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What To Do If You Were Deferred

You applied early to your top choice school and the news back wasn’t what you wanted to hear. You were deferred. Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Let us guide you through the steps to respond to this college admission decision. 

WHAT IS A DEFERRAL?

Colleges can respond to your early application with a number of decisions: accepted, rejected, or deferred.  A deferral is when a school postpones making a decision about a student’s application and pushes it off until the regular round where they will take another look. Students can be deferred for any number of reasons:

  • The school received more early applications than anticipated, and this year there have definitely been more early applications as you can see from our prior post. (link)
  • The applicant’s scores were low, yes even during COVID some schools have the luxury of still reviewing scores and yes, some students had scores to submit.
  • Perhaps grades weren’t quite high enough and the school wants to see more data before pulling the YES trigger.  
  • For non-binding early action schools, a low level of demonstrated interest could be the reason it was a deferral – they weren’t convinced that if they gave that applicant a seat he/she would actually accept.
  • Admissions officers might have been looking for more high impact extras and are waiting to see what the student might add to his/her achievements.
  • They couldn’t figure out the student’s academic niche – application was not specific enough. We are happy to help you refine this in your follow up to the school in our Deferral Program.
  • The student was a legacy, but not up to the school’s standards so it was a “courtesy deferral” vs a full-on rejection which well-connected families wouldn’t like much.
  • The applicant was swept up in the media’s portrayal of NO STANDARDIZED TESTS THIS YEAR and thought he/she could get into Harvard just because he/she was a top student.  Takes a lot more than that to get in

ANY GOOD NEWS?

Schools typically accept only 5-10 percent of students they deferred. And though early round admission rates are much better than regular they are still extremely competitive. For instance, Harvard’s early acceptance rate is typically around 13% versus 3% in the regular round.

For very top schools, admissions is competitive in both early and regular

If you are deferred, reflect on our above list and have a reality check with yourself. Why do you think you were deferred? There are still plenty of things you can do to increase your odds of admission during the regular round. If you do nothing, however, chances are your results will be an ultimate denial. We’ve laid out some action items for deferred students below.

TAKE ACTION ONCE YOU’VE BEEN DEFERRED

Hopefully your deferral will serve as a reminder to go back and review everything you have in place for your regular applications.  In addition, begin to work on the following:

  1. Kick into gear to bring up grades. Grades are the most important factor in admissions decisions, so you’ll want to finish the semester with the strongest grades possible. Now is not the time for senioritis. Put a pause on your video game habit and double down on studying. 
  2. Review opportunities to retake or take standardized tests. Were you shut out of spring and summer Subject Tests? Need to retake the ACT? Don’t assume just because of COVID you get a free pass on testing.  If testing sites are open in your area, take the tests. 
  3. Pursue any last-minute contests, articles to publish or other ways to stand out in your area of expertise. Schools want to brag about their incoming freshman class.  Make yourself brag worthy by going the extra mile in something you’ve already begun. Let us know if we can help you identify some ways to do so.
  4. Find out why. Ask your counselor at school to call the school and find out any information he or she can about why you were deferred. Were items missing from your application? Did the school see a huge rise in applicants from your state? Not all counselors will do this, but it’s worth the ask. Best case is that he/she can advocate for you on the call, in addition to finding out what happened.
  5. Get another recommendation. Have you spent the semester taking a college course, or doing research with a local professor? If so, ask him/her to write a recommendation on your behalf.  How about a senior year teacher who knows you well?  Another recommendation is definitely in order.   Make sure to stick to one recommendation only, though! You don’t want to overwhelm the admissions office.
  6. Follow the rules.  It goes without saying that you want to review each school’s deferral policy.  MIT, for instance, does not require a student to opt into being reviewed again in the regular round. 

By mid-January (or whenever first semester grades come out), submit the following materials to the admissions officer covering your area (always reviewing their policies, however):

  1. A one-page deferral letter that includes:
    • Updates on grades, awards, standardized test scores, extracurriculars
    • Details on why they are your first choice.  Be specific and focus on your academic match. 
  2. An updated school transcript that includes your fall-semester grades
  3. One letter of support from a senior-year teacher, if applicable

DON’T FORGET TO…

  1. Advocate for yourself, but don’t become a pest. It’s okay to send a deferral letter to the admissions officer covering your area; it’s not okay to stake out his or her office for the next few weeks.
  2. Consider an Early Decision 2 option and perhaps adding more schools to your regular list.
  3. Stay confident. While this feels like a gut punch, rise up and keep on refining your application package based on what you now know.

