Ask anyone who’s applied to college in the last two years, and they’ll tell you the experience was not what they had expected. The pandemic took us all by surprise, changing the college search process, and leaving long-term consequences in its wake. Find out what we thought before the pandemic and what we know now as we navigate new waters.
It turns out the process of looking for colleges has changed a lot in the last ten years. Here are the most important changes, and what they mean to students as they begin their college hunt. If you think you need college admissions counseling, we can help you find the best college admissions consultants in the world, or in your state. We also offer tips for choosing an admissions consultant.
Ten years ago, the only real way to get to know what a college felt like was to visit the campus in person. The arrival of the pandemic changed all that, with colleges realizing they were going to have to create an online visitation process that really brought the college to life, since few students—if any—were visiting campus.
This led to a more vibrant online campus tour, one that featured a live tour guide (just like the on-campus tours) who answered questions while the guide physically walked the campus, or narrated a more engaging video of the school. Ample time was dedicated to questions, and most online sessions concluded with a presentation on admissions procedures and financial aid information.
The only way to get to know a campus was to visit it in person.
In-person tours are still the best way to get a feel for a campus, but online sessions give a stronger, clearer picture of colleges than ever before.
Online sessions are still being used by many colleges, and they can be used to get enough of an impression of a college to decide to apply. Once admitted, students can save their resources for in-person visits to schools they are still considering in the spring, as they make their final decision.
Online tours may not provide all the information needed to learn about specific majors or programs. Calling the department at the college to talk with an adviser or professor is a good way to get this more specific information, and can help show interest to the college as they review your application.
The pandemic led to dozens of cancellations of scheduled SAT and ACT test dates, preventing thousands of students from taking the test even once. As a result, colleges requiring test scores were faced with a stark choice: Keep the testing requirement for admission and limit the number of students who could apply, or make the submission of test scores optional.
Most colleges chose the second path in 2020, deciding the other parts of the application were strong enough to make good admissions decisions without test scores. As a result, the number of test-optional colleges more than doubled in 2020, and remains very high today. Some colleges, including the colleges of the University of California system, have gone so far as to not look at test scores even if they are submitted.
Over time, some colleges that were test-optional just two years ago have returned to requiring test scores, feeling that the effects of the pandemic allow for students to take the ACT or SAT safely. Many other colleges are continuing their test-optional policy for a couple of years, while others have made their test-optional policy permanent.
SAT or ACT scores are required for admission at nearly all four-year colleges.
Thousands of colleges are now test-optional, giving students the choice to send their scores or withhold them. Other colleges will not use test scores under any circumstances. In either case, colleges are changing their test policies with great speed. Students will want to make sure they have the latest information on a school’s testing policy.
In deciding whether or not to send their test scores to test-optional colleges, students should use the college’s website to find out what the average test scores are for admitted students. As a rule, students whose test scores are above that average should send their scores in, while students with test scores below that average should withhold them. A conversation with your school counselor will help make a strong decision about testing.
Students will still want to take the SAT and ACT, even if their current college list includes all test-optional schools. Taking at least one of these tests, and doing well on them, is the best way to keep college options open.
The number of students graduating from high school has declined in many states over the last ten years. Combine that with a pandemic-related decrease in the percentage of high school students applying to college, and there are hundreds of colleges experiencing decreases in the number of students applying for admission.
While this is the case for many colleges, some colleges are seeing a record-high number of applicants, especially colleges with high admission standards. Some of these schools are seeing their acceptance rates going as low as 5 percent, the result of a record number of applications every year for the last ten years. This makes admission to these colleges more challenging than ever.
Students applying to highly selective colleges should consider applying to 6-8 of them, in order to expand their chances of being admitted by at least one of them.
Students applying to highly selective colleges should apply to 8-10 of these schools, provided they can find that many that meet their goals and needs.
Students will want to devote ample time to make sure their applications to highly selective colleges are as polished as they can be.
With many of these schools no longer requiring test scores, the essays have become more important than ever—and students generally do not spend enough time working on their essays.
Students should also increase the number of other colleges they apply to, looking for lesser-known colleges that have strong offerings in the student’s major. These colleges are now more likely to offer bigger scholarships to highly qualified students since the number of students applying to these colleges is down overall.
Ten years ago, just about every college wanted a student to accept or decline an offer of admission by May 1. This universal reply date made things easy for the student, and for the college—once May 1 passed, the student had picked their school, and the college could begin to prepare for their incoming class.
This changed a couple of years ago when the US Justice Department ruled that the common May 1 deadline was an antitrust violation—in other words, it was limiting the student’s choice in a way that was not fair to the student. Most colleges still use May 1, but some give students more time, and others have deadlines that are much earlier.
A common deadline of May 1 made it easier for students to select a college, then get back to the business of finishing high school before getting ready to head to college.
With acceptance deadlines scattered all over, students need to understand the deadline dates for each of the colleges that have offered them admission.
Many students feel this change makes it harder to make a college decision, since the earlier acceptance deadlines may require a nonrefundable deposit, and may force the student to make a college choice before they are ready, sometimes before they hear back from all of their colleges. Students should keep a close eye on acceptance deadlines.
Students may be tempted to make deposits at more than one college, but that is generally discouraged. Deposits generally are not refundable, so this strategy can get expensive in a hurry. Multiple deposits also put colleges in a position of planning for students who may not attend their college, resulting in canceled classes and services to the students who do attend that college.
Colleges used to use waitlists as a way of telling a student “We’ll admit you as soon as another admitted student tells us they are not coming.” This typically meant the college would put a couple of hundred students on their waitlist, and eventually admit about 50 or so.
That is no longer the case, with some selective colleges putting as many as 10,000 students on their waitlist, and often admitting less than two dozen. Why the change? It has been said colleges are hoping an offer to put a student on the waitlist helps cushion the blow of what eventually becomes a rejection-and that seems to be working. More students and parents are seeing a waitlist offer as coming in “second place”, and are somehow fine with that.
Getting on the waitlist gave a student hope they would ultimately be admitted, and a phone call or letter of interest from the student would increase their chances of getting an offer of admission.
Waitlists are now generally being used as a way of making a student feel better about not being admitted. Extra essays or letters of interest may still help, but phone calls to admissions officers do not get through, and generally are not returned.
In addition, the number of students being pulled off waitlists has gone down, since the competitive colleges are more in demand. This means more waitlisted students are waiting for fewer offers of admission.
Students should continue to express interest in a college where they are waitlisted, provided they still want to be considered for admission. But students must put in a deposit at a school where they have been admitted, while they wait to hear from their waitlisted school—especially since some colleges do not offer waitlisted students admission until late summer.
For a long time, some students have hoped for some time off after high school before heading to college. Some students want the time to travel, or pursue a hobby; others want time to earn more money for college; still others simply want to rest and get ready for their next academic journey.
Known as taking a gap year, this option has been the choice for many students in Europe for years. The arrival of the pandemic led many students to take this option simply to wait out the high points of the crisis, hoping that time would get things—especially campus life—back to normal.
Students should go directly from high school to college if at all possible in order to keep their “academic momentum” moving forward.
Taking time off gives students the chance to do something they have always wanted to do while recharging their batteries for college.
Companies and other organizations offer “gap year experiences.” Students interested in pursuing this option will want to shop around since some of these programs are very expensive.
Students wanting to take time off simply to “take a break” should still have some kind of plan for the productive use of their time in a gap year.
A year of simply lying on the couch could truly affect the student’s interest in going back to college and is typically not as restorative as students might think.
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