Expert Advice on Understanding the 2020-2021 College Admissions Landscape

InGenius Prep

Expert Advice on Understanding the 2020-2021 College Admissions Landscape

As COVID-19 heads towards a new wave of cases, daily lives continue to be affected across different industries and the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape is no exception. Naturally, students and their families—particularly those who live outside the US—have a lot of questions. To address some of the concerns, InGenius Prep’s admissions experts elaborated on some key points and frequently asked questions that pertain to both domestic and international students, from how to adapt to remote extracurriculars to whether you should submit SAT scores or not.

Changes in Number of Applications

We don’t anticipate any changes in the number of applications that colleges will receive this year. At InGenius Prep, we saw our number of students increase by 4% this year compared to last year. If we exclude our American students, we saw a slight drop in students but not as significantly. There are plenty of students still vying for a spot at top American universities. If our 3% drop is representative of the overall drop in applications, then it’s unlikely this will impact the difficulty of admissions, especially at the top schools where total application numbers can fluctuate 10%+ per year during any application cycle. 

The New Admissions Guidelines 2020-21

Admissions directors from 315 universities in the United States, including Harvard University, jointly issued the new admissions guidelines for 2021. The guidelines point out five standards that are valued in the admissions scene: 

  • Equity
  • Balance
  • Self-care
  • Care for others
  • Meaningful learning

These standards describe the values that are important to colleges as they consider applicants during the admissions process. It means that schools are looking for students who exhibit these characteristics and traits. They want these students to join their community. It also means that these should be the priorities that students try to cultivate in themselves throughout high school, as they are not only good traits to have to help them gain college admissions, but also positive life-long values that will help students lead meaningful lives.

However, these terms themselves are quite vague when it comes to thinking about the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape itself. What universities care about remains the same this cycle: colleges want students who are academically qualified to attend their school (a function of grades, test scores, etc.), students who have dedicated themself towards the advancement of their interests and passions (i.e., students who have developed expertise in particular areas of interest), and students who demonstrate a genuine interest in bettering their community. 

A common misconception is that colleges look for students who are well-rounded in all areas. This isn’t true—colleges look for angular applicants. Students who are specialized in their area of interest are much more likely to succeed in the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape.  Too often, students will spread themselves too thin extracurricularly–they do piano or violin, Model UN, student government, Habitat for Humanity, robotics club, and a handful of Olympiad competitions. Students who partake in such common activities aren't desirable at the most competitive universities. Students should find what they love and are passionate about as young as they can, and then focus the majority of their extracurricular attention on that particular area. 

Submitting Standardized Test Scores to Test Optional Colleges

Over the summer, the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape saw a large shift as many of the top colleges in the country made SAT and ACT scores optional for candidates. One of the questions on students’ minds is, “should I submit my SAT scores to test optional colleges?” Is it better to submit if you have them no matter what the score is? The fact is, submitting scores does not give you a better shot unless you have strong scores and weak grades. If you have weak grades, a good SAT score can help mitigate some of the damage. But if your GPA is a 3.9 and your SAT scores are a 1500, it's unlikely that your scores are going to make much of a difference. 

That said, the general rule of thumb is: if you CAN take the tests and submit a score, you should. If you cannot take the test, then you shouldn't worry about it, although your grades and activities will be given more weight as a result. Applicants from the same region are compared to each other generally, so it's unlikely that this will be a disadvantage, as the admissions office isn't going to compare an applicant from Beijing to an applicant from California. Only students with strong scores and weak grades or activities will fare worse, but the number who succeed will not.

All colleges have issued multiple statements that not submitting a score will not negatively impact a student’s application. But if a student has a strong score, it’s still advisable to submit it as it offers another piece of information for the admissions committee to consider during the process, and more information is often better than less. Whether a particular student should submit a particular score to a particular college is an individualized decision. 