Review our Deferral Program and let us guide you. Time is critical, however, and we work with a limited number of students so call us quickly.

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Class of 2025 Admissions Trends Part I: Canaries in the Coal Mine?

Next month, as colleges finalize and release decisions on their early action and early decision applicants, we’ll have our first indication of the kinds of decisions colleges have begun to make as they build a base for their first-year class. But, while we wait, let’s look at some of the information that has been made public.

CLASS OF 2025 ADMISSIONS TRENDS THUS FAR

Here’s what we know…

UVA has received a record number of early decision and early action applications, as reported in the Cavalier Daily. Compared to last year at this time, early decision applications increased by 35 percent (761 more applications) and early action applications by 15 percent (3,762 more applications), respectively. Although the percentage increase in early decision applications is eye-popping, the actual number is less so. In-state students comprise a majority of ED applicants (54 percent to 46 percent) but out-of-state students, looking to leverage the ability to apply early action to UVA along with an early application to a top private college, clearly dominate the early action pool, comprising 72 percent of applicants to this program.

UNC, another top public university, saw its early action applications grow by 10 percent to just under 32,000 applicants. The UNC admissions blog post is short on details about applicant demographics, but we suspect that out-of-state students who also applied to top private universities comprise a healthy chunk of that increase using UNC as a back-up since it is non-binding.

University of Georgia, on its admissions blog, notes nearly 21,000 early applications, a healthy 27 percent increase. Early indicators based on data on students who have started their UGA RD applications lead them to expect a larger than usual RD pool.

The data from these three top public flagship universities suggest some other possible trends for the year. First, the economic hit that so many families have taken these last nine months, especially with record-high job losses and unemployment, likely has more students looking to stay in-state or closer to home rather than to seek private or public schools out of state. With new test-optional policies, the flagships are drawing more applicants from both in-state and regionally who, in other years, may not have been competitive in these pools. Finally, travel restrictions that have limited students’ abilities to visit campuses beyond their region —potentially along with a family’s desire to keep students closer to home—may also be driving more applicants to a state’s flagship campus.

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT TOP PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES?

This year, 5,540 students applied to Brown as early decision candidates, the largest early pool in the university’s history and a 22 percent increase over last year’s early applicant pool. Brown’s news release cites the diversity of the applicant pool with record numbers of first-generation college students, students from low-income families and students of color. In total, 885 students were admitted early to Brown, making for a 16 percent admit rate in this cycle. Of the admitted group, 45 came to Brown through the Questbridge program. Within the cohort admitted, 16 percent of students will be first in their family to attend college. Within the cohort, 48 percent are students of color, defined as those who self-identify as Black, Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Asian — an 8 percent increase from last year.

Cornell University has received over 9,000 applications for early decision, an increase of 36 percent over last year’s ED pool of 6,615 students. An e-newsletter from the Admissions Office shared the details with applicants, along with details about the early decision notification date (December 17 at 7pm EST).

Dartmouth admitted 566 students from its largest-ever early decision pool. This year, the early pool grew by 29 percent to 2,664 applicants, leading the admit rate to decline by five percentage points to 21 percent. As noted in an article in the student paper, “a record-high percentage of accepted early decision students come from diverse racial, socioeconomic and international backgrounds, while recruited athletes comprise an unusually low portion of the cohort…. Of the 566 admits, 36% are Black, Indigenous or people of color, 16% are first-generation and 14% live outside of the U.S. — all early decision records…[additionally] a record 26% come from low-income families, and 18% of the early decision admits are projected to be eligible for Pell Grants.”

We’ve learned that Duke University has alerted its alumni in an email that over 5,000 early decision applications have been received, a record number and almost 20 percent more than last year. The note also points out that the 174 students admitted last year and currently on a gap year will affect the numbers of students admitted this year.

A record number of students made the decision that Johns Hopkins is their first-choice college, with an 11 percent increase in early applications from last year. Although the blog didn’t note the number of applications received in this year’s ED1 group, doing the math, we projected that they received 2,663 applications. With an ED2 round yet to come, we’ll watch for final early numbers from JHU in the early winter.

