While admissions decisions for seniors continue to trickle in over these next few weeks, some of the early trends from this cycle show signs of a gradual return to certain aspects of pre-pandemic normalcy.
For example, preliminary early decision and early action results indicate slight declines in applications to some of the nation’s most elite institutions, including most of the Ivy League schools, creating stagnant or in some cases slightly elevated acceptance rates as compared to last year (College Kickstart LLC, 2022).
This modest reprieve comes after unprecedented increases in applications to such schools during the early phases of the pandemic. Yet, the latest data also indicate increases in early applications, and thus declining admission rates, at other competitive schools such as Northeastern, Boston College, and the University of Virginia (College Kickstart LLC, 2022).
Such trends could lead to unexpected results for top applicants and suggest that the broader practice of overapplying may persist for a while longer. These trends are challenging to read locally, and only better understood in the county, state, and national context.
As we navigate this ever-changing landscape, finding ourselves in an intermediary place between pandemic-induced chaos and a return to normal, how should we adjust? Where should students focus their efforts? What remains important to a successful college application?
What Still Counts
Though much has changed over the course of the pandemic in application requirements and the ways students may choose to engage with the process, the core elements of any strong application largely remain the same. These fundamentals include a student’s GPA, test scores, and underlying narrative.
To colleges, the GPA is the cornerstone of a student’s academic record, encompassing insights on the rigor of a student’s selected course load and their relative performance. A GPA can demonstrate consistency or even show growth and improvement, both important characteristics institutions will seek in top applicants.
Test scores, though much less likely to be required these days, remain an important way for students to stand out. Remember, test-optional does not necessarily mean test-blind. Test-optional schools will still consider scores that are submitted as an element of a student’s application. Accordingly, we see this as an opportunity for students to elevate their portfolio if the scores are high enough and add value to an application. We typically encourage all students, when possible, to prepare for and take a standardized test. Students may then decide afterwards if the result will contribute to their application to a particular school or distract from the rest of their materials.
Finally, a student narrative can easily distinguish an applicant from a pool of thousands, bringing a student’s unique voice and ambitions to the forefront. By narrative, we don’t just mean writing a one-of-a-kind personal statement (though that is certainly important). The narrative includes weaving through the entire application portfolio to see if the intended major, academic performance, and extracurriculars align to make a cohesive plan.
Thinking intentionally in the early stages of portfolio development and continuously throughout the process about what a student’s goals, passions, and supporting experiences will help guide and frame all elements of the application in a way that paints a picture of who a student is and wishes to become. Done well, students will be admitted to some colleges, and denied from others; but as parents and students, you will know you navigated the road to college optimally and can accept the outcome from a position of strength.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.