An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

I’ve never seen a more competitive admissions cycle in my 19 years in the field. Changes in the admissions landscape in response to COVID-19 — the suspension of standardized testing requirements, students’ inability to visit college campuses, the creation of robust virtual programming by almost every college — prompted unprecedented increases in applications, making it even more challenging for students everywhere to be admitted to selective colleges. (See the table below for a sampling.)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting and speaking with admissions and counseling colleagues about the impact of these changes and what they mean for future Lakesiders, and realizing that we are likely entering a “new normal” in college admissions. As we prepare for this new normal, there are steps all Lakeside families can take to ensure their student has a rewarding college search and application process.

The chart below shows the percent that applications increased from the 2019-2020 admissions cycle (last year) to the 2020-2021 admissions cycle (this year) and what each college’s admit rate is for this year.

College

Increase in 20-21 apps from last year

2021 admit rate

Boston College

36%

19 %

Boston University 

24%

18%

Carnegie Mellon University 

25% 

N/A

Colby College

13% 

8%

Colgate University

104%

17%

Columbia University

51%

4%

Dartmouth College

33%

6%

Emory University 

18% 

13%

Georgetown University 

30%

12%

Harvard University 

42%

3%

Johns Hopkins University

30%

6%

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

66%

4%

Middlebury College

30%

15%

Northeastern University

23%*

27%

Northwestern University

21%

7%

Rice University

26%

9%

Washington University in St. Louis

20%

13%

Wellesley College

20%

16%

*Data for only the regular decision cycle.

Understanding the causes of these unprecedented application increases

While it’s too early to state definitively what caused the increases in applications, college admissions and counseling professionals point to three likely factors.

  1. The suspension of colleges’ standardized testing requirements. Historically, colleges almost always see application increases when they’ve eliminated application components; fewer application elements allow students to apply with greater ease. Students with strong grades and curricula but lower test scores, who might not have applied in prior years, submitted applications to more selective schools, without any concern that testing results would weaken their applications. 
     
  2. Colleges’ creation of robust virtual programming. When colleges closed their campuses at the start of the pandemic, they immediately began creating extensive virtual opportunities for students to tour campus, meet with students and faculty, explore dormitories, and more. While such in-person opportunities were previously accessible only to those who could afford to visit, prospective students anywhere in the world could now access extensive new resources to learn about schools. This robust virtual programming led not only to more applicants, but to different applicants — students from rural backgrounds and under-resourced public schools, as well as more students of color and first-generation college students (students whose parents/guardians did not graduate from college), whom colleges have struggled to reach in prior years.
  3. Many applicants applied to more colleges. Unable to visit campuses and unnerved by the unpredictability of the pandemic, most applicants applied to more colleges than in prior years. Until now, the average number of applications submitted by each Lakesider was approximately 11. While I haven’t finished computing data for current seniors, I’m confident this figure will spike.

Together, these three factors made the “perfect storm,” creating application surges — the likes of which we hadn’t seen before — in one year alone.

Imagining a new college admissions landscape

Even after the pandemic ends, it’s likely these trends will continue in varying degrees. When colleges suspended their testing requirements last spring, some did so permanently while others implemented a multi-year trial with the goal of eventually making the policy permanent. Certainly, colleges want and appreciate having more applicants, and reinstating the testing requirement would likely cause application decreases. 

Most colleges are also deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Because a plethora of research shows that standardized testing disadvantages certain student cohorts — namely, students from lower-income families and underrepresented students of color — eliminating the requirement is also an extension of colleges’ DEI efforts.  

The elimination of the testing requirement also means that the strength of the pool increased. In prior years, average or low testing could weaken a student’s application. Now, a student who submits strong test scores reinforces the strength of their academic achievements, but competes with other top applicants who would have been less competitive in the past because of low test scores.

The creation of extensive virtual programming has also supported their DEI efforts, and most colleges intend to continue and even expand their virtual programming. Getting to know colleges thoroughly became possible for everyone with access to the Internet, not only those with the resources to visit campuses in person. Colleges also redoubled efforts this year to become more racially diverse in the wake of renewed calls for racial justice. With larger numbers of applicants identifying as underrepresented people of color and/or first-generation college students, and hailing from rural and/or lower-income backgrounds, many colleges relied less on their more traditional base of students: Asian American and white students in major U.S. metropolitan areas from college-educated families.

Couple these changing demographics with the other large categories of applicants prioritized in the admissions process — legacies (children of alumni), recruited athletes, VIPs (potential donors and high-profile families), exceptional artists, etc. — and spaces for academically strong students who don’t fall into any of the categories is limited.

Whether applications-per-student will remain as high as this year’s ratio is yet to be seen. With the pandemic (hopefully) nearing its end, offering students a return to teenage normalcy, perhaps students will apply to fewer schools. Or, knowing that the competition for spaces at selective colleges is at an all-time high, perhaps they will cast even wider nets.

Finally, some colleges increased the percentage of their classes filled through Early Decision (ED), a program in which students apply by an earlier deadline to one school and are obligated to attend if admitted (and provided the necessary financial aid). While this wasn’t the case at the most selective institutions, other well-known schools, such as Occidental College, harnessed ED to “lock in” more students — and a larger percentage of tuition revenue — earlier in the process during a year of great financial uncertainty. While applying ED is slightly less selective, especially at institutions that admitted more ED applicants this year, fewer spaces therefore remained in the Regular Decision (RD) cycle, contributing to the increased competition among applicants. Because ED programs have been growing for years, it’s likely that most colleges will continue to admit larger numbers of students early, perhaps at rates similar to this year’s unprecedented ones — and thus making admission during RD increasingly tough.

Preparing as a community for the “new normal”

Expanding access to higher education is important and a societal good. But it does mean that students globally, including Lakesiders, will face increased competition, especially for coveted spaces at our nation’s most well-known universities.

There are tons of great colleges in the U.S. (and globally), and it will be important that juniors enter the process open-minded, eager to explore schools with which they’re unfamiliar. These are steps families can take to help students build this mindset:

  • Emphasize that there are many great schools and that your student can be happy and successful at many of them. If your student is eager to expand their horizons prior to junior year, read this Inside Lakeside piece from February 2020 that offers steps and resources.
  • Refrain from setting goals tied to college admission. For example, “You need to work hard so you can get into Stanford” not only reinforces that Stanford is superior to other colleges, but also establishes a goal that’s beyond a student’s control. Even many students with straight As and rigorous curricula aren’t admitted to Stanford.
  • Talk about all colleges with equal enthusiasm. Students notice the contrast when parents/guardians are visibly excited about the admission of a relative or friend to a well-known school, but are less so when family and friends are admitted to other colleges.
  • Remind your student that your love for and pride in them is unrelated to where they attend college. 

Our students have bright futures ahead of them, no matter where they attend college. Lakesides college counseling team looks forward to exploring the possibilities for their futures with them.

Ari Worthman is Lakeside’s director of college counseling. Reach him and other members of the team at collegecounseling@lakesideschool.org.