U Penn accepted a record-low 15 percent of early decision applicants to the Class of 2025, down significantly from last year’s nearly 20 percent early decision admit rate. Driving the increased selectivity was another hefty increase in applications. This year, Penn received 7,032 applicants for early decision, a 23 percent increase from last year’s 6,453 applicants. The Daily Pennsylvanian story notes that about 38 percent of total early decision applicants chose not to include standardized testing as part of their application and of those admitted, 24% did not include test scores. Penn’s Vice Dean and Director of Admissions John McLaughlin added that the increase in applicants may in part be attributed to this year’s test-optional policy. (emphasis added).

Yale’s early action applicant pool swelled by 38%, to a record high 7,939. The number of students admitted – 837 – corresponds to a 10.5 percent acceptance rate for early action, a significant decrease from the rates for the previous few classes. Of the remaining applicants, 50 percent were deferred to the Regular Decision pool and 38 percent were denied admission. Yale’s news story also highlights the university’s partnership with Questbridge – a national non-profit organization that matches low-income students with over 40 top colleges. This year, 72 Questbridge students were among those admitted early.

COMMON APPLICATION DATA

As reported by Inside Higher Ed earlier in November, the Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications through November 2 as compared to the same time last year. Additionally, 60 percent of the Common App’s 921 member schools reported application declines. Our guess is that those declines are likely in smaller and less selective institutions, especially those with binding admissions processes. The article also notes that Common App data suggest the declines are more acute among first generation and low-income college students. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and low income communities, these are the very students who, when schools shut down, lacked access to knowledgeable teachers, mentors, and counselors to help them prepare to apply in the early round. This means overall, the applicant pool at top colleges is likely to be less diverse than usual.

We also learn that colleges not requiring test scores “experienced stronger first-year application volume through November 2.” Interestingly, a related article notes that Florida’s public universities which require the SAT or ACT are experiencing a decline of up to 50 percent in applications. As of November 9, all 12 universities in the State University System of Florida still required the SAT or ACT, despite the challenges facing students with closed test centers and canceled tests.

STAY TUNED

Watch our blog for more data as results come into focus for the early decision and early action rounds. Like just about everything else in 2020, we can predict there will be much that is unprecedented.

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College Application SOS

With early admissions deadlines now in the rearview mirror, all high school seniors can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Actually, based on data newly released from Niche.com, 47 percent of all high school seniors have yet to start applying to colleges. The Common Application this week reported an 8 percent decrease in number of applications submitted to date.

What’s behind the delay? Not surprisingly, anxiety is the single biggest reason why students haven’t submitted applications. Niche.com’s data shows that an overwhelming majority (92 percent) of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now with concerns about being able to afford college topping the list.

We also posit that lack of opportunities to visit campuses in person have led many students to feel uncomfortable applying for early admission, especially when binding commitments were required. Also, the Class of 2021 lost important mentoring and support from teachers and counselors in the crucial junior spring when schools went to virtual learning and for most, that has continued throughout the senior fall. 

Is it any wonder we are swamped with requests from students from around the world with questions on how to handle college admissions during the pandemic?

Are you behind on your college applications? Don’t panic — we are here to help with top tips for completing your applications NOW.  Take a deep breath and let’s do this!

BUILD YOUR COLLEGE LIST

Your first step should be to create a realistic list of colleges. Start with an honest self-assessment of your academic record. In real time, admissions officers cite a student’s grades and level of rigor of coursework as core to their assessment of applicants for admission. Even though many schools don’t officially report rank-in-class, there are plenty of hints that admissions officers find in counselor letters, school profiles, Naviance type software, and transcripts. So, where do you think you fall relative to peers? Near the top or more towards the middle?

Next, how would you rate the level of rigor of your curriculum? Have you stretched yourself to take the most challenging courses? How have you sought academic challenge beyond what your school offers? Again, this is what admissions officers are looking for as they read your application and just one of the myriad ways we guide our students in our Application Boot Camp and Private Counseling programs.

Although just about every college has moved to test-optional admissions policies for this current cycle, you can use your test scores to gauge where you fall relative to students who typically enroll at the colleges on your list. Do your SAT or ACT scores lie at or above the 75th percentile for enrolling students? Do your scores fall below the 25th percentile? Are you somewhere in the middle? Match your scores to the data colleges report on their incoming classes to give you a realistic sense of where you would fall if you submitted them.

