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College Admission Trends for the Class of 2025

COVID-19 left its mark on everyone and everything in its path in 2020 including college admissions. Colleges, like all businesses had to deal with shutdowns, converting to remote learning models, budget impacts because of lost revenue, reduction in staff and increase in cost to prepare their campus to operate and house students during a pandemic. The challenges were many and the admission process felt the impact.

The Common Application reported a decrease in applicants through early November 2020, but numbers began to increase by December. We speculate that students are taking longer to finalize their college list because of family budget concerns, distance from home, and the lack of on campus visit opportunities. Although it is difficult to draw conclusions in this unusual year until regular admission decisions are released, we have observed a few key trends in the Early Decision/Early Action round.

1. Unprecedented Increase in Early Decision/Early Action Candidates: Over the last 5 or 6 years we have seen a rise in ED/EA applicants in both private colleges and public universities. However, this year the early round applicant pool saw an unprecedented rise. Harvard’s Early Decision applications were up 57% from last year but the acceptance rate, just 7.4%, was a record low. Likewise, Yale saw 38% increase in Early Decision applicants and accepted only 10%. Brown also experienced a significant increase of 22% in early round applicants with a 16% acceptance rate, many of which were students of color, first in family to attend college or from underserved school districts.

The increase in Early Decision applicant pools at the nations top universities may be due to the test optional policy adopted by all colleges because of COVID-19. Students who would normally not apply to Ivy League schools because they did not have the requisite standardized test scores decided to take a chance this year at their dream schools since test scores were not required.

The top public universities experienced a similar trend. UVA’s early round applicants were up 35% from the prior year. University of North Carolina had 10% more applicants and University of Georgia had 27% more in the Early Action pool. The increase in both in-state and out-of-state applicants at top public universities may be due to the test optional policy. However, the increase in in-state applicants is likely related to the economic downturn and students wanting to stay closer to home during the pandemic.

2. Test Optional NOT Test Blind: As a result of COVID-19 related closures and restrictions College Board and ACT were unable to offer tests from April through at least August depending on where you live. Colleges were forced to adopt a test-optional policy allowing students to apply without submitting scores with no prejudice to their application. ECC students experience this fall clearly demonstrated that test-optional does not mean test-blind. If you submitted strong scores as part of your application package they were reviewed and considered and may have been the difference in outcome. Schools that have traditionally used test data as an evaluative element were willing to consider any scores that a student submitted including PSAT scores, Subject Test scores, etc. Colleges that had adopted a test-optional policy pre-COVID were prepared to do a holistic application review putting more emphasis on other parts of the application package including grades, rigor, essays, and achievements. However, highly competitive colleges and large public universities were less prepared to eliminate scores as part of the evaluation process and students who submitted strong test scores faired better than those who went test-optional. While the value of standardized test scores has long been debated, at highly competitive colleges student test scores serve as validation for grades that can vary greatly among high schools. At large public universities grades and test scores have long driven the evaluation process because the sheer volume of applicants requires a less holistic system of review. So, in the short term we will probably see about 60% of schools, particularly private liberal arts colleges continue their test-optional policy for the Class of 2026. However, public universities who can not afford to hire the additional admissions staff necessary to perform holistic application review may return to requiring test scores.

3. Social Media Matters Again: Prior to 2018, college admissions would routinely check the social media posts of applicants but in recent years that practice has dropped off. However, this year with active social justice movements like Black Lives Matter demanding accountability the spotlight is back on applicant’s social media presence. Offers of admission have been rescinded because of racist posts.

It is not surprising that in a year requiring quarantine and social distancing admission representative would look anywhere, including social media, to ascertain the character and integrity of their applicants. We expect that this will continue, and students should post responsibly and thoughtfully.

It has never been more important for students to investigate colleges through visits (virtual or in-person), understand their own priorities including learning style and family budget and create a balanced best fit list of colleges.

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