Writing About COVID-19 in Applications

The entire application—including grades, activities, and essays—will become more important in the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape now that test scores aren't considered as strongly. Many students will write about COVID-related issues, and the Common App has even included an optional COVID-19 question. If you do write about COVID-related issues, make sure you're writing about an experience that isn't shared by a million other applicants. Don't write about not enjoying staying inside or at home—every other student did that as well.  

Generally, it's a good idea to focus less on how challenging COVID-19 was for you (because so many other students experienced the same circumstances), and focus more on how you overcame the challenges and what you learned. It's the difference between saying "I was stuck inside seeing no one and feeling very lonely" and "I hated the isolation, so I created a new online community to bring comfort to my friends and family during this trying time." 

Extracurricular Expectations

Admissions officers will be looking at all applications, including and especially the activities list, in light of the pandemic. They are well-aware that most competitions and in-person activities are canceled, but they will be looking to see creative ways that students have managed to stay engaged despite the challenges. For example, did you find a way to engage the club you founded in an online format despite virtual schooling? Did you connect with your community service projects in order to find ways of reaching out virtually? While colleges will not expect to see in-person engagement in activities during this time, they’ll be looking for you to have maintained your activities in alternative ways. At the same time, in light of test-optional admissions, activities will be another way to stand out, especially if you are not intending to submit test scores.

There are many ways that you can participate in activities despite the pandemic. You can reach out to any organization that connects with your interest to see if they need help engaging underserved populations remotely. For instance, is there a nursing home that would need someone to talk through the process of getting on a Zoom call with the residents in their facility? You can engage in blogging, making a podcast, or collaborating on an e-journal with your peers—all of these are great ways to continue your impact despite being stuck at home. Take advantage of online opportunities and your communal resources and make sure you stay safe!

Impact on How Recommendation Letters are Evaluated

Because test-optional means that the admissions officer reviews the other parts of your application with a bit more scrutiny, letters of recommendation will continue to play a large role, and potentially a more important role. Letters of recommendation are intended to show the intellectual curiosity and class participation of students in their academic classes. Hopefully you were able to demonstrate these in any online learning that you were a part of this year!

Colleges are looking for evidence of students who participate robustly in class discussions, bring up new or unique angles in conversations, and seek outside resources for learning. They want to know that you’ll be a person who will be engaging and bring your own unique perspective to a learning environment. While working hard and trying are, of course, incredibly important, this is the “baseline,” and the ideal letter of recommendation will show that you went above and beyond to be a curious and engaged student in that class. 

The strongest recommendation letters will use “comparative” or “superlative” praise in which the recommender notes that you are “better than all of your peers at X” or “the best at X.” While it’s helpful to know that this language creates a strong recommendation, it is, of course, difficult to ask your teacher to write something like that. As you are preparing to request letters from your teachers, you can help them out by giving them specific examples of actions that you did in their class, and if you can say, “Remember the time when you told me that my paper was the best you’d seen in 5 years,” then you’ll have a better chance of securing this type of praise in your letter.

Staying Up-to-Date With Changes

Finally, you might be wondering what the best way is to keep up with the ever-changing news surrounding the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape. Just like everyone else adapting to the new digital and remote world, colleges are making a lot of announcements via their social media accounts and news posts. For example, the Brown Daily Herald reported on the decision to cut 11 sports teams (for non-COVID related reasons), and Dartmouth announced its test-optional policy via Dartmouth News. In addition, it’s helpful to follow a school’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, as well as news sources from third parties, such as Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Preparation in becoming a competitive applicant for top US colleges is incredibly comprehensive, especially with so many changes to the 2020-2021 college admissions landscape. If you’re an international student, even if you’re not sure that you’ll absolutely apply to US colleges this year (or later), you should still prepare as if you were since that includes any preparation you’d need for applying to colleges in other English-speaking countries. 

More than universities in any other country, US colleges look for applicants who are not only academically strong, but also genuinely interested in bettering and serving their communities and are good and caring community members. The expectations on achievements and contributions outside of academics are what makes prepping for US colleges more challenging and requires more advanced planning. Good luck!

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