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Top 10 Lessons Learned in the Pandemic Admission Cycle

There's a lot we've learned about college admission from the pandemic. Here's a look at the top 10 lessons to carry with you from this application cycle.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted college admission in ways that will have long-term effects. Here are just a few noteworthy things that happened this year in higher education: 

  • Test-optional became the norm. Most schools went test-optional (and many will continue to be for the next two to three years—or forever!).
  • Lack of in-person visits. Students couldn’t visit colleges in person and felt uncertain about their prospects. 
  • More virtual visit options. As a result, colleges created numerous opportunities for students to engage with them virtually, increasing access to underserved and low-income students.
  • “Yieldability” is the new buzzword. Colleges use data analytics to determine the “yieldability” of a student—aka the likelihood that a student will enroll and give them money—deferring or waitlisting students who were using it as a “safety” school.   

All of these factors make the college admission process more equitable but increasingly uncertain. And while uncertainty can be scary, it can also be liberating. If you’re planning to go to college in the future, you can focus your energy on activities you love rather than trying to guess what colleges want. Below are the top 10 lessons learned from the pandemic admission cycle that can help you get admitted. 

1. Go deep into the things you love

The pandemic gave many students the opportunity to take a pause and redirect their efforts toward the things they really love. One of our students was an avid sports fan. While many students love athletics, he revolved his studying, activities, and life around watching, analyzing, and writing about sports. He paired this with his deep interest in journalism and communications by serving as the sports editor for his high school paper and even producing a sports podcast where he and a friend analyzed games and players. He was a stellar student and had excellent time management skills, but more importantly, he genuinely loved everything he did. As a result, he got into some of the top Communications programs because he had compelling and specific examples of how he would contribute to the journalism community. The lesson is: Dedicate yourself to your passions, because nothing captures a college’s attention quite like your self-motivation.

2. Be realistic in your expectations

It’s often difficult for parents and students to accept the reality of the current admission cycle. I often hear, “But I/they worked so hard in high school; they deserve to get into Duke or Princeton” or any other highly selective college. However, there are hundreds of thousands of students who have worked equally as hard and may have other qualities or circumstances that make them more compelling to admission officials at a given school. Students who understand themselves and where they’ll fit in and thrive will do much better in the admission process. One of our students was deferred from Duke University Early Decision. After he ran the numbers and realized how minuscule the odds were of him getting into Duke Regular Decision, he decided to apply Early Decision II to Vanderbilt University. This decision paid off, and he was accepted to Vanderbilt.  

Related: Some Tough Love Advice to Help You Get Over a College Rejection Letter

3. Understand and play to your strengths

Students who understand and play to their strengths have a much easier time communicating their stories. Samantha, a future Nursing student, had difficulty learning in a traditional classroom setting. But she discovered once she was in a hands-on learning environment that her ability to learn increased tenfold and her natural empathy and compassion made her great with patients. She also discovered she had an undiagnosed learning difference. As soon as she understood not only how she learned but also how to apply her learning style to every situation, she soared inside and outside of the classroom. Her self-insight made a compelling case to demonstrate how she would excel at Saint Louis University's Nursing program even after a bumpy start in high school. If you’re struggling with school, take a step back and see if there’s a way to reassess your learning style and find something better for you, and look for colleges that offer academic resources to help every student succeed.

4. Let your talent shine

We had several students this year with exceptional talent in art, music, or creative writing. While one of them was interested in pursuing Architecture, which required a portfolio, the students who were interested in Pre-med and Math submitted arts supplements to complement their outstanding academic achievement. Not only did they showcase their creative art or music, but they also each wrote with enthusiasm and depth about how their special talent helped them be leaders, see science differently, or make sense of the world. It didn’t matter that they weren’t majoring in Art. When you’re applying to colleges, make it clear how you would continue to contribute your gifts while you’re on campus, even if they don’t necessarily align with your academic area of interest.

Related: How to Discover and Pursue Your Passions as a Student

5. Find solutions to problems

Colleges want to see students who take action and are part of solutions. This shows them that these students will be leaders on campus and continue to make a difference. When the first wave of COVID-19 was devastating hospitals in the Northeast, Kelly wanted to do something to help. She purchased the parts to make a 3D printer and figured out how to assemble it and produce personal protective equipment (PPE) in her bedroom. Throughout the pandemic, she delivered PPE to local hospitals. Dartmouth College appreciated her resourcefulness and ability to identify a problem and come up with a solution. Finding creative solutions to problems like this and incorporating them into your applications and essays will impress your colleges of interest.   

