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The Rise in College Applications and Avoiding the Panic

Elizabeth Heaton

Written by Elizabeth Heatonon February 16th, 2021

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 The news on college applications can feel a little scary this year—applications are up in huge year-over-year numbers at Brown (26%), Oregon State (40%), UC Berkeley (28%), University of Pennsylvania (34%) and Colgate (100%!). How to account for these increases?
  • No test scores? No problem. The pandemic’s turmoil significantly impacted standardized testing. With schools closed and indoor gatherings of any kind limited to immediate family, it was difficult to find an open test site. As a result, more than 1,400 colleges announced policies that made testing optional or eliminated it from the equation altogether. There is no question that the rise in these policies directly impacted the rise in applications. Not only did students unable to test take advantage of this opportunity, but students with weaker testing did as well. Because the human brain is a funny thing, many students and families overestimated the strength of their applications once one weaker element was eliminated. In other words, many, many students who were not competitive regardless of test scores decided to apply anyway.
  • So much uncertainty. We’re also sure that all the uncertainty around the process and the world contributed to application increases. Students couldn’t visit schools as a way to move schools up or off the list. They worried about how their lack of activities or pass/fail grades or disrupted summer plans would stack up against what other students were able to accomplish in spite of the pandemic. The economic upheaval meant that some needed to ensure more financial safeties than usual, while others may have assumed that their full-pay status would make them more attractive candidates. And we didn’t even mention the schools where significant numbers of students from the class of 2020 deferred enrollment, which many feared would impact acceptances this year.
  • Panic. When you add test optional to a process permeated more than usual by uncertainty, then multiply that by the high number of applications submitted, you get panic. Once panic set in, it became almost a free for all, with students and parents adding even more applications in the hopes that quantity might quell their anxiety. To them, I ask: did it work?
As we while away the next six to seven weeks waiting for colleges’ decisions, here is some advice for high school juniors on how to avoid these same pitfalls when they apply to college next fall:
  • Do as much advance research as possible. Visit college websites and take advantage of all the virtual options to connect. Watch some videos. Sign up for online information sessions and tours. Research programs of interest and opportunities to get involved. Use this time to winnow your list to those that really stand out to you.
  • Curate a balanced list. Speaking of your college list, make sure that you have some reaches, some matches, and some safeties. Work with your school counselor to figure out where you fall. If you don’t have testing or the school is not going to consider test scores, make sure that your performance in the classroom matches up to their expectations. A good balanced list should include at least four matches and two safeties, with somewhere between one and three reaches. An even better list includes five matches and three to four safeties, and no more than three reaches.
  • Show interest. Get on the mailing lists for your schools of interest. Follow them on social media. Open their emails and click on links to learn more. Take advantage of all the opportunities to connect that they offer. Create a digital footprint that shows the school you are truly invested in learning more. Then write a killer Why This College essay full of all the specifics you’ve gleaned doing all of the above. Help the schools picture you on their campus.
  • Don’t panic. Forget about everyone else and the number of applications they are submitting. Take a methodical, smart approach to the process, and don’t mess it up by over-applying or overreaching. You need this time to craft strong applications and to show interest. Panic gets in the way and makes you lose focus. And when you lose focus, all of your applications—and your grades—suffer.
Bottom line: if you have a good list full of schools that you like, you will get in to a school that you like—probably many schools that you like. College Application Prep 101


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