It’s a new school year that brings us a completely unanticipated college application environment: for one thing, more and more colleges are temporarily test-optional in the face of Covid-19; for another, it’s impossible to demonstrate your interest in a college by visiting its campus for a tour and information session. According to NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admission report, almost 83% of all colleges surveyed last year indicated that test scores were of considerable or moderate importance in making admission decisions. Additionally, 40% of the surveyed colleges said that demonstrated interest (a visit is part of demonstrated interest) was of considerable or moderate importance. That the pandemic has affected these two key factors, among others, and so has changed college admissions would be quite the understatement! The health crisis has upended the admissions evaluation process, redistributing the weight associated with the most important factors that have always been considered in admissions.
NACAC goes on to say that students’ academic achievements—grades, strength of curriculum, and SAT/ACT scores—constitute the most important factors in the admission decision. Next are the essay, a student’s demonstrated interest, counselor and teacher recommendations, class rank, and extracurricular activities. This next “tier” of factors tends to provide insight into students’ personal qualities and interests, as well as offer more detail on academic performance. Today, in the absence of test scores for many students and an inability to demonstrate interest as effectively as before, that second tier will weigh much more heavily than before the pandemic. However, they’re likely to be weighed differently in public versus private colleges. Historically, private colleges placed relatively more importance on the essay, interview, recommendations, demonstrated interest, and extracurricular activities. Public colleges valued admission test scores more highly than private institutions.
Let’s take a look, then, at all the key factors that will now weigh even more heavily in admission decisions:
Grades and the rigor of your curriculum will be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb. Not all high school academics are the same, so admissions will weigh your transcript’s information more carefully in the context of your high school’s offerings, and compare your transcript to your peers’ academic records. Many applicants are likely to have academic records similar to yours, so colleges will dissect your transcript to uncover your desire for challenge and love of learning – and, yes, one more AP course this year might make the difference! According to the NACAC survey, almost 90% of colleges consider grades and rigor of curriculum to be of considerable importance. We’d be willing to bet that the percentage is now 100%!
SAT/ACT Test Scores:
Certainly, if you submit a competitive SAT or ACT score – one that’s well within or above a college’s mid-50% for students accepted for this year, then you’ll have improved your chances for admission – and possibly even for merit-based aid. But without such scores, colleges may turn to AP scores to gain better insight into your academic abilities, especially in the face of much grade inflation. Is your “A” in AP Lang backed up with a 5 on the AP exam? Here’s another interesting prospect: It’s possible that some colleges may consider your PSAT score if you don’t have an SAT or ACT score. Find a way to include it in your application if you haven’t had the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT and your PSAT score is at the top of or above a college’s med-50% SAT scores for admitted students. To gain more insight into what test-optional really means – and whether you should apply with or without SAT or ACT scores, read our blog or view our webinar.
Extracurricular activities will receive a big boost in importance. Because admission officers seek students who will make meaningful contributions to the campus community, they’ll be looking for examples of your robust and long-term dedication, initiative, collaboration, leadership, influence, and impact. Fewer activities with greater depth of commitment to each will be key to your successful application – and especially activities that support your choice of major. Do you know exactly how to present your extracurriculars – on both your applications and your activities résumé – to fully convey your engagement? An effective presentation could be the part of your application that gets you noticed – and gets you in. Last year, the surveyed colleges were divided somewhat equally between those that considered extracurriculars to be considerably or moderately important and those that considered them to be of limited or no importance. That scale will no longer be balanced – a far greater proportion of colleges (likely more public colleges) will give significant added weight to your extracurriculars this year. In this unusual year, remaining engaged in school activities is crucial, even if your school is virtual. What can you do? Organize a new club or work closely with an existing club’s advisor to bring in guest speakers via Zoom to enhance your life and that of your peers outside the classroom. Take an online enrichment course, perhaps in coding or a new foreign language. Develop a school-wide forum that follows the TED Talk model. Also, make certain that your résumé and/or optional Covid-19 essay reflects those activities you had planned for the summer and fall and which have been cancelled. Read our blog to determine whether you should write the optional Covid-19 essay.
A well-written personal statement and supplemental essays that together convey your voice and personality can “seal the deal.” College admission officers look to your essays for evidence that you can write well, but it goes far beyond that. They want to get to know who you are, what makes you tick, what intrigues you, what you value, what your goals are. A powerful essay will grab the readers’ attention and help them know you. Can you write a potent enough essay to set yourself apart and make your readers feel that they just had lunch with you? Last year, only about ⅓ of the surveyed colleges considered the essay to be of limited or no value. That fraction may decline considerably this year, especially for public colleges, which means that the impact of your essays will grow.
Teacher & Counselor recommendations:
Recommendations serve as important testaments to your ability to do college-level work. Teacher recommendations, especially, speak to your attitude towards learning, your responsibility and accountability, and your academic interests. Admissions officers seek students with a strong stake in learning, who care about excelling in the classroom; they want engaged students eager to entertain new ideas and contribute to lively discussions. As Harvard’s longtime Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons says, they look for letters that reveal “intellectual curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.” Do you know which teachers to ask, and what you can you do to elicit an effective anecdotal letter that speaks to these qualities? Last year, slightly more than half the colleges surveyed said that recommendations were of considerable or moderate value; want to bet that it will be closer to 75% this year?
Highly selective colleges have always sought input from their trained alumni interviewers, and they will be even more so this year. Gaining insight into your personal side is important to admission officers; it’s yet another way to distinguish you from the other students with similar academic records. These personal factors are likely to be more critical to determining your eligibility for admission this year. Are you prepared to make a positive impression on alumni interviewers by painting a picture of yourself that leads to their solid support?
It’s a college admission officer’s job to build a class of students who will be academically successful, students with strong character, creativity, collaboration, and leadership qualities who will contribute positively to the campus community. They seek an entering class with diverse personalities and experiences, comprised of students who will live, work, and play together collegially, making a difference on campus and on their world after graduation.