What You Need to Know: College- 2020 Trends & Predictions for 2021

What we saw in 2020: Despite the online pandemic pivot, and the drop in international candidates, selective colleges reported a record volume of early applications, largely since the rise in test optional colleges led more seniors to take a chance at “reach” colleges, and those international students who did end up applying figured they could shoot for the moon. In the Boston area, Harvard saw a jump of 57% in early applications and MIT a 62% bump. Despite this “wild west mentality,” we continued to stay the course and guide our students towards colleges across the country that best fit their individual academic and personal profiles. Given the uncertainty of how colleges would do holistic reads and who would emerge as the strongest candidates minus standardized testing and a lot of Pass/Fail transcripts, we did recommend that our students apply to more colleges in this COVID-affected year. Overall, we’ve had the pleasure of working with 194 college-bound students, who came to us largely from direct referral from across the country and around the world, and we anticipate that they will head off to over 100 best fit colleges in the fall. Our work this year was blessed by guiding particularly anxious and uncertain families and students through the unknown. They gave back to us in spades, demonstrating their resilience, creativity, humor and giving spirit during trying times.

Susanna, Jamie, Kim, Amy & Don at Holy Cross

Though US colleges saw falling international applicant numbers, we actually welcomed a healthy diversity of international students to our college planning practice, including many from the Middle East, Western Europe, and Central and South America — areas where we have historically been invited by schools and families to give talks about US colleges. We look forward to getting back on the road to revisit our annual stops abroad, perhaps as early as this fall.

What lies ahead for 2021? We predict that the Biden administration’s return to global and cultural openness will result in tens of thousands of additional students from around the world seeking to study in the US, ultimately restoring the dip in diversity caused by COVID. Consequently, competition will also increase. Additionally, we predict that we will be seeing some of the fallout of the uncertainty of this year’s matriculating class’ yield on next fall’s entering freshman class.

So how do we advise candidates in this coming round to improve their chances of success at a college that matches their profile? We will be guiding our college-bound students to:

  1. Authentically engage with admissions offices, which is easier than ever with Zoom info sessions and tours.
  2. Reach out beyond driving distance, since COVID has kept many students closer to home. In fact, we sense that many students feeling the restrictions of COVID will want to go far away once it is safe to do so.
  3. Cast a wider net with regard to selectivity, since admission decisions will remain less predictable given the COVID era’s lack of hard data, the extension of some score-optional admission options for another year, the slow rebound of testing availability, and the impact that online and hybrid instruction will continue to have on what grades mean in the admission process (in short, the COVID impact on reading students will be with us for another year!).
  4. Produce extra drafts of the personal statement and supplemental essays, with our guidance, since admissions officers are reporting their increased impact on and value to the decision process as a result of the COVID’s impact on the traditional applicant measurables of grades, test scores, and available quality activities.
  5. Optimize summer activities and fall extracurricular planning, with our guidance, that speak to the student’s individual strengths, interests and potential areas of college focus.

So what do we know about testing? Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for enrollment at Cornell University, predicts in Forbes that “many of the hundreds of selective institutions who became test-optional for the pandemic will announce intentions soon that they will stay that way for longer than they had originally planned.” Our advice: if you’re a good tester, and you can find a safe spot to take the test, go ahead and work toward earning strong scores that represent your ability and can be submitted as part of your application. Otherwise, leverage the other subjective elements of the applications noted above.

Two final trends we expect to see: more students seeking post-graduate (PG) or gap years to make up for lost developmental time, and an increase in students across the country seeking a transfer, since they either made COVID-disrupted initial college decisions or their experience of their first year in college was irrevocably tainted by COVID.

Our bottom line: We will continue to emphasize “best fit” by identifying, nurturing and leveraging each student’s strengths, and matching them to the right colleges!

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