College Prep and Admissions During the Pandemic

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with noted college admissions expert Debra Felix about issues in college prep and admissions during this unprecedented public health crisis. Here are her responses to my questions:

1. What do you see as some of the big changes in college admissions for 2021 due to the global pandemic?

I foresee the biggest changes to be the following:

a. Most applicants will not be able to take the SAT or ACT before they apply to college for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, and most colleges will declare themselves “test optional” as a result. Furthermore, many students will be applying with pass/fail grades for the latter half of their junior year of high school.  This will make it more difficult for applicants to demonstrate their academic potential, but it will still be imperative for them to do so.

b. Most applicants will not be able to visit colleges, take on-campus tours, or visit classes during the fall of 2020, and possibly longer.  In addition, colleges are changing dramatically due to the pandemic. This will make it more difficult for students to figure out which colleges will be a good fit for them, and to show their demonstrated interest for the ones they like.

Because applicants will be submitting applications this year containing limited grades, scores, extracurricular activities, and demonstrated interest, admissions committees will have to evaluate applications differently.  Therefore, applicants will need to undertake a different application strategy in order to be admitted through this new evaluation process.

The implications of these and other changes are enormous and complicated and will affect each applicant differently, making it more important than ever to seek out all the best advice you can get in order to maximize your outcomes in the admission process.   

2. The Common App has added a COVID-19 question to the application. Do you have any strategic advice for students in approaching this question? 

Yes.  Only answer this question at length if the pandemic has affected you in a unique and significant way.  If both parents lost their jobs, you started working as a “shopper” to deliver groceries to high risk neighbors, and then your family had to move in with your grandfather in another state when your grandmother died from COVID-19, that would be unique and significant impact.

Admissions officers will not want to read hundreds of essays from students about how their favorite extracurricular activity was cancelled this spring or summer and how difficult it was to take classes online.  If you think the impact of COVID-19 on you was roughly at the same level as the impact on the vast majority of your peers across the country, just say so briefly.

3. With many colleges offering test optional admissions due to difficulties in testing this year, what would you advise students who might not be able to achieve optimum results due to disruptions in testing?

It will be critical to find other ways to demonstrate your academic level and potential to the admissions committee.  Ace your classes this fall.  Pick the right teachers to write your recommendations and prepare them appropriately to write great ones.  Write superb essays. Selecting the right topics and shaping the essays for maximum impact is critical. Get professional help with all of this if you can.  Speak to college representatives by phone or Zoom so they can witness your personality, hear how articulate you are and see how you think.

4. How can students grow their extracurricular and summer enrichment experiences with so many offerings closed to them this year?

First of all, take the time to mourn the cancellation of the summer activities you were looking forward to.  It is disappointing, maddening, and unfair that they have been taken away from you.  Scream, cry, or whatever you need to do to put that disappointment behind you.  Then, try to move forward.

Be creative in finding things you CAN do.  Research colleges, research things you have always wanted to know more about or you’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  Create something.  Make art or music.  Write.  Plan something you can implement when things open up more.

Admissions officers will be impressed by the applicants who pursue an area of interest, who initiate something, and who don’t just develop themselves, but also contribute positively to the lives of others.  Do something that will give you a great answer to the interview question, “Tell me about a time when you had a positive impact on someone else.”

5. What would you advise students who are considering a gap year rather than matriculate in an uncertain situation? 

Start college, unless you have a far better option for next year.  Even if you were seriously considering taking a gap year before the pandemic occurred, consider starting college instead. This is a terrible time to take a gap year.

Your fall college experience might not be ideal or what you had envisioned a year ago, but it will be fine and you will come out of it that much closer to having a college degree.  Exceptions: If you need to help your family in some way this year with elder care, child care, income to pay bills, etc., then taking a gap year is completely justified.

Finally, you might consider asking for a gap semester and then start college in January.  This might go more smoothly for students who will be attending a large university.

6. How has the pandemic affected how students make their college list when visiting remote colleges may be impossible and staying closer to home might be a new consideration?

Whether a student chooses to go away for college or stay closer to home is a complicated and personal decision.  At the moment, it doesn’t look like many colleges will be open to visitors in the fall, so students will not be able to tour colleges anywhere, near or far.

I find that my clients are leaning on me more heavily right now than in the past to help them pick the colleges at which they might thrive.  I know the colleges; I have been studying them and visiting them for decades.  So, I hope students are open to a wide variety of locations and schools and are getting advice from a professional about what colleges are really like at the core rather than relying on rankings or the college’s subjective website, marketing materials, and admissions staff (including students who work for the admissions office).

I have always encouraged my clients to connect with current students or recent alumni at the colleges on their list, and I provide them with questions that elicit more important and honest information about each school. These days, due to the rapid changes occurring on every college campus, I am encouraging clients to prioritize talking to current students over recent alumni since recent alumni won’t be able to tell them what life is like at the school now, let alone what it will be like next year.

Debra Felix is a former Director of Admissions at Columbia University and has been a professional educational consultant for over 30 years.  She has been quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, FNN, CNBC, U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post, among others.  Her clients come from all over the world, and are typically admitted to their first choice college. For more info:  www.felixeducationalconsulting.com

Why apply Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action or Early Action?

Top colleges and universities are receiving a record volume of applications on a yearly basis. With a limited number of seats in each entering class, the consequence is an appallingly low admit rate. Take Cornell University – perceived as one of the easiest Ivies to get into. Just seven years ago, its admit rate was 16.2% and now it hovers at just over 10%. In that same period, Harvard’s admit rate went from 5.9% to a record low of 4.59%. If the trend holds true, the class of 2023 and beyond may face stiffer competition among the single-digit club of elite colleges and universities.

Applying early to a binding program such as Early Decision (ED), Restrictive Early Action (REA) or a non-binding Early Action (EA), is the best way to hedge your bet and increase your chance of getting into one of these illustrious schools. The advantage is HUGE! It’s a known fact that the admit rates are more generous in early admissions than regular, with some two to three times higher than the regular decision admit rate. For Harvard, the rate was even more extreme at 14.5% in EA yet only 2.43% in regular decision. What’s important to know is early admissions program are a tool for colleges to confidently admit those who qualify academically and have a profound love for the school. In the words of Dean Fitzsimmons of Harvard, ‘early admissions is the new normal’ in which Harvard over the past several years has offered admission to 950-960 students, well over 60% of their expected enrollment of 1500 first-year students. Harvard is not alone in leveraging its early admissions program. Princeton is expecting to enroll close to 1300 students for the class of 2022, with 800 admitted from their REA.

Clearly, an admit rate in regular decision of 3-5% is something you should avoid if at all possible. Applying early can increase your odds of acceptance very significantly. Remember, students with 4.0 GPAs and perfect SATs are in plentiful supply at these schools. Differentiating yourself through quality involvement in and outside of school, articulating your passion for learning and succeeding via the supplemental essays, and committing to your college choice in the early admissions process are key to defying the ridiculous odds of getting into an Ivy-Plus institution.

This guest post was written by Solomon Admissions Consulting, an international college admissions consulting company based in New York, which helps applicants apply to and be accepted by colleges, MBA and MD programs, and private schools.