We are working with our grad school applicants who are putting the final touches on their applications, as well as new applicants who are seizing the day and applying to graduate school in this unprecedented time, or as we’ve called it, the best year in history to apply to graduate school.
Some schools have made it easier to apply to graduate school as they’ve lightened up their rules on course, test, application fee, and deadline requirements. Others are not making it easier to apply, they’re just calling it quits on fall 2020 admissions in the midst of COVID-19, and these are not poor universities. For example, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is not accepting ANY doctoral applications this fall, Master’s applicants only. UPenn did the same for their PhD admissions in the School of Arts and Sciences (except for their Chemistry PhD applicants); the rest of their departments are going to focus on serving/teaching/paying their current graduate students, not new ones.
In June, UVA Darden announced they were going test optional and here we are at two weeks from MIT Sloan’s round 1 MBA deadline and they just stated they’re GMAT/GRE optional. This decision is late in the game and it’s tough for applicants to interpret when they put this on their admissions page:
Well, which is it, MIT?…
Here’s one possible translation: While we went test optional for round 3 in spring 2020, we expected to be test-required this fall, but waited all the way until September to finally announce it. And –if you have any scores whatsoever, even an expired score from over a decade ago, we’ll take it. And, we’ll also tell you the following about our Class of 2021 right on our admissions FAQ site: average GMAT 727, GMAT middle 80% range 690-760, GRE middle 80% quant range 156-168, GRE middle 80% verbal range 156-169. But, just ignore that if you have nothing; zero scores are okay by us. (Unless you want to get admitted. Then, maybe think about getting some scores.)
IT’S ABOUT WHAT ACCEPTED STUDENTS SUBMIT
So, you could see where an applicant might be perplexed on what to do and what is actually needed. Because it’s not really about what you need to just pay an application fee and apply, it’s about what you need to get IN.
Compound the above with the fact that the online GMAT registration fee just went up 25% as of September 23 (and there’s a hefty $100 cancellation fee or $150 reschedule fee if within 2 weeks –at some but not all locations), and you might not be too pumped to sit for the GMAT right now. So maybe test optional IS your friend this fall. Do a review, however, of your undergraduate transcript to make sure it can stand on its own.
Then again, you might not be too psyched about MIT Sloan’s tuition and fees this year: $77,168 in tuition and $120,846 total according to this 2020-2021 MIT Sloan MBA Tuition and Expenses summary.
The good news is that top programs are being lenient with test requirements and score deadlines, and while MIT’s round 1 MBA deadline is coming up fast on October 1st, there is still time to apply –and you could even target their round 2 deadline of Jan. 19, 2021 or round 3 deadline of April 12, 2021 (though round 3 is a bit later than we’d advise applying), in which case you have much more time.
YOU NOW HAVE MORE OPTIONS
Some programs are lowering their tuitions; and some excellent online programs are being mindful of COVID-19’s impact on your financial picture.
For example, Williams College offers a one year Master’s in Policy Economics (apps are due Dec 1) for students with an interest in future positions in treasuries, central banks and government, and they made the news this summer with tuition cuts of 15% to benefit students and their families.
Even less expensive and more forgiving with application requirements is an online graduate admissions pathway. The University of Illinois’ round 1 online MBA application deadline (for spring 2021 admissions) was Sept. 15 and round 2 is due Oct 15. You need a minimum 3.0 GPA to apply, and they’re test optional, online and $22,000 for the program. Their applications are up 35% this year; students are taking note of the key benefits of top online MBAs, especially when many top MBA programs are already online right now anyway. Boston University and Wake Forest have also debuted new, popular online MBA programs in a less-is-more, we’re prepped for virtual anyway kind of way.
With Class of 2024 results now coming in on the early admissions round at top colleges and universities around the country, here is our expert assessment on what we’ve learned thus far. We’ll continue to update our information as more schools release their information.
UPS AND DOWNS
Unlike past years that saw big gains in everyone’s early numbers, this year was more of a mixed bag. Brown saw its number of early decision applicants grow by 8 percent, on top of a 21 percent increase in ED last year. Cornell, too, saw its pool grow by 7.4 percent and a news release from the university reminds us that the number of early decision applicants has grown 90 percent over the last decade.