6. Listen with an open mind

Common themes on college campuses are diversity, access, and inclusivity. How do faculty create a welcoming learning environment? How do students of all backgrounds feel included? How do students from diverse backgrounds come together and learn from each other? Listening with an open mind demonstrates how you’re ready to be a part of a supportive community. Josh was a leader in student government and soccer in high school—the proverbial “big man on campus.” He joined the Women’s Alliance Club as the only male member. At first, he was intimidated and remained quiet, listening to his peers express their experiences of being female. Through active listening, he understood a new perspective in a deeper way. This made him a more effective leader in all aspects of his life. Josh is exactly the sort of leader the University of Pennsylvania wanted on its campus. Try to find ways to expand your viewpoints beyond what you already know and experience—you’ll grow as a person but also stand out to colleges.

Related: Great Colleges in the West That Value Diversity

7. Be the captain of your own ship

As we work with families each year, it quickly becomes clear who’s steering the ship in the process. It’s common for parents to captain the ship early on, during freshman and sophomore years; however, by junior year, students who take the helm early on do much better in the process. I started working with Jin the summer before her senior year, and she had already done a tremendous amount of research on her schools of interest and a national scholarship program to which she was applying. She had a clear sense of who she was and the type of college where she would thrive. At each step of the process, from writing her application essays to developing her list to making her final decision, she captained the ship that led her to Princeton University. It’s important to take charge of your own college admission process because you only get to do it once.

8. There are no guarantees

While every student we worked with this past year had at least one excellent college choice, there are no guarantees because the admission process has become more unpredictable. Colleges don’t just want to create a community of learners—they want to manage their enrollment. They have more sophisticated ways to analyze data and predict yield. Just because a student is in their range academically doesn’t guarantee them an acceptance. Many of the most selective schools fill upwards of 50% of their class through Early Decision. For schools that care about demonstrated interest, if a student hasn’t visited or interviewed, they’ll likely be waitlisted or denied. If a student is applying to a “safety” school through Regular Decision, the colleges can now predict the likelihood that a student with this particular academic profile will matriculate. It helps to be aware of these realities so there are fewer surprises in your application process and you can plan accordingly. 

Related: How to Use Demonstrated Interest to Your Benefit

9. Everything takes patience

We saw more waitlists and deferrals this year than ever before. Increased applications and lack of testing made previous prediction yields unreliable. Colleges needed time to sift through the hordes of applications and develop new models to evaluate candidates with limited traditional data. Thought processes went much like this: This top student’s school moved to pass/fail for their junior year; let’s see what happens with first-semester senior grades. Deferral. Or like this: Will this student come to our school when in the past nobody with their profile matriculated no matter how much merit money we gave them? Waitlisted. Several of our students were deferred by their first-choice Early Decision schools. By the end of the cycle, they either got accepted into that school or were accepted into other schools that were equally or more competitive. If you get waitlisted or deferred, try not to get discouraged—you’ll end up where you’re meant to be one way or another.

10. Be open to the outcomes

Students who accept the reality of the process going into it and are open to the outcomes (whatever they may be) generally have the best admission experience. One of our Ivy League hopefuls was deciding between Rice University and Emory University. He was excited about each of them even though they weren’t originally his first choices. I asked him if he would’ve done anything differently, and he smiled and said, “No, I’m happy with my options and how it turned out.” Take it from him: Be ready for anything, and trust that the process will bring you somewhere that’s a good fit for you.

Related: 4 Key Ways to Find Your College Fit

As vaccines have become more available (and even required by many schools), colleges anticipate a return to normal for fall 2021. However, they also anticipate maintaining virtual visit options, revisiting standardized testing policies, and using data to manage their yield. The lessons learned from this season will have a lasting impact on college admission, so take advantage of this knowledge to guide you in your own college search and application process. 

Start finding great colleges despite the hurdles by using our College Search tool, or connect with the featured schools mentioned in this article:

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