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Lessons from the 2022 College Application Cycle

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Elizabeth Heaton

Written by Elizabeth Heatonon June 24th, 2022

I began my admissions career at the University of Pennsylvania, where I chaired university selection committees, evaluated potential athletic recruits as one of the school's athletics liaisons, and oversaw the university's portfolio of admissions publications. I also served as second chair in the selection committee for the school's flagship interdisciplinary Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology. A frequent contributor to USA TODAY and The Huffington Post and a graduate of Cornell University, I bring exceptional skills to the craft of essay writing paired with experience reading and evaluating thousands of admissions essays. I can offer expert advice on a wide range of college admissions topics, from colleges' expectations for high school curriculum choices and standardized test scores to choosing the right extracurricular activities and essay topics. Prior to joining the University of Pennsylvania, I worked as a public relations professional and served for a decade as a member of the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network.
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by Elizabeth Heaton, former admissions officer at University of Pennsylvania College admissions offices across the country are wrapping up the cycle for the incoming class of 2026 and turning their attention to this year’s rising high school seniors. We have advice for those very same students: learn from your elders! Here are their lessons from this past admissions year: Early Decision (ED) still reigns supreme. Students and parents frequently ask us how to stand out in the admissions process. Like it or not, the primary way to do that is applying via a binding ED program. It is not an ideal choice for many, as it requires students to commit to a college early in their senior year and forgo comparing financial or merit aid packages. For a student who hasn’t thought much about college until senior year, there is very little time to investigate options and be sure that they are making the best choice. But statistically, it generally confers an advantage. Colleges offering an ED deadline will often fill as much as half—or more (we see you, Washington University in St. Louis)—of the incoming class in the early round from a far smaller group of applicants. That leaves the bulk of the applicant pool to fight it out for the spots remaining in regular decision. Take, for example, Duke University, which received more than 50,000 applications and admitted almost 3,100 students for an overall acceptance rate of 6%. But 4,000 of those applications came via ED, and more than 850 of those were accepted, for a 21% acceptance rate. We see similar trends at Northeastern (33% in ED1 versus 7% overall), Virginia (34% versus 19%), and Dartmouth (20% versus 6%). Early Action (EA)/Priority can be your friend. Not everyone can or should go the ED route, but everyone can hit early action and priority deadlines. It used to be that these were more of a “nice to do” than a “must do.” I even used to advise some students to hold off in the hopes that first semester senior year grades might make a difference. No more. If a school offers EA or priority, we strongly encourage all students to go that route unless the school also offers a binding ED program (see above for our top choice then). It helps to be in that first group of applications, and often qualifies a student for merit aid consideration. Which brings us to our next point. Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) is not your friend, and it never was. SCEA and its little sibling, restrictive early action, essentially prevent a student from applying ED anywhere or via EA at any private institution. Some policies allow for applying to other early programs if that is a condition of qualifying for merit aid, while others (Harvard) won’t allow even that. So why would a student choose this option? I’m really not sure. Though the perception is that these offer an advantage similar to ED, the reality is that both Harvard’s SCEA and regular acceptance rates were both in the single digits, and the differences are similarly minimal at Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, the three other colleges with very restrictive EA policies. Students have until May 1 to commit to attending if admitted, but that’s small consolation for the advantages they give up. Harvard’s program in particular actively prevents students from hitting the EA, priority, rolling, or merit award deadlines at any other college. So, don’t be fooled by the hype and the small difference in acceptance rates—these programs are not your friend. Safeties are no longer a thing. Just a few years ago, Tulane University was a favorite safety for some of my strongest students. They had a reasonable expectation of getting in and earning substantial merit aid awards. Those days are over. Colleges like Tulane, Case Western University, and University of Vermont, to name just a few, have started to adjust their approach and are looking more closely at the students who will actually accept their offers of admission. And that means they are no longer sure things for those students whose first choice colleges are even harder to get into. To be sure, there are many, many colleges (about 80% of those in the U.S., to be exact) welcoming the majority of applicants with open arms. They have great programs and often feature generous merit aid. But schools accepting fewer than 50% of their applicant pools are no one’s safeties. Ultra-selectivity is here to stay. Just four years ago, in 2018, 15 colleges had single digit acceptance rates, meaning fewer than 1 in 10 applicants—and sometimes less than 1 in 20 or even 30—were accepted. In 2022, there were 32 colleges with single digit acceptance rates. There are many reasons for this, but new test optional policies have opened the floodgates, encouraging more students to apply to colleges that in the past might have felt out of reach. Unless those policies revert back—and all indications are that they will not—the number of applications to the most popular colleges in the country will continue to far exceed available spots. What can we learn from all of this? Selectivity is really just a numbers game. And strategy is key. Hope is not a strategy. Applying to more schools is not a strategy. Compiling a list of US News & World Report’s, or your neighbor’s, or your friend’s top choice colleges is not a strategy. Strategy is starting with the elements of a college education—not the brand name—that are important to you. Strategy is using those elements to create a balanced list of seven to 10 colleges that are a fit for you, with a mix of probable, possible, and reach schools. Strategy is giving equal attention to every college on your list, from engaging with each college virtually and in person where possible, to crafting strong essays based on their application requirements. Strategy is having an early plan and a regular plan, rather than a “take a shot and hope for the best” plan.  If you put those strategies in place, you will have learned your lessons well!

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