Cruising through 2021 admissions: How to navigate college applications during uncertain times

May 4, 2020

Let’s face it — most colleges and universities are set up like stationary cruise ships. Students are housed densely in cabin decks, buffet in communal dining rooms at the appointed hour, swap sweat on shared equipment in the fitness center, and rub shoulders on dance floors at night. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a worse set up for controlling the spread of virulent bugs like COVID-19 than that of the typical American university.

It’s no surprise, then, that America’s colleges were among the first institutions to initiate lockdown. Campuses were shuttered, students were sent packing, and classes moved online.

And while most schools hope to embark on a normal academic year come fall, their campuses will remain particularly susceptible to a coronavirus resurgence for the next few years.

What has all this done to the college admissions process? In the short term, quite a lot. The ensuing upheaval will create many challenges and opportunities next fall, and the results will be uneven for different schools, families, and students.

So what can you expect to see in the coming months?

Calm waters for wealthy schools, but a decline in international passengers

While even wealthy schools are bracing themselves for financial headwinds, the country’s most selective universities will do just fine. These schools, the top 5 percent, have the largest endowments and lowest acceptance rates (below 20 percent).

The one wild card is international students. For example, they comprise 10 percent of Stanford’s students and 20 percent NYU’s. Will they apply in the same numbers next fall? Travel restrictions, visa issues, and worries about being stranded by another lockdown could dramatically impact applications from these full-pay money makers, making it easier for U.S. students to secure these newly available spots.

Fewer inter-state applications and more competition for big state schools

Money and mobility worries could impact inter-state students as much as international ones. Even upper-middle income families — those with income $126k — $188k per annum — will find in-state tuition options more appealing, and the psychological impact of the pandemic will push more students to consider studying closer to home. State school admissions, then, are likely to become more competitive next year for in-state applicants at schools ranging from UT Austin to UT Knoxville. For wealthier students paying full price, however, coveted (and more expensive) out-of-state slots at schools like UVA or UNC Chapel Hill may become more attainable.

Changing tides in the second-tier

Those considering private, second-tier schools — schools with 20 to 50 percent admissions rates — are in a particularly good position. Admittance into schools like NYU, Boston College, Northeastern, and Colgate will be markedly easier this year. These schools depend more heavily on tuition for their operating budgets. Admissions officers will accept more students than ever out of concern for filling the freshman class. Applicants who sincerely communicate a strong interest in attending will be more highly prized.

The uncharted waters of the “test optional” approach

While admissions officers’ moods are becoming testier, some schools are becoming less so, at least when it comes to requiring standardized test scores for applicants. A few schools — Cornell, Tufts, Northeastern, Williams, Amherst, and Purdue, for example — have announced that they will move to a temporary test optional policy for next year’s application season. More schools will likely follow suit.

Paradoxically, test-optional policies render test scores more important for competitive applicants. A solid test score that meets or exceeds the institution’s historical criteria becomes more powerful when it’s not required because it instantaneously gives comfort to admissions teams who’ve relied on scores for their entire careers. Test optional policies also mean admissions offices will have to be more holistic in their admissions: less reliance on campus visits and more reliance on recommendations and essays.

Bottom line

The waters will certainly be choppy in the coming year, but the storm will also produce opportunities for pro-active students and their families. What are the keys to navigating these choppy waters? In short, students must make it easy for harried admissions officers to say “Yes”. Here’s how:

  • Get good test scores — Three months of testing dates were lost. Those that have scores already or get them by November 1st will be in an even stronger position than usual. Don’t take your hand off the captain’s wheel.
  • Reevaluate your college list — Maybe some of your reaches are now more attainable. It’s certain that your selection and application strategy needs to change. Talk with someone who can help you think through and plan appropriately.
  • Be proactive — Early applications and demonstrated interest should go further this year in garnering serious prospects. We want to do the admissions officers’ job for them. Let’s give them everything they need to say “yes” right out of the gate. This means being one of the earlier applications reviewed. Apply early.
  • Know how to tell your story — Being proactive also means being able to tell your story effectively, especially through essays. You’ve got to know how to tell the truth about yourself in a way that’s cognizant of the university’s goals. The effect on the admissions staff should be, ”wow, this student is a perfect fit, has all the right and numbers, and, if accepted, will attend.”

Alpha is here to help. Let us know if you or someone you know needs assistance navigating these uncertain times. We can help you with every aspect of the process: test scores, strategy, and presenting your best self through personalized essays.

Colleges may be like cruise ships, but getting in is like being in a regatta. You just have to work hard at being strategic, agile, and rolling with the tide.