Do a similar honest self-assessment of your extracurricular impact. How do you think your teachers and counselor would describe you? Leader, high impact, participant, just like everyone else? The more competitive the school, the more you will need to show impact and distinction—both in and out of the classroom.

Finally, as you build your list, recognize that rates of admission at top colleges in the regular round can be excruciatingly low. Create a balanced list with schools where your likelihood of admission is good, along with a handful of realistic “stretch” picks.

CONNECT WITH TEACHERS AND COLLEGE COUNSELORS

Immediately, connect with your teachers and college counselors to ask them to be your recommenders. Most top schools require letters from your counselor and at least one teacher, typically two, so choose teachers from junior year who know you well and talk with them about the schools on your list. Remember, they will be your advocates in the process, so the more you can share about your college aspirations, as well as all you’ve done both in and out of the classroom, will help them write stand-out letters on your behalf.

Also, many college counseling offices will require your finalized list in early December so that they can prepare and submit your transcript and counselor letter by college’s specific deadlines.

GIVE THANKS—AND THEN WRITE YOUR ESSAY

The Thanksgiving holiday is the perfect time to write the Common Application and supplemental college essays, especially since most of us will likely be hunkering down at home during the break.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as an academic, someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

Want more essay tips? Check out our Top Tips for Winning College Essays! Or work with us directly in our College Essay Guidance Program.

CREATE A SUPPLEMENT ‘MAP’

Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined.

As you approach your supplements, we suggest creating a supplement ‘map’ and categorizing the prompts based on theme. You will quickly notice some patterns emerge! For example, many schools will ask a version of the “Why Essay.” In other words, be prepared to explain what it is you like about their specific scholarly community and how you would contribute to campus life, both in the classroom and elsewhere. Other common supplemental questions include a meaningful extracurricular activity, your potential academic major, your role in a community of your choice, and personal perspectives showing how you would contribute to a diverse college community.

WE’RE HERE TO HELP

Whether you need step-by-step guidance with the ever-tricky Common App or guidance on organizing and crafting your essays, we’re here to help! Our expert editors and writers are at the ready to assist you in putting your best foot forward during the college application process.

For students who have finished their application and want our “review” we have a few more spots available before 12/20/20 in our Application Review Program! Good luck and get writing!

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Early Action and Early Decision Deadlines Looming

An early application is a sure-fire way to boost your chances of admission, especially if you have great grades and top scores that are in range for the schools on your college list. If you’ve read our blog posts and admissions books, you know that your odds go way up when you apply in a binding Early Decision program. Don’t believe us? Just take a look at the early decision stats that we collect and post each year. Your odds of admission were about three times greater if you applied early versus regular to Brown, Columbia, and Duke. At Dartmouth, the early decision admit rate was four times greater.

Although not the case for every early action school, there are certainly clear statistical benefits to applying early action as well.  At Harvard, your chances were five times greater last year if you applied early action than waiting until the regular round. Yale and Notre Dame applicants had more than double the rate of admission if they applied under early action. Overall, keep in mind that early decision gives a much better boost compared to early action across the board – that is the reward for a student willing to commit to a school.

HOOKED VS UNHOOKED

Keep in mind that the reasons the admit rates trend higher in early at top private schools is that applicants with hooks (recruited athletes, legacies, VIP’s, underrepresented minority students) tend to get even more of an admission boost if they apply early. Are you an unhooked applicant? You will still benefit from a more thoughtful review as applicant pools are notably smaller and admissions staffs are not completely overwhelmed with applications to read. Plus you are read against a backdrop of many recruited athletes, legacies and borderline applicants so you may shine brighter against a dimmer background. Overall, regular applicant pools tend to be stronger.

These early deadlines are drawing near so we’ve made it easy for you and listed the specific dates for some top schools. Create your own spreadsheet and get organized. This is a critical time for you, seniors. Leverage the early round and up your odds.

