The college admissions process is continually evolving, but COVID-19 has quickened the pace of change this year.

To give yourself the best shot of being admitted to your top schools, it’s important to stay up-to-date on recent developments, especially since the pandemic upended the college admissions process. The impacts of COVID-19 accelerated some admissions trends and reversed others. 

Here are six changes to college admissions trends you should be aware of as you apply to and enroll in college.

1. Higher Sticker Price at Less Competitive Schools

Pre-pandemic tuition at certain private colleges was coming down or, at the very least, not rising as quickly. This was the result of less elite private colleges struggling to compete with more affordable public universities. These schools restructured their pricing to offer fewer merit scholarships and lower overall tuition.

However, with budget cuts due to the pandemic and the loss of room and board fees from students studying remotely, many universities may have no choice but to raise tuition. “Tuition revenue may be tougher to come by in the future because matriculation numbers are expected to fall for some groups of students, such as international students who are more likely to pay the full sticker price,” says Josh Levine, CEO of Admit Academy. How exactly this plays out long term “will depend on the future of the pandemic and the government,” he says. But in the near term, expect some schools to bump up their tuition. 

The schools most likely to remain test-optional are those that are the most financially secure.

2. More Schools Go Test-Optional

Due to test center closures and health risks associated with COVID-19, nearly all colleges have transitioned to test-optional admissions for the time being. And many will remain test-optional even after the pandemic. 

The schools most likely to remain test-optional are those that are the most financially secure. These tend to be liberal arts colleges and private universities that can afford to hire enough admissions representatives to support a more holistic application review. “Larger state universities typically work off a formula for at least some of their decisions — if you have a certain combination of grades and test scores, you’re automatically admitted,” explains Kate Sonnenberg, founder of KS College Success. “In a time where there will likely be state budget cuts to higher education, it is unlikely that state universities will have extra resources to hire additional admissions officers [to help review applications]. They also won’t have the autonomy to make a decision [on whether] to go test-optional, as government leaders set policies.” 

3. Progress Toward Equitable Admissions Practices 

Black Lives Matter and the greater movement toward equality have highlighted the inequity of the college admissions process, and schools are showing their commitment to finding solutions.

“Schools are doing significant work to engage broader populations in college recruitment and advising,” says Stacey Kostell, chief executive for the Coalition for College. “While this work will take time, early indications suggest that colleges and universities are committed to designing new processes and relying on different metrics to make sure all students have the same access to higher education.”

Schools are relying less on test data, of course. They’re also requiring more writing on applications and requesting input from high school counselors about individual students. 

While these are steps in the right direction, there are still issues. For one, students in underfunded high schools, where counselors have large caseloads, may be less likely to get thorough and personalized guidance and recommendation letters from their counselors than their peers at wealthier schools. Brady Norvall, founder of Find a Better U, says the counselor route isn’t enough. He suggests that colleges “commit to changing their recruiting model and reaching out to high schools that may not have been on their radar in years past.” While this hasn’t become a widespread trend yet, changes like this appear to be on the horizon. 

Rates of admissions officers checking students’ profiles have increased to about 36% recently.

4. Social Media Matters Again

Between 2015 and 2018, the number of admissions officers who said they looked up applicants on social media dropped from 40% to 25%, according to a Kaplan Test Prep survey. The survey found that the decline was caused in part by changing attitudes toward social media, not to mention students becoming savvier about their digital footprint and increasingly hard to find. 

However, the rise of Black Lives Matter and social justice movements have created a demand for accountability from both colleges and the students who enroll there. Rates of admissions officers checking students’ profiles have increased to about 36% recently. Many young people are calling out acts of racism among their peers, particularly on social media, and colleges have rescinded admissions offers in response to racist posts. 

“Young adults get to make mistakes and grow from them. But no one gets a pass to be hurtful and hateful,” says Norvall. “Not admitting people who post, say and do awful things has to be a trend all universities support going forward, and schools are focusing more resources on this and being more clear in their decisions to rescind or deny applicants.”

5. More Personalized Outreach From Admissions Officers

Traditionally, colleges have recruited potential applicants by purchasing students’ names from the testing companies behind the SAT and ACT. “With a rise in test-optional and test-blind admissions, institutions will need to find students in other ways,” says Levine. To fill the gap, schools are going to have to get creative, he says. “It’s likely they’ll utilize more specific data gathered from student searches — such as an indication that a student has been searching a specific major — to build more targeted recruitment strategies.” Levine even foresees the school’s outreach itself, not just the outreach method, getting more personalized. “For example, they may send students custom digital viewbooks,” he says. 

6. Longer Waitlists Than Ever Before

In recent years, the number of students on waitlists increased while a student’s chances of being accepted off a waitlist decreased.

What was causing schools to balloon their waitlists? High school seniors were applying to more colleges than ever before. While it’s not yet clear if the pandemic will reverse that trend, it is expected that admissions offices will face increased pressure to hit enrollment targets. And a good way to ensure that those goals are reached is having a long waitlist to draw from.

“Adding more students to the waitlist is a practical solution from the school’s perspective because it allows flexibility in managing their admissions offers,” says Benjamin Caldarelli, co-founder of Princeton College Consulting

It’s undeniable that this is a year of change on many fronts, and it’s important to stay informed about how these changes impact college admissions. This knowledge can guide your application process and hopefully give you a better shot at landing at your top choice school. 

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