“Control what you can control.” That’s the message higher education reporter and New York Times-bestselling author Jeff Selingo has for high school seniors in the Class of 2021 right now.
Selingo spent a year in the rooms where it happens: the admissions offices of three preeminent American college and universities, where he listened in while admissions officers read thousands of applications and chose their incoming classes.
In his new book, Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, Selingo attempts to demystify the college admissions process for college-bound students and their families and encourages them to approach it with clear eyes. But in a year when nothing is normal or has gone according to plan –– when classrooms sit empty and some seniors still haven’t had a chance to take an SAT –– what do parents and students need to know?
The 5 things you need to know about this year’s application process
- It’s OK if you don’t have a test score this year. Yes, really.
Selingo noted that SAT and ACT test dates have been canceled in most parts of the country, not to mention the world, since March. Still, some parents don’t believe that the colleges and universities that have decided to go test-optional for the 2020-21 application cycle really mean that students without scores won’t be disadvantaged. But they do mean it, Selingo said.
“If you can’t test, don’t pull out all the stops to try to test,” he told Grown & Flown. For the vast majority of students, it’s not worth taking a risk of exposing yourself to COVID just to take a standardized test.
Selingo added that test scores mean less than you probably think in the admissions process, even in a normal year. “If you rank the priority of things admissions officers are looking at in an application, test scores come after grades, after curriculum,” he said. “If anything, they are a distant third.”
The University of Chicago, for example, has an acceptance rate around 7.3% and has been test optional for years. “In a typical year, UChicago would see 85% of their applicants submitting scores,” Selingo said. “This year, they’d probably be lucky to have 50% of their applicants submitting scores.”
Even the students lucky enough to have test scores this fall did not have a chance to take the test as many times as they might have in a normal year, so average scores will likely skew lower than usual as well.
Bottom line? If you did test and scored high, by all means, share that with the colleges you apply to, but if not –– don’t sweat it unless you must apply to a university that is not test-optional, such as the public state universities in Florida.
2. Early Decision will play a bigger role this year than ever before –– but that doesn’t mean it is the right decision for you.
Students and their parents are not the only ones looking for certainty in a year that has been anything but, Selingo said. “Colleges and universities are going to be pressing harder on Early Decision this year,” he said, because students who apply Early Decision enter into a binding contract with a university, committing to enrolling and to withdrawing all other applications if they are accepted there.
Some colleges are adding Early Decision options this year they have never had before, and Selingo predicts colleges and universities will accept a larger percentage of the class of 2025 from their Early Decision pools if they can –– which could mean more than half of their incoming freshman classes.
Selingo said he is always reluctant to advise students to apply Early Decision because it takes away their ability to compare financial aid offers from other colleges. But, if a student is sure about a school and that the financial commitment will work for them, this might be the year to do it to get an admissions advantage. If not, he said, feel free to take your time. This year more than others, use the fall to visit colleges virtually, gather information, and create the strongest application you can.
3. Control what you can control.
Students have less agency this year than they usually do thanks to the complications of COVID-19 –– they can’t control whether their schools are online or not, they can’t control whether or not an SAT test is canceled, and they can’t control if their clubs or sports seasons are on hold.
The only choice, Selingo said, is to focus on the elements of their application they do have some power over: their grades, their recommendation letters, and their essays. “In the absence of test scores, colleges will be leaning into other parts of the application,” he said. “Control what you can control.”
Since the end of their junior year happened in the midst of a global crisis, colleges will be looking to senior grades more than usual, for example, and there might be more essays and supplemental questions to give admissions officers more to evaluate. Choose recommenders thoughtfully and ask them early. All of these aspects will have greater weight this year than in years past.
4. Coronavirus does not make a good essay topic.
Selingo said many students have been asking him if they should write about the coronavirus pandemic in their college applications. Both the Common and the Coalition Applications added a special COVID-19 prompt this year that gives students an optional 250-word space to tell admissions committees how the pandemic affected their lives.
“My advice is, unless it truly impacted you, to skip that question,” he said, based on what he has heard from admissions teams.
I think they’re going to be looking for people to write to that prompt only if they were personally affected by the virus –– meaning a parent lost a job, somebody got sick, or somebody died. They’re not going to be looking for the run-of-the-mill ‘Oh, my fall sport was canceled,’ or things like that, because it was canceled for everybody.Jeff Selingo
Although you might be tempted to write about the stress and isolation of quarantine, Selingo said that for most people, writing about the pandemic will not help them stand out. “This has impacted everybody, not only in the U.S., but around the world,” he said. “So whatever story you’re going to tell, unless the virus really personally impacted you in some significant way, is not going to be any different.”
5. Admissions officers are experiencing this crisis too –– in real time.
The past six months have thrown everyone for a loop –– students, parents, teachers, counselors, and college admissions officers included. As students complete college applications, remember what Selingo writes in the preface to his new book:
COVID-19 disrupted the lives of nearly everyone around the globe, including those who will be reviewing your application. During the year I spent inside admissions offices, I saw counselors read about personal issues facing applicants in essays and recom-mendation letters. While they often showed empathy for the applicant, they didn’t really understand the student’s experience. But the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is a universally shared experience. While it won’t reshape the entire admissions process, for years to come it will color the lens through which admissions officers view applicants.Jeff Selingo
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