Harvard saw its pool decrease by nearly 8 percent over last year to 6,958 early applicants. The last time Harvard saw its early pool decrease was in the fall of 2013 for applicants to the Class of 2018. Duke’s early decision pool decreased by 552 students (11.4 percent) over last year. Dartmouth’s early decision pool decreased by 16 percentage points over last year to 2,069. Likewise, Penn saw its early decision applicant pool drop by 9 percent from the record level reached last fall.
Natural disasters, school shootings, global economic uncertainty, teacher strikes, and demographic trends are cited by admissions deans as possible explanations for declining early pools. It could also be that savvy students are being more strategic in how they use their early option, aiming for a surer bet rather than going for the long-shot. We’ll continue to monitor these trends and share our perspective as more data are released in the coming months.
WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
Diversity of background continues to be a key priority in the selection process. Schools are working actively to build more diversity into their applicant pools through targeted outreach and partnerships with organizations like Questbridge.
Several schools made particular mention of greater numbers of low income and first-generation college students among the group offered admission. These hooks are clear institutional priorities increasingly supported through the admissions process.
Both Cornell and Penn are schools that went big for legacy admits, with 22 percent and 24 percent of the ED admits, respectively, being the children of alumni.
Many schools with binding early decision programs will admit 45-50+ percent of their incoming class through the early process. Doing so ensures that they can lock in a solid foundation for their incoming class and reduce yield volatility.
TOUGHEST SCHOOL TO GET INTO THIS EARLY ROUND?
Based on publicly reported data, the toughest early admission pool this year belonged to MIT. This year, 9,291 students applied for early admission to MIT, and 687 (7%) were offered admission.
Remember for the vast majority of top schools (MIT being the exception), the rate of admission in the early round will be significantly higher than the rate of admission for regular applicants. Duke, for instance, admitted 20% of its early applicants; last year it admitted only 5.7% of its regular decision applicants.
SELECTED EARLY ROUND APPLICANT POOL STATS
Brown admitted 800 students this December, corresponding to roughly 45 percent of its incoming class. The admitted group represents just 17.5 percent of its 4,562 early decision applicants, making this the most competitive early decision process they’ve ever experienced. The 4,562 students represented an 8 percent increase in volume over last year. Dean of Admissions Logan Powell cites The Brown Promise – a new initiative which replaces all loans in University financial aid packages – as having a major impact on the size and composition of the early pool. 62 percent of those admitted to Brown in early decision applied for financial aid, up from just 50 percent two years ago. Brown continues to push to diversify their student body, which is especially evident in the five percentage point increase in the number of first gen students in the ED admit group (17 percent this year versus 12 percent last year).
For the first time in four years, Cornell’s early decision admit rate increased. The university received 6,615 early decision applicants (a 7 percent increase over the past year’s ED applicant numbers) and admitted 23.8 percent (1,576 students), meaning its admit rate increased by 1.2 percentage points. Those admitted are estimated to comprise 49 percent of the Class of 2024. Interestingly, the number of women admitted this year decreased by four percentage points to 51.4 percent. Hard to know exactly what to make of this statistic—other than perhaps Cornell was concerned that it might be approaching a tipping point with respect to gender balance.
Dartmouth has offered admission to 547 early decision applicants, for an admit rate of 26 percent. The College’s official release notes that the early group includes record percentages of public high school students (54 percent), first-generation students (15 percent), foreign citizens (12 percent), and students of color (35 percent). The children of Dartmouth alumni represent 15 percent of the accepted students and recruited athletes make up 25 percent of the group.
At Duke, 887 students were admitted from a pool of 4,300 early decision applicants. With a drop in early applicants (over 11 percent from the prior year), Duke’s early acceptance rate increased to 21 percent, making this year’s ED process a bit less competitive than the past couple of years. Altogether, these students will comprise 51 percent of the incoming Class of 2024. Students of color comprise 46 percent of those admitted and international students make up another 6 percent.
