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The Biggest Changes to This Year’s College Application Season (COVID-19 Edition)

The Biggest Changes to This Year’s College Application Season (COVID-19 Edition)

The Biggest Changes to This Year’s College Application Season (COVID-19 Edition) 1000 1000 Larry Liu

Colleges are being forced to rapidly innovate a holistic admissions process that hasn’t been changed in years, all due to COVID-19. Universities and applicants both face significant uncertainty. In this post, we expand upon the issues fueling this uncertainty and how seniors can effectively navigate the upcoming application cycle ahead.

For the majority of schools, enrollment across the board has dropped. International students who were supposed to start their undergraduate or graduate programs this fall have faced difficulties obtaining student visas and securing flights. Current international students face similar difficulties staying or returning to the US if they only have remote courses. Unemployment in the US skyrocketed to 13 percent in May, meaning fewer families can afford tuition rates. Domestic and international students also are opting to attend their local universities to avoid the risk of air travel. 

It’s important to note that we’re talking about the majority of schools. These changes don’t necessarily apply to Top 20 schools like the Ivy Leagues and the most competitive Liberal Arts Colleges. However, even schools ranked Top 20 to 50 will feel the shockwave of COVID-19 impacts. 

Because of enrollment reduction, colleges are completely rethinking how they recruit students. Admissions officers are asking themselves, “If we take this student, will she actually attend my university?” 

As much uncertainty college applicants will face this fall, colleges are also uncertain about the applicants themselves! Here’s a look at the issues that are worrying colleges this particular application season and how they’ll affect students.

More competition and less financial aid for students due to revenue loss

Many colleges are in financial crisis because of the loss of tuition revenue and endowment reserves being knocked out during the stock bull market. Roughly 20% of Harvard’s incoming freshman class has deferred, many of whom are international students. Competition among applicants to top tier colleges this year is higher because so many students have deferred, cutting down the number of open seats in next year’s class. Students who can pay full tuition will have an advantage in the applicant pool since colleges will offer less financial aid and fewer scholarships. When applying, students should seriously consider each school’s degree of financial vulnerability, especially those without healthy endowments. As more information comes out about colleges’ financial troubles, you should avoid applying to schools that run a high risk of closure or are likely to experience disruptive cost cutting measures like programs getting cut or faculty and staff getting laid off. 

An upsurge in competition for technical majors

In recent years, more and more students have been choosing STEM over humanities majors, a trend that will accelerate due to COVID-19. Families are asking, “Is a humanities major really worth it?” more than ever. At the same time, students are looking into jobs that won’t be affected by the pandemic and allow them to work remotely, many of which are in the tech sector. For those of you vying for a technical major in STEM, you’ll have to rise above and beyond the steep competition this fall. 

Increased scrutiny of earlier grades and recommendation letters

GPAs and grades from the most recent semesters (junior spring and senior fall) aren’t as reliable as they used to be, because of schools having to switch to remote learning. Many students haven’t been able to benefit fully from online teaching due to stressful circumstances at home, and some schools now only issue pass/fail grades to be fair. To assess academic performance, admissions officers will weigh letters of recommendation from teachers and grades from earlier semesters more heavily. It’s also more important now than ever to demonstrate Intellectual curiosity. Colleges want to know how you are independently pursuing your academic interests and purpose during the pandemic. 

Standardized tests are optional

Almost all schools have implemented test-optional admissions policies, especially top tier schools. Past SAT and ACT exams have been canceled while upcoming test dates are already booked. Upcoming exam dates are also risky to count upon because test centers can close in case of local outbreaks. Students still stand to benefit from taking the SAT or ACT if they can test well. However, if you can’t test well enough to boost your academic profile beyond what your grades indicate then don’t take SAT or ACT. Turn to other methods to demonstrate your academic ability, which you can find on our blog post  “How to Stand out to Colleges When Tests Are Optional.”

Increased weight on demonstrated interest (via big data)

Colleges will pick students who are likely to attend their school. Admissions officers base this probability on the interactions between the students and the university. Coronavirus has limited in-person interactions, namely campus tours, overnight visits, and college fairs. Instead, colleges have turned to data on how students are interacting with them virtually. They’re tracking website visits, emails, and calls, which means students should be interacting with colleges as much as possible. Many schools also offer virtual campus tours on their websites and track the registrants. Applicants can also reach out to current students, alumni, and professors, just be sure it’s an effective email! You can also email the admissions office and ask them to put you in touch with a current student. If you’re not sure where is best to start, our Guide To Demonstrating Interest has some good suggestions. 

Longer waitlists

It’s hard to imagine the situation getting worse in the US, but college applicants should be hedging their bets. To account for a potential decrease in admissions yield (the number of students enrolled out of the total number accepted), colleges will lengthen the waitlists this year. Once results come out, more students will be put on waitlists instead of simply being rejected. If the initial admissions yield is lower than target enrollment, colleges will accept more students off the waitlist. However, this process could take several months, perhaps extending into next summer. Due to this prolonged uncertainty, applicants should have flexible expectations around college decision-making in the spring. 

What else students can do to boost their applications

The admissions landscape is continually changing due to the pandemic. The best way to prepare yourself during these uncertain times remains the same. Regardless of your circumstances, develop a strong profile based on having a clear sense of passion and purpose. Leverage your essays to connect abstract ideas and dreams with tangible outcomes that you’ve been able to achieve so far in your high school career. By doing so, you’ll put your best foot forward in your applications this year while navigating a major decision-making process during a time of extreme uncertainty. 

Are you a rising senior looking for extra support in your college applications this year, especially in navigating changes due to COVID? We encourage you to inquire about our Application Coaching Program, which offers unlimited, one-on-one support. The personalized focus helps students find a creative way to stand out to college.

For younger students who are worried about building their profile and developing their interests, now is the perfect time to launch a Spike Project! Our innovative Spike Coaching program can help students develop a project that withstands the effects of the pandemic. Take a look at some of the virtual Spikes our students have launched recently!

Schedule a free 1-1 consultation to learn more about both of these programs!