Given all of the academic twists and turns during the past year of the pandemic, you may have expected that college application totals would have decreased as a whole. However, while some colleges saw decreases in applications as compared to previous years, many saw the exact opposite: there were major increases.
As reported last month, Ivy League, top-tier, and high-profile colleges saw exceptional rises in the number of applications they received from students seeking admission as first-year freshmen. For example, Harvard saw a 48% increase, and colleges like UC-Berkeley and University of Virginia saw 28% and 15% increases, respectively.
What was the cause of the booming college applicant totals?
Largely the fact that most colleges adopted a test-optional policy to accommodate students who could not take the SAT or ACT.
By not requiring test scores, these colleges basically opened the floodgates to students across the country and the world, allowing seniors who never would have thought twice about applying to places like Harvard some hope that they could be competitive based on their grades, extracurriculars, and essays (among other holistic-review metrics).
When it comes to reducing barriers to admission, such increases are remarkable in that they suggest talented students are often discouraged from applying because of the mediocre results of their SAT and ACT exams (or simply the lack of any scores in the first place).
Unfortunately, this good news does pose new challenges for anyone applying to college during the Age of Covid-19: there is a much greater pool of applicants at just about every high-profile college, which means there is a lot more competition for spots that were once “safe” and others that were already a “reach.”
What should I do as I prepare for college during another year of the pandemic?
One thing is clear, the test-optional policy is not going away any time soon. Sure, there are some colleges here and there that have stated (for now) that they will revert to requiring tests during the 2021-2022 admission cycle, but many Ivy League colleges have already committed to at least one more year of test-optional admissions.
Since SAT/ACT scores cannot be used against students who do not submit them, and since there will be thousands of students competing for spots that during “traditional” years may have never applied, you have to rely on bolstering other parts of your college application -- especially if you are one of the students affected by the persistent cancellation of SAT/ACT test dates.
How exactly do I improve my college application?
The three key areas of distinction on college applications are as follows: high school grades, extracurricular activities, and college application essays. When you cannot set yourself apart with test scores, these three areas become crucial for demonstrating your readiness for college-level study and fitness for a particular college.
Maintaining high grades should be a no-brainer, and the college admission essays will be a hurdle you overcome as you get closer to actually applying to colleges, but participating in extracurriculars can be tricky when your city is in lockdown or when your school only meets virtually.
Caitlin Harper, the Senior Associate Director of Admission at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, has offered some recommendations about how best to find meaningful extracurriculars. She outlined four areas of consideration:
Identify and fulfill a need - e.g., senior citizens need appointments for vaccines.
Lead through your interests - e.g., online version of a piano concert.
Volunteer - e.g., Winter Storm Uri victims need water and food distribution help.
Learn something new - e.g., teach yourself how to code in Python.
The pandemic is no doubt a century-defining event, and while it is easy to fade away into the grim reality of perpetual lockdowns and not spending very much time seeing your friends, family, and teachers in person, your extracurriculars are a great way to recognize the magnitude of the crisis and harness your creativity to help yourself and others.
With a little bit of imagination and fortitude, you can pave the way for a stellar high school resume, giving yourself experiences that you can tap into for college admission essays and, of course, the feeling that you rose to the occasion when a global pandemic brought large parts of the world to a standstill.
What is the overall recommendation on how to tackle the pandemic-era college admissions process?
When possible, take the SAT and ACT exams, because you never know when a little bit of information will come in handy for admissions officers. If you can’t, don’t sweat it.
Get high grades in advanced high school classes. Take the AP/IB exams and do well.
Be creative and resilient with pursuing interests outside of school. Extracurriculars still matter, and there are plenty of online resources and virtual ways to get involved.
And last but not least, hang in there.
As we transition into the next college admissions cycle, our Gateway program is accepting new students. Check out how our counselors can help you strategize and prepare for applying to college during the Covid-19 pandemic! Or set up a FREE consultation!