Top Ten Lessons Learned from The Pandemic Admissions Cycle

The pandemic disrupted college admissions in ways that will have long term effects. Let’s look at what happened this year:

  • Test optional became the norm. Most schools were test optional (and many will continue to be for the next 2-3 years). More students applied to the most select schools.
  • More virtual visit options. Colleges created numerous opportunities for students to engage virtually, increasing access to underserved and low-income students. More students applied to more schools!
  • Lack of in-person visits. Students could not visit colleges in person and felt uncertain about their prospects.  Students applied to more schools!
  • Yieldability is the new buzz word. Colleges use data analytics to determine the “yieldability” of a student, deferring or waitlisting students who were using it as a safety.   Students freaked out by being deferred and applied to more schools!

All of these factors make the process more equitable but increasingly uncertain.  And while uncertainty can be scary, it can also be liberating.  You can focus your energy on activities you love rather than trying to guess what colleges want.  Below are the top ten lessons learned.

Go Deep in Things You Love

The pandemic gave many students the opportunity to take a pause and redirect their efforts toward things they really love. One of our clients was an avid sports fan. While many students love athletics, he revolved his studying, activities, and life around watching, analyzing, and writing about sports.  He carried this out in his deep interest in journalism and communications by serving as the sports editor for his high school paper and even producing a sports podcast where he and a friend analyzed games and players. He was a stellar student and had excellent time management skills, but more importantly, he genuinely loved everything he did. As a result, he got into top communications programs because he had compelling and specific examples of how he would contribute to the journalism community.  This carried forward during the pandemic where he was one of the few students able to watch the basketball games live and report on them for The Michigan Daily

Be Realistic

It’s often difficult for parents, and in some instances kids, to accept the reality of the current admissions cycle. I often hear, “But I/they worked so hard in high school; they deserve to get into Duke or Princeton” or any other highly selective college.  However, there are hundreds of thousands of kids who have worked equally as hard and may have other qualities or circumstances that make them compelling to admissions at a given school. But students who understand themselves and where they will fit in and thrive do much better in the admissions process.  One of our clients was deferred from Duke Early Decision.  After he ran the numbers and realized how miniscule the odds were of getting into Duke Regular Decision, he decided to apply ED2 to Vanderbilt.  This decision paid off, and he was accepted to Vanderbilt.  

Understand and Play to Your Strengths

Students who understand and play to their strengths have a much easier time communicating their stories. Samantha, a future nursing student, had difficulty learning in a traditional classroom setting.  But she discovered that once she was in a hands-on learning environment, her ability to learn increased tenfold and her natural empathy and compassion made her great with patients. She also discovered that she had an undiagnosed learning difference.  As soon as she understood not only how she learned but also how to apply her learning style to every situation, she soared inside and outside of the classroom. Her self-insight made a compelling case to demonstrate how she would excel at St. Louis University’s nursing program even after a bumpy start in high school. 

Let Your Talent Shine

We had several students this year with exceptional talent in art, music, or creative writing. While one of them was interested in pursuing architecture, which required a portfolio, the others, who were pre-med or interested in studying math, submitted arts supplements to complement their outstanding academic achievement.  Not only did they showcase their creative art or music– they also each wrote with enthusiasm and depth about how their special talent helped them be leaders, see science differently, or make sense of the world. It was also clear to colleges how they would continue to contribute their gifts over the next four years.

Find Solutions to Problems

Colleges want to see students who take action and are part of the solution. This shows them that these students will be leaders on campus and continue to make a difference. When the first wave of Covid 19 was devastating the Northeast hospitals, Kelly wanted to do something to help. She purchased the parts to make a 3D printer and figured out how to assemble it and produce PPEs in her bedroom. Throughout the pandemic, she delivers PPE equipment to local hospitals.  Dartmouth appreciated her resourcefulness and ability to identify a problem and come up with a solution; these are the precise skills that will make her an excellent engineer.  

Listen with An Open Mind

Common themes on college campuses are diversity, access, and inclusion. How does faculty create a welcoming learning environment? How do students of all backgrounds feel included?  How do students with diverse backgrounds come together and learn from each other? Listening with an open mind demonstrates how you are ready to integrate. Josh was a leader in student government and soccer in his high school–the proverbial “big man on campus.” But he decided to join his high school’s Women’s Alliance club as the only male member. At first he was intimidated and remained quiet, listening to his peers express their experiences of being female.  Through active listening, he understood a new perspective in a deeper way. He grew as a person and started seeing the world through a different lens. This made him a more effective leader in all aspects of his life. Josh is exactly the sort of leader the University of Pennsylvania wants on its campus: someone who seeks to understand varying perspectives and grow from the experience. 

Captain Your Own Ship

As we work with families each year, it becomes clear who is steering the ship in the process.  It’s typical for parents to captain the ship early on, during freshman and sophomore year; however, by junior year, those students who take the helm early on do much better in the process. I started working with Jin the summer before her senior year. She had already done a tremendous amount of research on her schools of interest and a national scholarship program to which she was applying. She had a clear sense of who she was and the type of college where she would thrive. I could truly serve as her mentor rather than her taskmaster. At each step of the process, from writing her essays to developing her list to making a final decision, she captained her ship. Her independence and self-confidence came through, and I know she will flourish at Princeton.

There Are No Guarantees

While every student we worked with had at least one excellent choice, there are no guarantees because the process has become more unpredictable. Colleges not only want to create a community of learners–they also want to manage their enrollment. They have more sophisticated ways to analyze data and predict yields. Just because a student is in the range academically, does not guarantee an acceptance. Many of the most selective schools fill upwards of 50% of their class through Early Decision. For schools that care about demonstrated interest, if a student has not visited or interviewed, they will likely be waitlisted or denied. If a student is applying to a “safety” school regular decision, the colleges can now predict the likelihood that a student with this particular academic profile will matriculate.  

Be Patient

This year we saw more waitlists and deferrals than ever before.  Increased applications and lack of testing made previous prediction yields unreliable. Colleges needed time to sift through the hordes of applications and develop new models to evaluate candidates with limited traditional data.

This top student’s school moved to pass/fail for their junior year; let’s see what happens with first semester senior grades: DEFERRAL

Will this student come to our school when in the past nobody with their profile matriculated no matter how much merit money we gave them?  WAITLIST

Several of our clients were deferred by his first choice Early Decision school.  But by the end of the cycle, they either got accepted into that school or were accepted into other schools that were equally or more competitive. 

Be Open to The Outcome

Students who accept the reality of the process going in and are open to the outcome generally have the best admissions experience. One of our Ivy League hopefuls was deciding between Rice and Emory. He was excited about each of them even though they were not originally his first choice.  I asked him if he would have done anything differently, and he smiled and said, “No, I’m happy with my options and how it turned out.”  

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