Pivot is one of the themes of 2020. But how has the College Admissions process pivoted this year, now that SAT and ACT exams are optional, SAT subject tests don’t exist, and other changes are on the horizon?
1. More Applicants
The Common App saw a ten percent jump in applications submitted in 2021, meaning students overall were applying to more schools than in the past. Elite colleges, in particular, saw more applications than ever. Top colleges and universities in the US reported an increase of 30% to 100% in early decision and early action applications, typically due around November 1. One reason for this increase in the application rate has to do with the new test optional policies. Many students felt that if they did not have to show their SAT or ACT scores, they would have a better chance of getting into an Ivy League or top tier university based on just good grades and a strong application otherwise. But this strategy back-fired. With such a large increase in the number of applications, acceptance rates are at an all-time low and many students are wait-listed or deferred. In these changing times, it’s worth looking at some smaller colleges (some terrific schools also!) that reported a drop in applications.
2. Transcripts Are King
For better or for worse, your high school transcript is now the most important part of your college application. As many schools have gone test-optional, college admissions officers are using a student’s coursework and grades as the initial indicator to gauge if that student can handle the school’s academics. Beyond good grades, colleges are looking to see that you have taken some rigorous courses and challenged yourself academically. This means taking the initiative to seek out college level classes (in person or online) as well as taking advantage of the most advanced and AP courses at your school. Colleges are looking for students who took the most advanced courses offered (especially in their interest of study) and did very well on them.
3. No More SAT Subject Tests
Now that SAT Subject tests are canceled, AP exams are the only way to show colleges and universities which subjects you’re able to handle on a high level. Getting a very high score on the SAT or ACT only shows your reading, grammar, and math skills. If you’re interested in medicine, you’ll also want to show that you can handle science courses at a high level. If you’re thinking about applying to business or economics programs, try to take the AP Microeconomics or AP Macroeconomics exams, even if your school doesn’t offer the course. If you’re proficient in Spanish, Chinese, German, Japanese, French, Italian, or Latin, you can highlight this by taking the exam. How you’ve fared in AP courses and exams is a signal of your ability to handle that college’s course load.
The more AP courses (or equivalent) you have, the stronger your application looks. If you’re a 9th or 10th grader (even 11th grade isn’t too late!), look at your high school’s course catalog and plan out which classes you’d like to get into next year and the year after. Find out what the requirements are to get into AP and other advanced classes and work hard to meet those requirements, even if it means doing some summer or after school prep.
4. SAT and ACT Optional?
While SAT and ACT scores have diminished in importance, they aren’t at all irrelevant. Studying for and taking one of these standardized exams gives you more options. SAT and ACT scores tell colleges what you’re capable of in math, reading, and grammar. While standardized tests aren’t a show of your intelligence, they can indicate how you handle time-management and a time-crunch. And an increase in your score from the 1st time you took the test to the 2nd time shows admissions committees that you are motivated and aren’t afraid of giving a hard task your all!
‘Test optional’ is a bit of a hazy concept. While it would seem that test-optional means that standardized exams are no longer the main gate-keepers of admittance, we have seen that submitting good test scores increases your chances of being accepted, particularly at elite colleges. Additionally, if your extracurriculars or GPA are not as competitive as they could be, SAT and ACT scores continue to help boost applicants to the top of the list. The bottom line is: SAT and ACT scores play an important, strategic role if you can show that you’ve scored well.
Elite schools used the SAT in 2020 and will continue to do so for two things: a sign that the student overcame something academically very difficult. Since top schools are not a walk in the park once you get in - they are a big jump in difficulty for almost everyone - they need evidence that the student has what it takes to survive and triumph over academic challenges and that the student won’t need “remediation” like you might expect at flagship state schools (unless they’re an athlete). So the rigor of the courses you take in high school added to a top notch SAT or ACT score serve as proof that you can handle academic rigor. The other, though lesser, reason that colleges and frankly harder to admit, is proof of means. Schools are businesses and need enough students who will pay full -- or close to full -- tuition. Strong SAT or ACT scores are often a sign that the student had great tutoring, which signals affluence. The mega endowed schools care less about this second point, but it’s a factor for a lot of admissions offices since applications are need-blind and cannot see who will need financial aid before writing up that acceptance letter. A strong SAT or ACT score helps them take a good educated guess.
If you’re applying to schools as an athlete, it’s important to note that your SAT or ACT score is still very important. This is because schools still have parameters around what score ranges they can consider for their teams. Likewise, test scores are important qualifiers for merit aid. Students who have submitted higher SAT or ACT test scores often get more financial aid than others.
5. Virtual College Visits
Another significant pivot has been college touring; with most campuses partially or fully closed, most schools have all-together cancelled tours on their premises. Yet, the pandemic has pushed colleges to ramp up (or create!) great virtual tours on their websites, giving prospective students near and far a better idea of the facilities and student life.
Beyond virtual tours provided by the schools themselves, a number of outside sites have sprung up to mimic the in-person tour experience. College Planner Pro (available to all Ivy Tutors Network students for free) and Campus Reel are two sites where current students will give you a ‘real’ tour of the school from their point of view.
More than ever, direct communication with current students can help in college applications, particularly in narrowing down your school list. Many successful students have used Instagram, TikTok and other social media apps to get a sense of these schools from afar. Whether through a school’s social media channels, plowing through hashtags, or DM-ing students outright, seeing and talking to real students gives you a sense of what going to that school is really like. College counselors can also facilitate meetings with current students at the school.
If you’re craving the road trip and want to get a sense of the surrounding area, many campuses will allow you to walk around even if they aren’t offering tours. For New York City kids especially, this can be crucial: do you want a city? Do you mind a secluded campus? Those are good questions to ask yourself, and another really important reason why you should try to visit.