

  • At Brown, 48 percent of early admits are students of color – an 8 percent increase from last year. The applicant pool saw record numbers of first-generation students and low-income students.
  • Dartmouth notes that almost 26 percent of accepted students are from low-income household. 36 percent of accepted students are Black, Indigenous, or people of color – a historic high.
  • The numbers of admitted students who are Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian American have all increased at Georgetown in this early cycle.
  • The percentage of first-generation college students admitted to Harvard increased nearly 7 percentage points to 17 percent in this cycle. Admitted students identifying as African American increased 4 percentage points to 16.6 percent.

NOW WHAT HAPPENS?

Short term, top colleges will need to contend with bloated applicant pools and fewer spots than normally anticipated at this time of year, the result of record numbers of students in the Class of 2024 who postponed their matriculation to the fall of 2021.

One admissions dean offers insight into the challenges that lie ahead. As reported in The Hoya, as of Dec. 16, Georgetown had already received approximately 20,000 applications for the Class of 2025, putting the university on track to receive a record-breaking number of total undergraduate applications, according to Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon. The squeeze is on as his office must take into account spots reserved for students who chose to defer matriculation. Approximately 115 students who were admitted as part of the Class of 2024 decided to defer enrollment until fall 2021. 

Many other deans are mum on this topic, but it’s likely that each one of them is trying to figure out just how to best shoehorn the 2024 gap year students into the Class of 2025.

Longer term, will test-optional admissions policies remain in place at top colleges post-pandemic? That’s clearly a critical question being discussed this winter by university leaders across the country, so look for new policies to be announced this spring.

Several top universities began to shift their testing policies pre-pandemic. MIT, CalTech, and Yale, for instance, no longer considered SAT subject tests. Last May, the Board of Regents of the University of California extended the test-optional policy through 2022. In addition, the entire UC system suspended the standardized test requirement for in-state applicants in fall 2023 and fall 2024, and the ACT or SAT test requirement will be eliminated beginning in 2025 if those tests are not replaced by a new test the system is considering developing.

GENIE IN A BOTTLE

Whether your metaphor of choice runs to toothpaste in a tube or a genie in a bottle, having sampled test optional admissions policies and seeing the opportunity to increase both the size and diversity of the applicant pool, there’s likely no incentive for colleges and universities to turn back at this point. As always, we’ll share more insights as more data emerge in this most unprecedented of admissions seasons.

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Why Early Decision Still Makes Sense for Many Students

Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez

We’ve had vigorous debates on this blog and with students and parents about the merits of early decision. As a brief primer, both early action and early decision have early November deadlines, but early action is NON binding (you do not have to say “yes”) while early decision is binding (you have to say “yes” and withdraw any other applications). The confusing thing is that HarvardYale, and Stanford have a “single choice/restrictive” early action policy (non-binding but you can only apply to state schools or international schools as back up) while the other five Ivies all have normal early decision. Princeton for this cycle is not doing any early round at all which throws a wrench into the scene.

STATISTICS TELL THE STORY

As you can see from the tables below, early decision acceptance rates are 3 to 4 times higher than regular only acceptance rates while early action acceptance rates are higher, but not by as big a margin with the exception of MIT. The one thing that is indisputable is that regular only admittance rates are super low from 2-3% at Stanford (which didn’t give out exact numbers from this cycle so we are guesstimating) and Harvard to a “high” of 6-7%. Looking at just the numbers, there is a clear advantage to applying early action/early decision at every school. But as many perceptive readers of past posts pointed out, the difference is not quite as sharp because legacies and recruited athletes tend to get accepted in the early decision round so while it may look like Dartmouth takes 26% of ALL early applicants, it is going to be less than that for “non-hooked” applicants. As I will illustrate below, even so, it is worth it to apply early decision to increase your odds. Some argue that early decision can lock you into a financial bind as you cannot compare financial aid packages so is “only for the wealthy.” That is not true because the Ivies bend over backwards to give generous aid packages once they commit to a student and in the worst case scenario, you can be released from the early decision agreement if after you appeal your financial aid award, you still cannot afford it.

