Originally published by the author in the riverjournalonline.com Road to College series
The 2020-2021 college admissions cycle was certainly the most disruptive of any year in recent memory due to several factors ranging from COVID-era learning disruptions and test-optional trends, to modified AP exams and limited opportunities for extracurricular involvement. The list goes on. In many ways, these novel realities combined to reduce students’ ability to stand out, or stand apart, as applicants. Students were limited in their capacity to adequately sample the world and develop deep understandings of what they want to do and why, a unique and often underdeveloped part of the college process that we help our students cultivate at Novella Prep. As summer vacation approaches, it is important to take time to reflect on the school year, what we’ve learned, and some of the unique trends we have observed in the everchanging admissions landscape.
The Trends. The resulting fears of this tumultuous year caused many parents to encourage their child to apply to more colleges than may have been strategically advantageous. Such trends left admissions officers with a considerable challenge; selecting an incoming class that is both academically successful and provides fair opportunities for all students to access higher education. This increased pressure and the growing applicant pool at many of the nation’s top colleges led acceptance rates to drop at the vast majority of selective institutions. Further, there was a dramatic rise in schools’ use of the ever so dreaded waitlist, with the number of students admitted from waitlists nearly doubling and average waitlist acceptance rates increasing over 10% from 2019 (College Kickstart, 2021). As expected, early college applications, such as early action or decision options, continued to provide students with considerable acceptance rate advantages, making these intentional college admissions strategies more important now than ever.
What To Do.
College Portfolio. Reflecting on these trends, we have found that many of the core tenets of a successful college application process remain the same. The more students engage in meaningful extracurriculars aimed at transforming their unique passions into skills, the more likely they will come to understand how aspects of their interests and character can inform future major and career decisions. No matter what, robust study habits and grit, coupled with a rigorous course load, will allow your student to put forward a strong, representative GPA and often a proportionate standardized test score.
Test Scores. Despite last year’s drastic shift towards test-optional admissions, we suggest any family with access and time to devote to adequately studying, preparing, and taking the test should try to do so as test scores continue to remain one measure among many to support admission officers in making challenging decisions. Yet, while important, an ACT or SAT score is not the only metric of significance. For this reason, we suggest students only take the exam 2-3 times. Colleges often prefer students to demonstrate their strengths through living meaningful, engaged lives rather than excessive test prep beyond that count.
Standing Out. What will help today’s students stand out will be purposefully spending time to decide on one future major or program over another and its relation to future career. Seeking quick conversations with professionals, pursuing job shadowing opportunities, or simply interviewing parents about what they studied and what they do can provide impactful and often underutilized first steps for students as they work towards developing and mapping their interests and skill sets onto future opportunities. Through these efforts, students can learn how a whimsical interest in a certain subject matter may connect to previously vague notions of what a career is or can be.
The more this gap can be narrowed, the better students will be able to identify best-fitting colleges and craft their personal narrative. The narrative a student communicates via their college application portfolio should be unique and authentic, but it takes time to get there. Before the summer begins and application work commences, it is well worth it for your student to invest this time into such exploratory, reflective efforts. While the road to college does seem to be constantly in flux, a core focus on academic performance and a meaningfully engaged life remain paramount to success when coupled with a carefully selected major and balanced college list.