Takeaways from the 2021 Admission Year

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Everyone involved in the college admission world would probably agree that the 2021 admission cycle was unlike any other. At a recent gathering of educational consultants, we compiled a list of takeaways that will likely be important for the next few years. Current juniors should keep these takeaways in mind while finalizing their own college lists.

1. Completely unpredictable—we all saw admission decisions that were unexpected. Students with exceptional credentials were turned away or waitlisted. Other students with lesser credentials were accepted at highly selective colleges. This points to the fact that every student needs to have a balanced list of colleges. A balanced list consists of colleges that fit realistically into the student’s academic success and personal interest profile. Some (2-3) can be more selective (reach) schools but avoid unrealistic schools that will very likely disappoint over 90% of their very strong applicant pool. Denials from such institutions can be very hard for students to understand and accept. Most colleges on your list should be ‘possible’ (target) schools, where your grades, scores, and interests really ‘fit’, and where you can thrive and be happy. Be sure to also include a significant number of ‘likely’ institutions, whose acceptances will boost your confidence, and may even offer the financial incentive of ‘merit’ aid.

2. Balanced list—those 2021 high school graduates who had very balanced college lists had the greatest number of college options at the end of the process. Every school on your list should be one you would be excited to attend.

3. Test optional/ test blind—with so many students applying without test scores (a trend expected to continue for at least one more year), colleges were forced to put more emphasis on other parts of the application. The test-optional policies also led to a great increase in the number of applications to highly selective colleges. For example, applications to UCLA increased 25% to 160,000 applications.

4. Personal stories—students who were most successful in the process tended to share highly personal stories in their personal statements. Essays that featured stories about how the student made a difference in some way were particularly valued. College admission officers looked with favor on evidence of character.

5. Falling acceptance rates at the most selective colleges. With the great increase in applications, the acceptance rate at the most selective colleges reached new lows. Harvard accepted about 3% of applicants, while Columbia, Princeton and MIT limited their acceptances to about 4%. This again points to the need for a balanced list—among all colleges, the average acceptance rate is 57%.

6. Outsized waitlists—most applicants to highly selective colleges are now sitting on one or more waitlists—extending the college selection process through June or later.