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Tackling the Big Changes to College Admissions

MAY 2021

The pandemic has changed many aspects of life and it seems that college admissions is no exception.  By now you have probably heard that many colleges have become test-optional due to test cancellations last year during the pandemic.  It looks like these adjustments have accelerated changes to the admissions process which could be permanent, or at least persist for a couple of years.


As a result of these new policies, top tier colleges were inundated with applications The past couple of years.  So where does this leave students?  Many of the parents that we talk to say their students don’t know where to focus their attention given these changes.


Standing out in a crowded field of applicants has become challenging.  In this post, we thought we would provide some background on these post-pandemic changes in college admissions and our thoughts on how families can best navigate them.



In 2020, many schools opted to temporarily suspend their requirements for SAT or ACT scores when the pandemic prevented many students from taking the exams. Under the “test-optional” policy, colleges stated that students could choose whether or not to submit scores and their applications would be reviewed on the strength of their entire academic record, accomplishments, and life experiences.

Since then, dozens of schools have announced that they will extend the “test optional” policy for one to three more years and then reassess.  For instance, Williams and Amherst colleges will be “test-optional” for those applying to enter in 2022 and 2023. Columbia, Cornell, and Harvard have suspended testing requirements for the 2022 cycle, and it is likely others in the Ivy League will follow suit.  Furthermore, many schools are discussing making these changes permanent.


This movement to reduce the impact or eliminate SAT or ACT test scores was already underway at a number of highly competitive colleges and universities prior to COVID. George Washington University dropped its test requirements in 2015, James Madison University in 2017, the University of Chicago in 2018, Marquette University in 2019, and numerous others.  The pandemic seems to have hastened what had already become a trend.



This year, with test scores no longer a barrier, students applied to competitive schools in droves.  For example: The University of Virginia’s applications were up 15 percent; University of California at Berkeley, up 28 percent; Harvard University, up 42 percent; and The University of Maryland at College Park, up 25 percent.  And, as you might expect, acceptance rates plunged in response. Harvard admitted only 3.4 percent of applicants; Yale, 4.6 percent; and Duke, 5.8 percent. So how are Admissions officers differentiating between all the excellent applicants?

While the 80’s and 90’s were the heyday of the well-rounded candidate (student who engaged in a wide variety of academic and extracurricular activities), more recently colleges have adopted “holistic admissions,” under which they seek students with “passion” and “individuality” who represent the school’s values and will advance their mission.  These attributes often include things like leadership, service to others, empathy, citizenship, taking responsibility, and persistence.


In terms of academics, Admissions officers are looking at whether or not the student took the most challenging courses available at their school, trends in their academic performance, and any anomalies in their record that are not explained by their essays.

In sum, colleges utilizing holistic admissions are looking for students who have taken a challenging curriculum, gotten good grades, contributed to their school and community, possess character, and care about others.


As you might expect, a key part of this “holistic” analysis for Admissions officers is whether applicants are “authentic” and students have revealed their “true selves” in their applications.


If your student is a rising HS senior, it would be a good idea for them to develop a strategy for their college applications as soon as possible.  This strategy should consider how they plan to frame who they are as an individual and what their passions and abiding interests are.  If their target schools use holistic admissions, their application will need to highlight their interests and character in a way that will resonate with the colleges.  We get it, this may be easier said that done!  Reach out to us and we can set them up with a great tutor who can help them with this process.


If your student is a rising HS junior, this summer is an ideal time to start framing out the above strategy as well.  Particularly since he or she will still have time to shape and hone their passion projects and strategy during junior year.  If they think they might want to use test scores for their college applications, this summer is a good time to do some test preparation for their last PSAT, which will be scheduled in the Fall, and their first SAT, which will be scheduled in the Spring.

If your student is a rising HS sophomore or freshman, it’s a great time to think about how to cultivate his or her existing interests and passions and think about how to translate these into projects that might serve the community or otherwise demonstrate the kind of attributes that schools are looking for – and have lots of fun pursuing them along the way!  If they think they might want to use test scores for their college applications, this summer is also a good time to do some test preparation to take their first PSAT.

If your student is in middle or elementary school, summer is a good time for them to expand and explore all sorts of topics so they can discover what interests them.  Even better if they can start to develop leadership skills and be empowered to make a difference on issues that they care about.

We hope some of these tips are helpful.  Please subscribe to our email list for more articles along these lines and follow us on social media!

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