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A Tale of Two Students: The Importance of a Balanced College List in an Uncertain Year

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Mary Sue Youn

Written by Mary Sue Younon January 14th, 2021

I joined College Coach after working at Barnard College of Columbia University, where I served as the senior associate director of admissions. As the senior manager of the admissions staff, I coordinated all admissions recruitment travel, and directed the application review process. I chaired the admissions committee and personally reviewed many applications from both first-year and transfer admissions applicants. Prior to my tenure at Barnard, I was an admissions counselor at Whittier College and directed the merit scholarship process for the college. My admissions career began as an alumna admissions volunteer for Cornell University while completing my graduate work in psychology at Claremont Graduate University.
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by Mary Sue Youn, former admissions officer at Barnard College It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Well, truly, it was neither, but it was the most confusing of times. Let me tell you about two students I’ve been working with this fall: Student A applied to seven schools in a balanced list: some Reach, some Just Right, and some Likely. Coincidentally, all of their schools had Early Action or Rolling admission options, and they decided to apply to their favorite school Early Decision. Their testing was in range for some schools but not for others, so they used the testing for some schools but not all. (FYI, College Board’s BigFuture website is a great resource for finding the average testing ranges for most colleges and universities.) December arrived, and they were shocked to receive acceptances to all seven schools, most with merit scholarship money. Student A is thrilled to be done with their college process and was amazed that so many schools said yes. Student B applied to their favorite school Early Decision. Some other schools on their list had Early Action deadlines, so they also applied to four more schools, five in all. Like Student A, they had testing but only sent scores in for some of their colleges where it might be competitive from looking at past years’ averages. Their grades and accomplishments seemed a little below what their colleges accepted, but decided to apply to mostly Reach schools because, hey, why not give it a shot? This month, they were denied from their ED choice, and deferred or denied from all four EA choices.  Their friends are posting acceptances on Instagram, they are miserable, and think the entire admissions system is rigged against them. Which student would you rather be right now – Student A or Student B? All fall, we’ve been reporting about the impact of students deferring from 2020 and the impacts on the class of 2021. We’ve been writing about how test-optional admissions policies might change the process. But, despite our best professional guesses, these first round admissions showed the actual results for the class of 2021, and how admissions might be impacted in this crazy year. We are simultaneously hearing stories of quick acceptances, large scholarships, and eager colleges heavily recruiting students on one side, while also hearing about double digit increases in applications (Harvard up 57%; whoa!) as testing barriers fall and record numbers of students being turned away from those highly selective colleges on the other. How can there be not enough applicants at some schools, and far, far too many at others? And what should an applicant do about that in their process?
  • Apply to a balanced list. A good, solid college list contains Reach, Just Right, and Likely schools. Some might even look at our sample students above and say that Student A did not aim high enough, while Student B applied to a top-heavy list.
  • Avoid the rush (solely) to prestige. The early results are clear: almost all colleges went test optional this year, which meant more students tried for highly selective schools. Although those top 100 most highly selective schools sure are enticing, remember that there are over 3,000 colleges and universities across the US. Applying to a couple of Reach schools is fine; applying to 10+ Reach schools will lead to frustration and tears.
  • Particularly this year, expect the unexpected. I don’t envy my admissions friends at any college this year. Some moderately selective colleges are tuition dependent, and need to recruit heavily to ensure they have a full class (and financial stability) next year. Other highly selective schools might be so crushed in an avalanche of applications that they’ll need to make very hard choices, and yes, turn away some outstanding candidates who may have been competitive in a different year. In the absence of testing, the admissions process will have to be more subjective this year, which will mean more criticism of their decisions, whichever way they go.
  • With a balanced list, good news always arrives in the spring. After more than a dozen years as a college counselor, I’ve comforted more than a few students through devastating Decembers. I feel like some perspective is important here. It may seem like everyone else is getting in (they’re not), and that your admissions chances are over (also not true), but I’ve found that every student has acceptances that arrive with their spring decisions. In fact, most students are admitted to the college they attend in the Regular Decision rounds!
In the end, most students will be neither A nor B, but somewhere in the middle. Applying across the full range of selectivity may help you find a great fit college that is excited to have YOU as their student (and they may even throw in some scholarship money to sweeten the deal). As you finalize your applications for those Regular Decision deadlines, remember if you open your mind to some other schools, you may reap the benefits this year. Getting the Most Out of a College Visit


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