Harvard saw its early action pool decrease by 7.7 percent, the first time since the fall of 2013 that the university’s early action pool posted a decline. In all, 895 of 6,424 early applicants were offered early admission to the Class of 2024. The 13.9 percent acceptance rate represents a 0.5 percent increase from last year. The early admission acceptance rate has not increased year-over-year since 2013. Dean Fitzsimmons takes a global view to explain the decrease, pointing to everything from wildfires in California (the number of early applicants from California declined nearly 17 percent) to school shootings and economic uncertainty to declining numbers of high school seniors. Women comprise 51.7 percent of the admitted class thus far, slightly more than last year, when women made up 51.3 percent of the early admit class. It seems that Harvard tipped in favor of women who are interested in the physical sciences and computer science. This year, 57.4 percent of admitted students who said they intend to concentrate in the physical sciences are women, compared to 52.9 percent last year and 33 percent the year before. For computer science, 49.1 percent of interested students are women, an increase from 42.9 percent last year, and 29 percent the year before.
Penn admitted 19.7 percent of early decision applicants to the Class of 2024 — breaking nearly a decade of declining ED acceptance rates. Of those who are United States citizens or permanent residents, 52 percent identify as students of a minority group, an increase from 48 percent last year. Similarly, 54 percent of admitted students identified as female, an increase from 51 percent last cycle. 10 percent of admitted students are first-generation college students, a slight decrease from last year’s 11 percent. Of students admitted to the Class of 2024, 24 percent had a parent or grandparent who attended Penn. Last year, 23 percent of admitted students were legacies.
Explaining the drop in ED application volume, Dean Eric Furda in an interview in the student paper seems to suggest a return to “normal” after a “bump” caused by higher scores on the redesigned SAT and students who therefore saw themselves as stronger. He, too, seems to raise the notion that natural disasters, power outages, and teacher strikes impacted the numbers of students applying ED.
Princeton University has offered admission to 791 students in its early pool this year (although the university coyly refrains from telling us how many students applied, suggesting it, too, saw a smaller pool). Of those admitted, 48 percent of students self-identify as students of color, 16 percent are from low income backgrounds, 13 percent are first generation college students, and 11 percent are international students.
Yale’s early application volume also decreased this year to 5,777, down 4 percent from last year’s record-setting pool of 6,020 students. Although short on details about the admitted group, a news release points to an announcement earlier this year from Yale that the past several classes have all set records for socioeconomic diversity, with more than 1,000 undergraduates receiving Federal Pell grants. Of those, more than 600 are in the first-year and sophomore classes. Additionally, the number of students per class who will be the first in their families to graduate from college has increased by 75 percent in the past six years.
Over on the West Coast, there are crickets from Stanford on the details of its early applicant pool and REA admits. The school announced last fall that starting with the Class of 2023, it will stop releasing admissions data until well after the admissions cycle concludes. The change was intended to reduce the “outsized emphasis placed on the admit rates at U.S. colleges and universities,” according to the Stanford news site. “By focusing on the admit rate, talented students who would thrive at Stanford may opt not to apply because they think Stanford seems out of reach,” said Provost Persis Drell.
But, stop the presses, Stanford did just release its overall admissions data for the Class of 2023. Its admit rate fell to a record-low 4.34 percent. Out of a record-high 47,498 applicants to Stanford’s Class of 2023, 2,062 were offered admission.
For two years in a row, Georgetown University has seen its early application volume decrease. This year, 7,305 students submitted early action applications, a decrease of nearly 13 percent since the fall of 2017 when nearly 8,400 students submitted early applications. To be sure, the fact that Georgetown uses a separate – and somewhat cumbersome – application may be a deterrent to students, as is its somewhat unclear testing policies. Georgetown’s Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon points, instead, to the increased pressure that students feel to choose a binding early decision program (versus a non-binding early action program like Georgetown’s) as the cause of the decrease. In particular, two of Georgetown’s biggest competitors – UVA and BC – both implemented binding early decision programs this year.
