The college admissions process can be a puzzle, especially to parents whose children aspire to attend a top-tier institution. In the past year, it became even more vexing due to the pandemic, which disrupted normal operations at all colleges. Notable results at top-tier colleges were a sharp increase in the volume of applications and an equally sharp decline in admission rates.

While forces of change have been building in college admissions for years, the 2020-21 cycle marked the beginning of a new era in college admissions. For better or worse, a sweeping transformation is underway, one with implications for prospective college applicants and their parents.

Factors That Affected Admissions

Extraordinary factors bearing on admissions during the pandemic include the following:

  • The adoption of test-optional admissions policies by top-tier institutions encouraged applicants with outstanding GPA’s but unimpressive test scores to apply to top schools that they wouldn’t have applied to otherwise, thereby increasing overall volume of applications (test-optional policies will be considered extensively in the next post.)

  • Regular Decision applicants were aware of the huge increase in Early Admissions applications in the fall of 2020. Many sought to boost their prospects by applying to more schools than they otherwise would have. This also added to volume.

  • Because students couldn’t physically visit colleges, many of them submitted applications to elite institutions sight unseen, which is not usually the case.
  • Many of the applicants who accepted offers of admission to a college during the cycle of 2019-20 chose to take gap years due to the pandemic. These students took up spots in the 2020-21 freshman class that would otherwise have been available to new applicants. Fewer seats further reduced the percentage of successful applicants.

The Impact on Top-Tier Admissions

Private top-tier universities and liberal arts colleges saw a record-breaking 17% average increase in applications in 2020-21. Since the number of seats available to freshmen stayed the same or decreased, lower admission rates were inevitable.

Table A shows the number of applicants admitted in 2020-21, the admission rates for 2019-20, and the admission rates for 2020-21 for a sample of private top-tier institutions.

Table A:
Admissions Results for 2020-21 Compared to 2019-20
Top-Tier Institutions

InstitutionApplicants
Admitted
2019-20
Admit %
2020-21
Admit %
Amherst1,084128
Barnard7,5701110
Boston College13,8842419
Boston University8211918
Brown3,82675
Chicago2,06766
Colby1,55698
Colgate3,0102817
Columbia2,21864
Cornell5,863119
Dartmouth1,74996
Davidson1,1012217
Duke1,10186
Emory2,5182013
Emory (Oxford)2,8542321
Georgetown8,1051512
Harvard1,96853
Johns Hopkins95096
Middlebury1,8711616
MIT1,34074
NYU12,1991513
Northwestern3,23977
Notre Dame15,3501715
Princeton1,49864
Rice2,749109
Swarthmore1,01498
Tufts3,4311511
UPenn3,44686
USC3,2021612
Vanderbilt3,16297
Vassar2,0682419
Wellesley6,1001916
Wesleyan4,3742019
Yale2,54465

Admission Is More Competitive

Admission to elite institutions is even tougher than it was before the pandemic. There’s concern that, with test-optional policies in place at most colleges, there’s one less objective measure that applicants can use to distinguish themselves from their peers.

In the past, a student who prepared diligently and earned an impressively high score had an advantage as an applicant. The opportunity to earn that advantage has been weakened by new test-optional policies.

GPA and strength of curriculum, imperfect tools for comparing applicants, remain the most important factors in selection, but they’re the only hard factors that carry weight. Common soft factors, such as interviews, essays, and recommendations, have more impact on selection than they did in the pre-pandemic era, but often even they are not enough to differentiate among candidates in this ultra-competitive era. So selection often comes down to the personal attributes of applicants — factors that show what contributions they’re capable of making to the student body and the school’s reputation.

Use Strategy to Solve the Puzzle

If parents want to help their child develop an admissions strategy, we recommend that they assist in identifying those personal attributes most likely to boost admissions chances. Assessing one’s own strengths, weaknesses, talents, skills, interests, and accomplishments enables a student to view themselves as admissions officers will see them. If the strategy is in place early in high school, teens will have time to enhance the attributes they plan to emphasize. They can then highlight them with confidence when applying to colleges.

Having a strong strategy is beneficial, if not essential, to a student who plans to apply to top-tier colleges. Best to brainstorm and build a strategy in the first semester of freshman year. A strategy that blends the creative ideas of all involved and focuses on personal attributes will help your child achieve their college goals.

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