REASONS EARLY DECISION STILL MAKES SENSE

  1. Even taking into account legacies and recruited athletes, the acceptance rate is still higher than regular round.
  2. There are MANY fewer applicants in the early round (look at the table below – sometimes 8-10 times fewer in early!) which means your application, essays, teacher recs and materials are read much more carefully and typically by admissions officers rather than outside readers.
  3. Not only are there fewer applicants in early, but with legacies and athletes who tend to be in the lower side academically, truly strong applicants who are academic superstars shine brighter in the early decision round than in the regular round. To say it another way, the regular round is much more competitive with many of the nation’s top students waiting until regular round. The early round overall is weaker because of the recruited athletes and legacies and “reach” applicants.
  4. Applying early decision tells the college that you picked them first – and you love their school and are willing to commit. That means for a student who might be “on the border,” often admissions officers will take that student in early but not in regular. This is demonstrated interest on steroids.
  5. What about getting deferred? Think of it this way, if you were deferred in the early round, you would have been rejected in the regular round, so nothing lost there. Plus, deferred students have a chance to send an update with new grades, awards, scores, etc… and roughly 5-15% of deferred kids (depending on the school) will be accepted during the regular round. The advantage is that the college knows it is your top choice, signaled by the original ED choice.
  6. Finally, with COVID still in the picture, many schools (especially small liberal arts schools) have lost a ton of tuition dollars from last year plus have many added expenses to develop a Coronavirus plan (paying for HEPA filters, more ventilation, etc…). That means that students who don’t need financial aid AND who apply ED will have higher admissions odds this year.
  7. Related to the above, we predict that many liberal arts colleges along with top universities will admit a higher percentage of the class in the ED round to lock in tuition paying students.

MAGIC WANDS

As I’ve argued before, if I could wave my magic wand, I would force all the top colleges to have two rounds of early decision (I and II) but 1- limit the number to perhaps only 30-35% of the total class rather than 50% as U Penn takes now for example) and 2- provide super generous financial aid/grants to students. That way colleges could still reserve 60-70% of the spots for regular round but still give students two rounds to indicate a true first choice. I would eliminate single choice early action so HYPS don’t artificially elevate themselves over the other schools simply based on policy. In a typical year, 20,000 to 25,000 students are deferred or rejected from HYPS, freak out, and then apply to 20-30 schools in regular round. That is why the system is flooded with a ridiculous number of applicants in regular round. Changing the system would reduce that number dramatically. But no school wants to act in a vacuum – they need to join hands and take the plunge all at once to insert some measure of sanity into the process.

IVY LEAGUE — CLASS OF 2024

MIT AND STANFORD — CLASS OF 2024

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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Three

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

TAKING CONTROL

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.

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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Two

PART 2:  Qualitative over Quantitative

Part two in a 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 focuses on curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Read on to learn where these intangible qualities are highlighted in an application and how admissions officers use them in their assessments.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Schools that practice holistic admissions want to get to know you and look for clues into who you are: your hopes and dreams, interests, activities, accomplishments, quirks, experiences, perspectives, contributions, and impact. Each of the more qualitative aspects of the admissions application is designed to get at WHO YOU ARE BEYOND JUST YOUR SCORES AND GRADES. Typically, those more qualitative aspects include personal essays (and school-specific supplements), descriptions of your principal activities, letters of recommendation (college counselor and at least one classroom teacher), and, in some cases an admissions interview.

Today, more than ever, factors like curiosity and intellectual engagement, character and personal experiences, contribution and impact, and resilience will factor more prominently in the selective college admissions process. Admissions officers reading your file will likely “rank” or “rate” your essays, recommendations, and interviews on these key qualities and offer short summaries of highlights in their file notes.

YOUR VOICE

A quick perusal of the Common Application essay prompts and a college’s supplemental essay questions makes it easy to see what they value and what matters to their selection process. Just for fun, we assigned a theme to each supplemental essay prompt from 30 top private and public colleges and universities and put all that into a word cloud generator.

common app essay prompts & your voice

The results are clear! Colleges want to know about your academic interests and what sparks your intellectual curiosity. Admissions officers care deeply about creating a diverse community of bright and talented students from across the globe (even if you’re learning via Zoom right now) and want to know what you’ll add to the mix. They look for students who have positively impacted their schools and communities through their activities, leadership, and contributions.

When it comes right down to it, admissions officers read your main college essay (650 words) and the school-specific supplements (typically, 100 to 400 words) to figure out what kind of scholar and community member you are now and would be on their campus. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

As you tackle your supplemental essays, share your stories. Reflect on community (however you choose to define it) and how it has informed who you are today. Do your research and answer the “why” question with responses that connect you to the college or university, making it clear that you are the perfect fit.