EARLY ACTION & EARLY DECISION DEADLINES

CollegeEarly Deadline(s)
American UniversityEDII: 1/15/21
Amherst CollegeED: 11/16/20
Babson CollegeEDI and EA: 11/1/20EDII: 1/2/21
Barnard CollegeED: 11/1/20
Bates CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Baylor UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Bentley UniversityED: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/7/21
Boston CollegeEA: 11/1/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Boston UniversityEDI: 11/1/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Bowdoin CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/5/21
Brandeis UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Brown UniversityED: 11/1/20
Bryn Mawr CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
BucknellEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/15/21
CalTechEA: 11/1/20
Carelton CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Carnegie Mellon UniversityED: 11/1/20; EA (juniors) 1/1/21
Case Western ReserveEDII: 1/15/21
Claremont McKennaEDI: 11/1/20; EDII: 1/5/21
Colby CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Colgate UniversityEDI: 1/15/21; EDII: 1/15/21
College of the Holy CrossEDII: 1/15/21
College of William and MaryEDII: 1/1/21
Colorado CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Columbia UniversityED: 11/1/20
Connecticut CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/15/21
Cornell UniversityED: 11/16/20
Dartmouth CollegeED: 11/1/20
Davidson CollegeEDII: 1/4/21
Denison CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Dickinson CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/15/21
Duke UniversityED: 11/16/20
Emerson CollegeEDI/EA: 11/1/20
Emory UniversityEDI: 11/1/20 EDII: 1/1/21
Fairfield UniversityEDII: 1/15/21
Franklin and Marshall CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
George Washington UniversityEDII: 1/5/21
Georgetown UniversityEA: 11/1/20
Gettysburg CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Grinnell CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Hamilton CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Hampshire CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Harvard UniversityREA: 11/1/20
Harvey Mudd CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/5/21
Haverford CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Hobart and William Smith CollegesEDII: 1/15/21
Johns Hopkins UniversityED: 11/2/20; EDII: 1/4/21
Kenyon CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Lafayette CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Lake Forest CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Lehigh UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Macalaster CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Middlebury CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/1/21
MITEA: 11/1/20
Muhlenberg CollegeEDII: 2/1/21
New York UniversityEDI: 11/1/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Northeastern UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Northwestern UniversityED: 11/1/20
Oberlin CollegeEDII: 1/2/21
Occidental CollegeEDII: 2/1/21
Pitzer CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Pomona CollegeEDI: 11/15/20; EDII: 1/8/21
Rice UniversityED: 11/1/20
Rochester Institute of TechnologyEDII: 1/1/21
Santa Clara UniversityEDII: 1/7/21
Sarah Lawrence CollegeEDII: 1/2/21
Scripps CollegeEDII: 1/5/21
Sewanee: University of the SouthEDII: 1/15/21
Skidmore CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Smith CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Southern Methodist UniversityEDII: 1/15/21
Stanford UniversityREA: 11/1/20
Stonehill CollegeEDII: 2/1/21
Stevens Institute of TechnologyEDII: 1/15/21
SwarthmoreED: 11/15/20; EDII:1/4/21
Syracuse UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Trinity CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
Trinity UniversityEDII: 2/1/21
Tufts UniversityEDI: 11/17/20; EDII: 1/1/21
Tulane UniversityEA: 11/15/20; EDI: 11/1/20
Union CollegeEDII: 1/15/21
University of ChicagoEA/EDI: 11/2/20; EDII: 1/4/21
University of MiamiEDII: 1/1/21
University of MichiganEA: 11/15/20
UNC Chapel HillEA: 10/15/20
University of PennsylvaniaED: 11/1/20
University of RichmondEDII: 1/1/21
University of RochesterEDII: 1/20/21
University of South CarolinaEA: 10/15/20
University of VirginiaEDI/EA: 11/1/20
Vanderbilt UniversityEDI: 11/1/20 EDII: 1/1/21
Vasser CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Villanova UniversityEA/ED: 11/15/20: EDII: 1/15/21
Wake Forest UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Washington and Lee UniversityEDII: 1/1/21
Washington U. St. LouisEDI: 11/1/20; EDII: 1/2/21
Wellesley CollegeEDII: 1/1/21
Wesleyan UniversityEDII: 1/15/21
Worcester Polytechnic InstituteEDII: 1/15/21
Yale UniversitySCEA: 11/1/20

EARLY DECISION II

Be sure to finalize your Early Decision II and/or Regular round essays and have them locked and loaded in your online application accounts (UC Application, Common App, etc.). We can help you with your application and your essays immediately via our Common App 911 and Essay Guidance packages! Don’t miss the opportunity to leverage yourself, your essays and your application.

