Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Year of Living Dangerously, or How I Survived the COVID Admissions Round

Often when I tell someone about my business, I end up having to politely listen to a detailed explanation of their child's incredible skill at playing the didgeridoo or doing the macarena. I jest, but in all seriousness, this year, I often get a “Wow!” and occasionally an “Oh boy!”. Why? Because to say we as a profession have been navigating uncharted terrain without a net, rope, lifejacket, or escape room would be the understatement of the year. 

Herewith is a brief explanation of why.

In early 2020, shortly after the lockdown began, ED deferred students were suddenly being admitted at higher rates than in the past. Why? College Enrollment Managers were likely panicking because students had been sent home in April. This meant the school had to refund a percentage of room and board for that semester. They may also have been told to make sure seats were filled by students who didn’t need institutional aid to attend and enroll.  So naturally, on my IECA message board and among the college admissions pundits (don't laugh; there are plenty), we all expected the next round to look very different. Dozens of canceled test dates for the ACT, and the SAT led to test-optional models for almost every school, except for the Florida public university system. They chose to require tests from every applicant, causing a sizeable drop in apps at all but UF, the state flagship. So with many families under substantial financial pressure, out of work perhaps, or caring for a loved one with COVID, we all mistakenly assumed app numbers would drop. Inability to visit, test, participate in many activities other than those purely virtual and families hunkered down at home all contributed to the belief fewer students would submit apps. WRONG! I take comfort in knowing that no one predicted the massive increase in apps. Not even the pundits. 

Untold numbers seized the opportunity to apply to colleges that would have been completely out of reach for those with test scores that didn’t even come close to the accepted student middle 50% from the previous year.  A few stats:

  • Brown University: 

    • 46,568 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 5.4%

    • Admitted RD: 1,652

    • Admitted ED: 885 

  • Johns Hopkins University: 

    • 40,837 total applications 

    • Overall acceptance rate: 6%

    • Admitted RD: 1,652

    • Admitted ED: 824

  • MIT

    • 33,240 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 4%

    • Admitted: 1340 

  • Colby College

    • 15,857 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 8%

    • Admitted: 1,279

In a particularly telling data set, Tufts released the following info: 

  • Tufts received a record 31,198 applications-an increase of 35%-for the 2021–2022 academic year, with 51% from students of color. Forty-eight percent of U.S. students admitted via Early Decision are students of color, and 14% of admitted ED students are first-generation. This is a sharp increase from even just two years ago when 34% of U.S. ED admits were students of color and just under 10% of ED admits were first-generation. 

So while students from more affluent suburbs of major cities with perfectly polished profiles who could travel to test and benefitted from costly test prep didn’t see the outcomes they might have liked, another population benefitted from the uncertainty. Low-income, urban, first-gen, and/or students of color with lower than previously accepted student scores who might not have gotten a second look from a highly competitive school’s admissions staff were suddenly in demand. Without scores, they were suddenly competitive. Their strong academic performance, dual enrollment at local community colleges, family commitments keeping them from after-school engagements, caring for younger siblings, after-school and weekend jobs in family businesses, and attending under-resourced high schools were appealing to admissions officers. Colleges and universities finally had the chance to create an authentically diverse class. So they did. 

Students have also applied to more schools than ever before, according to the Common App. All those students who deferred for a year, especially internationals who weren’t even sure they would be allowed to come to the US, took some seats. So there are more applicants, more deferrals, and a ton of students in waitlist limbo as enrollment managers try to figure out how to assure each slot has a student in it. 

The hattrick of factors was the recognition in college admissions offices that testing isn’t necessary to craft a diverse, interesting class, students lobbing in apps because scores aren’t needed, and for schools that meet all need, giving those authentically diverse kids a spot. But we are all still asking WTF happened? The consistencies we based our projections on for years were suddenly out the window. Why was Jimmy denied at Columbia but admitted to Yale? Why did Michigan deny or waitlist anyone who wasn’t a legacy from a local high school that typically sends 15-20 students to UM each year? Why did so many schools send those notes deferring EA applicants and inviting them to move their app to EDII? It seems as if they were feeding off students’ panic over an ED deferral or denial. 

I hope that families will learn from this oh-so-challenging year that their children are not defined by the schools that denied, admitted, or waitlisted them or offered them a Jan admit or fall semester in London. They will be defined by how they embrace their choices and what they make of the opportunities provided. I hope parents understand that most students find their place at the school they choose. Sometimes it takes a little time. Also, parents should keep in mind that of every ten transfer students I work with, six are hoping to leave the school to which they were admitted ED. It isn’t where you go; it’s what you do while there. Kids with the luxury of privilege, resources, parental support, and access will succeed no matter what is written on their diplomas. Grieve a bit, lick your wounds, then move on!

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