2021 Admissions Cycle Trends – Key Takeaways

The 2020-2021 college admissions cycle was the most disruptive of any year in recent memory due to factors ranging from COVID-era learning disruptions and test-optional trends, to modified AP exams and limited opportunities for extracurricular involvement. These realities combined to reduce students’ ability to stand out as applicants. Students were limited in their capacity to sample the world and develop understandings of what they want to do and why.

As summer vacation approaches, it is important to take time to reflect on the school year, what we’ve learned, and some trends in the admissions landscape.

The Trends. The resulting fears of this tumultuous year caused many parents to encourage their child to apply to more colleges than may have been advantageous. This left admissions officers with a challenge: Selecting an incoming class that is both academically successful and provides fair opportunities. This increased the applicant pool at many of the nation’s top colleges and led acceptance rates to drop. Further, the number of students admitted from schools’ waitlists nearly doubled. Early college applications continued to provide students with acceptance rate advantages.

College admissions cycle was the most disruptive of any year in recent memory

What to Do.

College Portfolio. The more students engage in meaningful extracurriculars aimed at transforming their passions into skills, the more likely they will come to understand how aspects of their interests and character can inform future major and career decisions. Robust study habits and grit, coupled with a rigorous course load, will allow your student to put forward a strong, representative GPA and often a proportionate standardized test score.

Test Scores. Despite last year’s shift towards test-optional admissions, we suggest any family with access and time to devote to adequately studying, preparing, and taking the test should try to do so, as test scores continue to remain one measure among many to support admission officers in making decisions. But an ACT or SAT score is not the only metric of significance. We suggest students only take the exam 2-3 times. Colleges often prefer students to demonstrate their strengths through living meaningful, engaged lives.

Standing Out. What will help today’s students stand out will be spending time to decide on one future major or program and its relation to future careers. Seeking conversations with professionals, pursuing job shadowing opportunities, or interviewing parents about what they studied and what they do can provide impactful and often underutilized first steps for students as they work towards developing and mapping their interests and skill-sets onto future opportunities.

The more this gap can be narrowed, the better students will be able to identify best-fitting colleges and craft their personal narratives. The narrative a student communicates via their application portfolio should be unique and authentic, but it takes time to get there. Before the application work commences, it’s well worth it for your student to invest time in such exploratory, reflective efforts. While the road to college does seem to be constantly in flux, a focus on academic performance and a meaningfully engaged life remain paramount to success when coupled with a carefully selected major and balanced college list.

Tony Di Giacomo Ph.D.is an educator and founder of Novella Prep. He has 20 years of university experience in admissions, development, teaching, and research. Contact him at tony@novellaprep.com

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About the Author: Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D.