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Applications Skyrocket Amid Pandemic


First round decisions from Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) college applications are in for Fall 2020 and the results defy conventional wisdom. While colleges across America expected a drop in applications due to the COVID pandemic, the exact opposite is what actually occurred.

The numbers are startling, especially among highly selective colleges. Harvard’s (restricted early action) applications were up 57%. Yale and Penn’ s ED increase hovers around 50%. MIT’s (unrestricted) EA is up over 60%. And college all across the country are reporting increases in the number of application they are receiving this year.

“The biggest reason for the increase in applications to these flagship, elite colleges appears to be the “test-optional” policies that have been adopted because of the COVID pandemic and the cancellation of so many SAT and ACT testing dates beginning in March 2020. ”


According to Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (representing over 1700 colleges and universities), “Students with financial resources are turning to selective institutions in record numbers.”

Median to higher level income families have seemingly done quite well during the pandemic, partially due to the real estate and stock markets. In addition, these families don’t seem daunted by the travel required to attend colleges in other parts of the country. The belief is either that travel will soon return to normal, or that “Zoom” and similar technology is adequate for now.

Many of these highly selective colleges had already been using virtual tours and information sessions and were prepared for this type of online marketing. In these cases, the pandemic may have actually expanded their applicant pool while simultaneously doing away with the advantage students who visited campus in-person may have received in the past.

The biggest reason for the increase in applications to these flagship, elite colleges appears to be the “test-optional” policies that have been adopted because of the COVID pandemic and the cancellation of so many SAT and ACT testing dates beginning in March 2020. When colleges announced “test-optional” policies, students with lower testing scores felt more confident to apply to these elite colleges. Without the requirement of test scores, these students believe they have a better chance, on merit of GPA, class rank and extracurricular/community service involvement.


The high rise in applications means that admission rates are down at many colleges. In some cases, WAY down. Harvard’s The Crimson reported that “the college invited 747 of 10,086 early applicants to join its Class of 2025. Last year, the college accepted 895 of 6,424 applicants. The number of applicants increased by 57%, while the college admitted 148 fewer students. You can interpret that to mean that besides recruited athletes and first-generation students who qualify for generous financial aid packages, the only students accepted have been truly extraordinary or unusual in some way. The rest of the pool were left for the regular admissions process where the pool remains larger than ever before. Data shows that removing standardized testing requirements increases application rates by up to 10%.


Many colleges are reporting that the percentage of student admissions without test scores has remained comparable to years past. But with the numbers of applications skyrocketing, the percentages of acceptance rates continue to decrease.

In many cases, not submitting a test score won’t hurt you. But submitting a LOW test score will. College do appear to be using low test scores to eliminate significant swaths in the applicant pool.


Without test-scores as the deciding factor, many colleges will now rely more on transcripts and letters of recommendation from instructors and school counselors, especially with the shift in the teaching formats which have changed instruction dramatically during the pandemic, as deciding factors. Colleges will also be looking at how you pivoted during the pandemic, when so many events and opportunities were canceled, what did you do to create both learning and community service opportunities. They will be measuring you by creative Capstone projects and “demonstrated interest” in your intended major through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).


Now, more than ever before, “demonstrated interest” and the “why do you want to attend our college” essays are very important factors in the decision process. High-touch recruitment efforts such as high school visits and in-person summer camps are almost non-existent for this year’s senior class. Students should understand that many college are tracking everything, from email communications with admissions counselors to attendance for virtual events to Facebook page interactions on college sponsored pages. So get engaged! Now more than ever, your student needs to know how to tell their story, Access College America in Austin, offers a free college planning webinar series to help.


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