YOUR FUTURE, YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

It is your responsibility to ensure every piece of your application has been submitted INCLUDING what your high school is supposed to submit. CHECK the specifics for your early round colleges as policies vary by school and then do your due diligence to ensure all of your ducks are in a row. It’s imperative you stay on top of this important administrative piece to your application. After all, your school won’t get deferred because a document was missing, YOU will.

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Do College Rankings Really Matter?

In September, U.S. News & World Report, the leading authority in college rankings, announced the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges list. For the 10th straight year, Princeton University has earned the #1 spot, followed by Harvard University and Columbia University. Likewise, on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College has maintained its #1 position, with Amherst College and Swarthmore College coming in at #2 and #3, respectively. Now that prospective students are unable to attend traditional on-campus info sessions and campus tours, rankings carry extra weight as students turn to “expert data” to create their college lists.

HOW MUCH COLLEGE RANKINGS MATTER

This year more than ever, we have been asked how much college rankings really matter. And if, in the past, these rankings have been directly correlated with standardized test scores of accepted students, what are the new metrics that have been used to determine this year’s list as colleges go test-optional? How reliable are these methodologies?

In response to the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions and ripple effect on college admissions, this year’s US News rankings include three new topics: student debt, social mobility, and test-blind admissions policies. For the first time, they have also ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT for the purpose of admissions.

U.S. News has published the updated breakdown of key data used to determine overall rank. The six factors are weighted as follows:

Outcomes (40%, previously 35%)

Its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% of normal time (six years). We approach outcomes from angles of graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%), social mobility (5%) and, new this year, graduate indebtedness (5%).

Faculty Resources (20%)

U.S. News uses five factors from the 2019-2020 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction: class size (8%), faculty salary (7%), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. The 2021 Best Colleges ranking factors in scores from both 2020 and 2019.

Financial resources (10%)

This is determined based on average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Student Excellence (7%, previously 10%)

The ACT/SAT scores and high school class rank of accepted students.

Alumni giving (3%, previously 5%)

The average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

While this updated breakdown has reduced the weight given to SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni donations in response to the shifting admissions landscape, these factors still matter and are a significant part of the raw material that informs the final list. Furthermore, as noted on their website, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that the “current” policies and procedures collected in spring 2020 may have changed since the rankings were determined.

CHANGES IN COLLEGE RANKINGS –BUT NOT ENOUGH

H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has publicly called for the suspension of college rankings during this time of crisis. In his article, published in May, he makes his case clear:

“A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.”

– H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science

Other college rankings, such as the Washington Monthly’s 2020 rankings, have responded to this social pressure. Although they still published their rankings in August, they have made an effort to emphasize diversity and social consciousness in their calculations and approach. As they explain, “It’s our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” To calculate a college’s commitment to diversity, for example, they use IPEDS data “to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school.” For the first time, they have also listed the schools that make sure majors popular with Black students (social work, criminal justice, and sociology) lead to well-paying jobs. See that list here.

Money’s annual Best Colleges for Your Money ranking, published in August, used a methodology based on 27 factors in three categories: Quality of education (30% of weighting), Affordability (40% of weighting), and Outcomes (30% of weighting). In response to the economic outlook this year, they increased the emphasis on affordability. They also added two new net price figures to “capture affordability for students from middle-income backgrounds alongside our existing measure of net price for low-income students.”

Finally, this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2021 rankings consider similar metrics to assess colleges in four areas: Outcomes (salary graduates earn, debt burden they accrue), Resources (the spending schools put into instruction and student services), Engagement (student survey), and Environment (diversity of the community). It is critical to note, however, that, due to the pandemic and shutdown of college campuses, the student survey (20% of the ranking) was canceled for this year. As such, the WSJ/THE rankings use the scores obtained by institutions last year.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In many ways, these rankings will only continue to exasperate the inequities in higher education, made more acute by the ongoing pandemic. While the ranking organizations have made some efforts to add transparency to their process, the data is simply not consistent or dependable at this stage, and a considerable amount of data this year was re-used from the 2019 lists, which did not take into account new admissions procedures or the reality of campus life during COVID-19. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the rankings are largely the same as years past. While some of the metrics offered by these publications can be useful, they should be consulted with care and some degree of skepticism. For personalized guidance and a winning application strategy that takes into account the ever-shifting landscape in real time, contact us today about our Private Counseling Program or Application Boot Camp.