Interestingly, Georgetown chose to accept a smaller percentage of its early pool this year – 11.72 percent of early applicants (a record low) were offered admission despite the falling numbers of applicants for the last two years. We wonder why Georgetown chose to do this, especially since Dean Deacon makes a point of highlighting the strength of the pool despite the decreasing numbers of applicants. Could it be looking for the silver lining – “most selective early process yet” – despite the downturn in application volume? If two of your competitors are taking a bigger slice of your market share, wouldn’t you want a slightly larger admit group to help yield the very best students in your early pool?
Stay tuned for more updates as they become available!
Twenty years ago, admissions to top colleges was much more formulaic. Applicant pools were smaller, more homogeneous, and more self-selecting. Each college had its own application that students filled out by hand. Most high schools calculated and reported class rank. “Merit” was pretty much defined as high class rank and high test scores, with some traditional school leadership positions for good measure.
BREAKING THE MOLD
As I explained in my behind-the-scenes admissions book A is for Admissionin 1997, despite their protestations, colleges indeed used a numerical scale to rank students on academic and extracurricular achievements and to guide the selection process. In addition to the “secret formula” (the “Academic Index” which combined SAT scores, SAT subject test scores and class rank/grades), colleges developed their own rating system using a 1-9, 1-6 or 1-4 scale as admissions shorthand. At Dartmouth, we used a 1-9 scale with 9 as the highest academic ranking. Students who achieved this top designation were class valedictorians (typically of large high schools) with SAT scores and three achievement tests (now called subject tests) in the 750-800 range. Twenty years back, academic 9s comprised two percent of applicants and nearly all (94 percent) were admitted. Students who were rated as academic 8s (just under three percent of the pool) had a rate of admission of 92 percent. Three-quarters of the academic 7s—students in the top ten percent of their class with scores in the 720-750 range—were admitted, yet they made less than 5% of the applicant pool. Admission to a top tier college or university was clearly much more predictable.
HOW THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS WORLD HAS CHANGED
What has changed in the last 20 years? Lots. For starters, the adoption of the Common Application as the predominant application provider and its transition to an online platform led to explosive growth in applicant pools. Concurrently, the arms race amongst colleges (fueled by the likes of US News and World Report) led to increased student recruitment efforts to become more selective in order to climb up the rankings. Test preparation has become a global, multi-billion dollar business. Top private colleges and universities themselves, responding to critical national conversations about access to higher education, moved aggressively to encourage more low income and first-generation college students to apply. The metrics that once anchored the selection process are not applied as rigidly as they once were. Reams of national research showed clearly that test scores correlate with income; differences in scores by gender, race, and ethnicity are well-documented. Growing numbers of colleges and universities are test-optional; many of those that still require the SAT or ACT no longer require subject tests (though they still count them and expect them from students without financial hardships). High schools, for their part, have moved away from class ranks. “Hooked” applicants—athletic recruits, legacies, underrepresented minority students—have a leg up in the process, often admitted at much higher rates than the overall rate of admission.
No one can argue that broadening access to higher education is inherently a bad thing. As a consequence of all these factors, admissions rates at all the top 25-30 colleges have declined pretty much every year for 20 years. That’s a tough thing to wrap your head around. Applicant pools have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled since the parents of today’s high school students applied to college. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and Yale boast acceptance rates of 4 to 5 percent. Last year, 18 top colleges and universities posted acceptance rates below 10 percent (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Caltech, MIT, Pomona, Chicago, Brown, Duke, U Penn, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Claremont McKenna, Vanderbilt, Swarthmore, and Johns Hopkins), a new record.
The bottom line is that it is much much harder for top students today to get accepted to top colleges than it was 20 years ago. Students today face much steeper competition. Without a hook, what differentiates bright and high-achieving students from amongst thousands and thousands of similarly high-achieving students?
Increasingly, admissions officers are looking towards indicators of character, integrity and civic involvement. In admissions, character matters. Admissions officers at top colleges are not looking for students who rarely venture beyond the high school bubble and who lack awareness of the world around them. Need an example? David Hogg, the Parkland activist, was just admitted to Harvard despite a slightly lower academic profile than the norm. Why? Because he showed America that one student could ignite an important debate on gun control after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Sure, not everyone will reach that national level of impact, but Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and their classmates demonstrated how to make their voices heard.
