Has Covid had an effect on college admissions? Has it ever.
The upcoming cycle is likely to be much like the last two: crazy high application numbers, crazy low acceptance rates, and enough disappointment to power a small country.
For the last two years, it’s been harder than ever to get into an Ivy League or one of the nation’s many selective colleges. Numbers have shrunk from Northwestern University to Northeastern, from UCLA to Bates College in rural Maine. When the Covid lockdown closed SAT and ACT testing sites for more than a year, even the most competitive universities were forced to go “test optional,” beginning 2020-21. Those who’d taken the tests could submit their scores and did if they were high. Others were magically at liberty to leave that space blank.
With the doors to the kingdom wide open, students with crummy SATs or none at all changed the landscape. They applied in droves to HYPSM (Harvard Yale Princeton Stanford MIT) and to many other high-ranking colleges. They top-loaded their lists with reaches and skimped on targets and safeties. And because this was uncharted territory, they tried to cover their bases. Eighteen, 20, or even 25 submissions became the new normal.
As college applications exploded, college admissions rates plunged, some as low as 3 percent. This left thousands of super high-achievers feeling they’d only been accepted at the University of Crushing Disappointment, safety schools they never imagined would be their only choices.
That first year of Covid, upwards of 20 percent of those admitted to HYPSM took a gap year. Who wanted to start Harvard on Zoom? And whose parents wanted to pay for an Ivy education via laptop? Many others, disappointed with their acceptances, sat the year out, too. They’d spend the bonus year burnishing their credentials and try again. The number of kids going gap rose to some 130,000, about double the previous year.
College applications swelled for other reasons, too. Just before lockdown, the University of California system went “test blind” — no tests accepted, on the theory that testing is biased against minority and low-income students who can’t afford high-priced test prep. In the latest cycle, 149,000 students applied to UCLA, compared to 113,761 just two years before. The applicant rate soars, but the real estate – the number of dorm rooms — stays the same.
The Anti-Elitist Movement
Still another factor that’s moved the needle with college essays and applications: the trend against elitism and legacy admissions. This movement was intensified by Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Months before the pandemic, Amherst College announced it would no longer consider legacy in admissions decisions, following Cal Tech’s, UC Berkeley’s, and Johns Hopkins’ earlier decisions. While no other colleges have made that announcement, the mood is shifting against privilege and in favor of first-generation and under-represented minority students. Gone are some of the rich kid legacy perks that got C-student George W. Bush into Yale and John F. Kennedy into Harvard, even though his Choate report card includes cringeworthy grades: a 55 in French, a 50 in physics, and 65 in algebra.
The good news: Times have changed. The bad news: In 2022, the college application landscape is more unforgiving than ever. What’s a student to do?
Think Smart: College Admissions 2022-23
What can we expect for the coming year? And how can students stave off another year of high expectations and devastating disappointments?
The competition will most likely continue to be fierce.
The only universities I’m aware of that have reinstated the SAT/ACT requirement are MIT and Georgetown. That means application rates at other highly competitive colleges will stay higher than usual. Which means that the rest of the students’ application will be even more important. Focus will be on GPA, recommendations, extra curriculars (including sports), and college application essays (Common App, supplements, University of California Personal Insight Questions, etc.).
Take note: In some cases, students who submit test scores at the most selective colleges could have a slight advantage. In this market, every advantage counts. Bottom line: Test scores can help, but they won’t help everyone in a competition as tight as this one.
College Reputations Change
And keep in mind: Colleges and their reputations change. Such changes typically happen slowly, but we’re living through a time when they’re happening at lightning speed. Five years ago, UCLA, USC, Boston College, BU, and Northeastern had acceptance rates two and three times what they are today. As these institutions choose more competitive students, their prestige rises too.
Check-list for College Admissions 2022-23:
Even though most college and universities are test-optional, if you’re a STEM student, submitting test scores makes sense. If you’re applying to hyper-selective college/university without test scores, ask yourself if your college essays, gpa, and ECs including sports are competitive with the top students in your school.
Even though top colleges are test optional doesn’t mean they have lowered their expectations for student excellence. They are looking for it in other places, especially in grades, recommendations and college essays and applications that show passion, smarts, and real intellectual curiosity, whether you want to study STEM or philosophy.
Don’t shy away from “reaches,” but think of them as “super reaches.” Reorient your expectations. Move colleges that used to be “targets” to “reaches” and proceed accordingly.
Add colleges you’d never considered – and WOULD want to attend – to your targets and safeties.
Consider colleges that might be “hidden gems” through Colleges That Change Lives, originally a 1996 book by Loren Pope and now a terrific non-profit resource. Research Honors Programs in your state schools.
Consider the network of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), with its own application portal right here. If you’re a woman, consider one of 30 remaining women’s colleges, including Wellesley, Barnard, Smith, Agnes Scott, and Bryn Mawr, some affiliated with Ivy League and co-ed institutions.
- Understand the role of sports at many Ivies’ and Stanford’s admissions. This link lays out the advantages athletes have. Not everyone who gets into Stanford REAX or regular does a sport, but sports are super important at Stanford–and at HYP, but not nearly as much at MIT or Cal Tech, for instance. The Stanford Athletic Department offers 36 varsity sports—20 for women, 16 for men and one coed—with approximately 900 students participating. Harvard has 42 nation-leading Division I intercollegiate sports teams. Princeton has 37 varsity teams for men and women. Princeton teams have won more Ivy League championships than any other school during the last two decades, and several Princeton teams have won national titles. A number of Princeton athletes participated in the 2016 Olympics, and one earned a gold medal. You don’t have to be a star athlete to get into these colleges (and I’ve worked with many students who aren’t), but it can be an advantage.
Consider devoting your college essay and applications energy to choosing a favorite college for ED. But be realistic and financially smart. Unless your academic record is truly stellar, and unless you stand out in other ways (including athletic), and financial aid is not an issue, pinning your ED or Restricted Early Action (REAX) hopes on Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Duke, or Columbia might not make sense.
Take note: it’s not “easier” to get in Early Decision. Colleges don’t lower their standards for ED applicants – they raise them. The higher percentages for REAX and ED admissions are inflated because they include recruited athletes. The students they choose early are ones they believe other top colleges will also want.
What’s the risk of applying ED or Restricted Early Action to HYPSM? People often say, “Why not try? What have I got to lose?” What you have to lose is that if you’re denied or deferred – 90-95 percent of applicants are – you’re back in the regular decision pool. Now you’re competing with 45,000 to 50,000 other students, where it’s even harder to stand out and where the acceptance rates are even lower.
Take matters into your own hands early on. Curate your college list wisely. And take care with the rest of your application. Ask teachers for recommendations the spring before senior year. Keep your grades up. And don’t fill out your application forms the night before, or the week before. Devote as many weeks to your college app essays and applications as you would to any piece of writing that really matters. Essays do matter, along with everything else in which you’ve invested so much of your ambitions.