Stanford University

A difficult year: early admission outcomes in the age of Covid

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|February 25, 2021|5 Minutes

When early application season is in the rearview mirror, it is usually time to take stock of the season – did the numbers increase, was there some unusual trend, and so on. But then we have a year like 2020, and everything about “usual” goes out the window!

Selective colleges across the country, both those with non-binding Early Action policies and those who offer binding Early Decision program, found themselves blitzed with applications. Many top tier colleges saw 20 and 30% increases in early applications, and at MIT applications spiked by 62% over last year.

This tsunami of applications was largely the consequence of Covid. After repeated cancellations of SAT and ACT test dates, almost every college in the country became test-optional.  As a result, countless kids with very strong grades and courses who might not otherwise have applied because of weaker test scores, took their shot at selective schools.

Covid also rippled across the early application season in yet another way. Last year many students accepted by selective colleges decided to defer their entry into first year, hoping that the end of the pandemic would give them the traditional year they had hoped for. At Penn, for example, in a typical year about 50 first years defer admission, but last year some 200 did. At Yale and Harvard respectively, more than 300 deferred.  And when students defer, they take up space in the next year’s class.

Yet not all colleges participated in this bonanza of applications, and neither did students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Many of the schools with admit rates over 50%, for example, actually saw their application numbers drop. And even more worrisome for equality of access in education, the number of lower income applicants declined as well, as families worry about unemployment and shrinking incomes.  So these bigger applicant pools also contained even more middle and upper middle class students than usual, leaving colleges rightly concerned about their ability to matriculate lower income and first generation students.

So what does this mean for you?

  • It means you have to adjust your expectations about what a ‘probable’ or a ‘possible’ school is, to this new reality. No matter how strong a student you are and how fantastic your scores, if you do not have some unambiguously likely colleges on your list, you risk getting locked out everywhere. And if your transcript is scattered with all an alphabet of grades, that safety margin has to go even higher. Finding good safety schools is easy; identifying the ones that you will be happy to attend, takes work.
  • It means you have to read scattergrams and other school-specific statistic knowing whether or not they show the outcomes for applicants from your high school in this current year.
  • The current churn in college admission might well push colleges towards an even greater reliance on Early Decision programs, which is a good reason to consider applying early.
  • Be sensible though, about the opportunity cost of applying to an unrealistic reach. If you apply to super selective schools just to “see what happens,” you might waste your early application on a moon shot rather than win acceptance at a more reasonable choice.
  • Accept that there is still value in submitting good SAT/ACT scores, and prepare accordingly. As for AP scores, the other form of standardized testing owned by the College Board, assume colleges will pay even more attention to those than before.

The big uncertainty, of course, is what will happen in Regular Decision – more of the same, or something altogether new?  But meanwhile there is one silver lining in all of this: while we all pay lip service to the idea of finding colleges that fit with a student’s personal aspirations rather than those whose rankings speak to status aspirations, faced with this new reality students might be encouraged to put their money – and their energy – where their mouth is!