What are ways students can show integrity and moral character? Through serving on honor councils and community boards, heading efforts to address local problems from water pollution to environmental disasters (one of our students worked for several years to pass a “no idling” law in his state) to working for politicians who are striving to address major policy issues, students can show that they are aware of the world beyond high school. Activism and impact take many forms—well beyond the somewhat old-fashioned menu of high school extracurricular options—and increasingly, make the difference in the selection process. Fancy internships or expensive global “service” programs don’t cut it. Instead, long-term dedication to causes and efforts you believe in, from your local humane society or homeless shelter to youth mentoring programs or community gardens, and more, the opportunities for students to make a difference are plentiful.
MEASURING THE “X” FACTOR
How do colleges measure this “X” factor? Character references from teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors help illuminate students’ impact. Students themselves need to think about how they tell their own story, from the essays they write and the activities they lay out in their application. I recently spoke to one of my sophomore students who had very little engagement in her school or community. I tried to jolt her into action by saying “from an admissions standpoint, it looks like you go right home at 3pm and do homework and nothing else.” That turned out to be true. Straight A, low-impact students are not going to have as many college options as high-impact ones, period.
Students who are solely chasing the 4.0 or 1600 and don’t show evidence of character, integrity, impact, and leadership will be passed over in favor of others. Think local or think global, but get involved and make a difference. You—and the world—will be better for it.
One of the highlights of our summer is attending the final day of presentations at the Research Science Institute at MIT where somehow they select the top 10 students (of 81) to deliver their research results—the competition is crazy as literally everyone does first rate research projects with Harvard and MIT researchers among others. In 2018, there was a 3% acceptance rate.
Timing is very strict with about eight minutes to present a slide show with their research goals, process and results on topics ranging from biomedical research to abstruse math theory. We enjoyed seeing two of our students in person, one of whom was a finalist. To give you an idea of how high level these presentations are, we’ll just provide a few topics of winning entries that made the final group:
How Does Intra-Swarm Grouping Affect the Maneuverability of a Robotic Swarm
Investigation of a Novel medication for Treatment of Multiple Myeloma
NP-Completeness of the Five Cells Pencil Puzzle
Number Fields Generated by Torsion Points on Elliptical Curves
Organized Microphrase Separation of Active Spinner Particles in Dense Colloidal Solutions
Needless to say, many of the topics are a bit beyond our paygrade/knowledge base, but we love listening to how poised the students are and some of the incredible breakthroughs they have in this amazing program. We also enjoy hearing the judges grill the students on particular points and watching how adeptly the students field tough questions.
RSI is offered cost-free by the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE) partnering with MIT to competitively selected top achieving students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Though the application to RSI is very long and few are chosen (the acceptance rate is comparable if not lower than getting into Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford), we are fortunate enough to typically have 1-2 of our students a year take part in this program. Big thanks to all the amazing mentors and staff at the Center of Excellence in Education and RSI for including us in this memorable presentation year after year.
As we’ve mentioned before, many of our students hope to attend MIT. We can’t blame them: ranked #7 by the US News and World Report, MIT boasts world-renowned programs in subjects ranging from engineering to linguistics. Applicants interested in attending the school will have to submit MIT’s own application, which became available online this month. Instead of one long essay, MIT asks for a series of short response essays.
MIT APPLICATION ESSAYS
Here are the prompts for each essay you’ll see on the application:
We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it. (100 words or fewer)
Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why? (100 words or fewer)
At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)
Describe the world you come from; for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations? (200-250 words)
Tell us about the most significant challenge you’ve faced or something important that didn’t go according to plan. How did you manage the situation? (200-250 words)
Finally, MIT’s application includes one optional prompt with no set word limit:
No admission application can meet the needs of every individual. If you think additional information or material will give us a more thorough impression of you, please respond below.
THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL ESSAYS
As we’ve discussed previously on the blog, the best essays for any school—including MIT—will offer a fresh perspective, an active voice, and a great opening hook. If you’re looking to apply to MIT this year, we recommend you get to work on those essays as soon as possible!
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