Colleges understand that COVID-19 has deeply impacted many students and their families. Using a new short response option on the Common Application, students can share the effects of the pandemic and its related disruption to their families’ health and finances, as well as obstacles (think access to the internet, a laptop, a quiet study space) to students’ ability to pursue their education. Think twice about what you put in this space. There will be students who have suffered significantly during this time. Missing the spring track season, junior prom, or a long-awaited summer trip isn’t what they’re looking for here.

YOUR IMPACT: EXTRACURRICULAR AND COMMUNITY CONTRIBUTIONS

For many, the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns have also meant the cancelation of significant aspects of their extracurricular lives—especially those activities that have been more difficult to replicate in the virtual world. Admissions officers will understand that students may not have seamless extracurricular records as a result of the pandemic, but they will clearly favor those students who sprang into action to help their families, schools, or communities.

Despite the challenges of stay-at-home orders, enterprising students launched Zoom tutoring programs and PE classes. They taught senior citizens in their communities the ins and outs of Zoom and created pen pal programs to help those isolated from families. Enterprising students raised funds, bought their own supplies and crafted PPE for local first responders and hospital workers. They taught and cared for younger siblings while parents worked. Youth activism soared, as students responded to pressing health, social justice, and environmental issues by using their voices across all their platforms to push for needed change. Others worked or volunteered—in person or virtually—supporting their families, learning valuable skills. Student musicians, dancers, and actors created virtual Zoom performances featuring friends and classmates, often as a benefit for a community non-profit. Many students took their learning into their own hands and pursued research opportunities and college courses this summer—whether for credit or on platforms like EdX—deepening their academic interests.

Today more than ever, being a participant in a typical set of school activities just won’t cut it. Those students who spent the last five months binge-watching Netflix have missed an important opportunity to show admissions officers their values in action. It’s this evidence of impact, contribution, resilience, selflessness, and empathy that admissions officers will look for as they assess how students have spent their time outside the classroom.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Just as it has with each facet of our lives, COVID-19 has also disrupted students’ relationships with their counselors and teachers and their extracurricular lives. For rising seniors, this disruption, beginning last March, has fundamentally altered their relationships with teachers and college counselors—just at the time that these relationships were most important.

College counselor and teacher recommendations have always been a critical piece of the application review process at top schools. Remember that the majority of students applying to top colleges will typically have strong grades and scores, generally being “in range” based on a school’s published test score and GPA averages. Through careful reading of these letters of recommendation, admissions officers seek qualitative information to help differentiate the truly exceptional students from the typical well-credentialed ones.

The sudden and unprecedented closing of all our nation’s schools in March forced teachers and students into a new teaching and learning paradigm—and one whose success depended on access to resources in both the school and the family. Ninth grade science teacher Liz Russillo, as quoted in Education Week, noted:

The shift to remote learning has [required] me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world. 

Just as in our pre-pandemic world, admissions officers read recommendations looking for tangible evidence of intellectual engagement, curiosity, contribution and impact. Today, admissions officers will first seek to understand just how much access students have had to teachers and counselors. There will be the lucky ones whose teachers and counselors made the shift to online learning and worked to stay connected with their students. Even in our Zoom world, teachers and counselors will know which students were the most engaged and made the classroom interesting and dynamic, even online, and will emphasize that in their letters. Seniors, as you head back to school—even virtually—connect with your teachers!

College counselors play a key role in helping students stand out in the admissions process. Where individual teachers focus on a student’s work in one class, the college counselor uses a wide-angle lens to help admissions officers discern the truly exceptional students from a pool of very high-achieving ones. Strong letters show, through specific anecdotes, a student’s impact and achievement, and are genuinely warm and enthusiastic.

THE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW

Although interviews are not widely used, those colleges that offer interviews provide applicants with another opportunity to show they’ve done their homework on the college and bring their essays and activities to life. This year, you can expect those interviews to be conducted over Zoom (or similar platform).

Whether students interview with an admissions officer, alumni volunteer, or student working for admissions, impressions from the interview will be noted in the applicant’s eventual admissions file. For schools that care about demonstrated interest (that’s just about all of them these days), the interview provides perhaps one of the most direct ways for students to show admissions officers why they are the perfect fit.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. In this upcoming admissions cycle, you can be sure that these parts of the application will be closely read as admissions officers seek evidence of students whose curiosity, engagement, contribution, impact, and resilience are truly notable.

Having looked at each component of the admissions application, part three of our special series will look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions deans need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class?

Share your experiences with COVID-19 related school and testing challenges in the Comments. We’d like to hear what you’re experiencing and how you are adapting. We will continue to post about these issues and look forward to hearing your experiences.