Applying to College during pandemic

March 30, 2021, by

What Have We Learned from the 2020-2021 Admissions Cycle?

When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, more than 1,600 colleges and universities across America, including all of the Ivies and most highly-selective institutions, declared a test-optional policy for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. This presented a unique opportunity for applicants everywhere, and (not only in retrospect but also according to the data) it seems like almost everyone had the same “brilliant” idea: Let’s punch above our weight class. Let’s apply early to that dream school that always seemed just a little out of our reach because of those darn SAT/ACT scores…

An unprecedented number of early applications.

Well, that approach did not—could not—pan out well for everyone, colleges’ admissions officers included. This past year’s admissions cycle bred an unprecedented number of early applications, Early Application Pool News Shakes Up College Admissions, which, in turn, led to an unprecedented number of early admissions applicants who were either denied or deferred. And then there was the spill-over of applications into the regular decision pool. Colgate’s applications rose 102% (yes, you read that right: 102%!) from 8,582 applications in 2019-2020 to 17,392 applications in 2020-2021 Colgate Experiences Surge in Applications. Last year Colgate enrolled 805 students in its freshman class, which leads one to the logical conclusion that this year the vast majority of students who have applied RD to Colgate will be either denied admission or placed on a waiting list. And, according to Insider Ed, waiting lists at highly-selective institutions such as Colgate could be longer than ever this year Many Expect Waiting Lists To Be Worse Than Ever

The bottom line is that while there may not be significantly more applicants applying to college (The College Board reported a 2% increase in the number of applicants from the previous year) it seems that these applicants are all applying to the same colleges Interest Surges in Top Colleges. The result: stiffer competition than ever before.

Will colleges extend their test-optional policies during the 2021-2022 admissions cycle?

Not to despair, however. Even in a year as anxiety-inducing as the one COVID-19 presented, we are proud to report that our students did extremely well in the early admissions round; in fact, over 98% were accepted to their Early Decision and/or Early Action schools 2021 Early Application Acceptances. As we look toward the future, noting that many of these same schools (including Harvard, Cornell, and Stanford, among others) have already extended their test-optional policy to the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, it seems like the time is ripe to reflect on what we learned. So, here are some of our major takeaways from last year’s admissions cycle. We hope that these lessons will help you navigate the upcoming application cycle and meet with similar success.


Our major takeaways from last year’s admissions cycle:

1. Be smart about your strategy.

Prior to the pandemic, we always liked to say, “Shoot for the stars…so long as you love your backup choices.” In the world we are currently living in, these “backup choices” (think: target and foundational schools) are no longer reliable “guarantees.” Take Northeastern, for example:

In 2020, 1,900 applicants applied Early Decision 1, which was a 5% increase over 2019. 1,000 were offered admission, creating 1/3 of the entering class. Then, 36,000 applicants applied Early Action, which was a 14% increase over the previous year. You don’t need to be a math whiz to realize that the odds of being admitted to Northeastern were significantly higher for ED1 applicants than EA applicants, last year more than the year prior. Our takeaway is if you can find a school that you love that is within your grasp, apply ED1 if you are able to.

2. Demonstrate interest wherever possible.

To build on the previous example, when Northeastern announced that they had received 36,000 EA applications, they were explicit in their message: If you’re serious about Northeastern, you need to demonstrate interest. So, take that virtual tour, email an intelligent question to your regional rep, subscribe to college admissions’ mailing lists—and then make sure you’re opening those emails! Admissions officers keep tabs on all of these things, and these actions can absolutely make or break an application.

Demonstrating Interest?
What does “demonstrating interest” mean, especially in this brave, new virtual world? Here is what you need to know: Demonstrating Interest in 2021.

3. Research schools that are similar to the ones already on your list. Layer your list with Early Action options.

Let’s say your heart is set on Georgetown, one of the most highly-selective colleges in the country, which has now become even more selective due to COVID-19’s impact on the college landscape. If a Jesuit college in or around a major city is your preference, why not broaden your search to include similar schools? Check out Fordham University, Fairfield University, College of the Holy Cross, or any of the Loyola Universities (New Orleans, Chicago, Marymount, or Maryland). All of these schools have a nonbinding Early Action option, and if you do some digging you might find that some of these smaller, less-selective schools saw a decrease in applications last year. Take Loyola University Maryland: a smaller Jesuit college only an hour away from Georgetown, whose early application rate decreased by 12% last year. It’s worth widening your search and being flexible about your choices, this year more than ever.

4. Be proactive with your applications.

Common Application has already confirmed its essay prompts for 2020-2021: 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts. If you are a junior in high school who is on spring break and reading this blog post right now, you absolutely can start to brainstorm ideas for your personal statement. It’s extremely important that your personal statement is well planned and well executed—it’s the first piece of the application that admissions officers see (even before your transcript!), and it’s never too early to start jotting down some thoughts and get creative ideas brewing.

5. Submit your applications early.

We recommend at least two weeks earlier than the deadlines noted. In another test-optional year that is sure to produce as many, if not more, applications than ever before, won’t you feel better knowing your application is right on top? (We certainly will.)

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