Consistency does not exist when speaking about college admissions. Trust me, I wish it did because it would make my job, and the job of college counselors across the country, so much easier. No two years are alike as colleges see spikes in applications, financial downturns, global pandemics, changes in perception, and a variety of other factors. Enrollment managers at colleges face the same challenges in trying to predict application numbers and yield. If a somewhat unknown college wins a major basketball tournament, suddenly that school sees a huge increase in applications. Maybe a notable political figure graduated from that school, they are likely to see the same spike. Even colleges who find themselves in the middle of scandals often see increases in applications.
College admissions is a weird phenomena where the more selective a college becomes the more students want to apply. We have mistakenly applied the idea that selectivity equals quality. The Biology being taught at a school that admits 60% of the students is the same Biology taught at the school that admits 10% of the students that apply. Granted, some resources may be a bit different, but most people would be hard-pressed to find major differences.
COVID-19 changed so many things in so many different ways. College admissions was not immune to the impact of a global pandemic and frankly, some of it is for the better. As we sit ready to begin another college admissions cycle, what can we learn from the last few years and more importantly, what do students need to know to have options and opportunities at the end of their senior year in high school?
Many of the bigger-name colleges saw large increases in applications, primarily because standardized tests were no longer required. It created a mixed bag where colleges were happy to see more applicants, but now had to figure out how to balance all of their priorities. But not all colleges saw increases, in fact, the majority of colleges saw decreases in enrollment, a trend that seems to be occurring nationwide.
The key is to reframe our thinking, just like the colleges have had to do by adopting test-optional and test-blind admissions policies in the wake of COVID. For years students and parents have aimed for a specific target and thought that there was only one perfect combination to get there. Even as we head into the next application cycle, over 65% of American colleges and universities have employed some form of test-optional admissions process.
What the pandemic has reminded us is that colleges are looking for engagement in light of opportunities and authenticity. It sounds easy and it can be, but we are always so eager to make things more complicated.
Let’s further define “engagement in light of opportunity” for a moment. Engagement is a somewhat vague word and it is meant to be. For some students this means deep engagement with their academics where they demonstrate hard work and knowledge in challenging courses. For other students it means finding deep involvement in athletics or the arts where they give 100% to those activities. And yet for others, it may mean that the engagement is limited because they are already giving so much of themselves to their family or their communities. This is why that piece about “in light of opportunity” is important to note. Schools like Fairmont offer a lot of opportunity with a wide variety of academic options and ability to join a long list of activities. Other schools simply do not offer the same depth of course offerings and colleges understand this. Students are not going to be judged for things over which they had no control. This applies to the pandemic as well, colleges know that students could not play full sports seasons, do much volunteering, or were simply sheltered at home for their health. Colleges get it as they were doing the exact same thing. In this way, the playing field has been leveled for everyone.
Now, “authenticity” can be a difficult thing to judge in an application. Basically, is a student engaged in things because they themselves are actually interested in them or simply because they think it looks good in a college application? When I used to read applications I loved coming across students who were proudly and uniquely themselves. The jugglers, dragon boat racers, yo-yo champions, authors, musicians, often stood out in file review. This is not to diminish other activities, but students should feel empowered to follow in activities that speak to them. They don’t have to be the captain or president, or even be the best at it, it is simply that they tried. Students should not have to pretend but should find pride and joy in representing their authentic selves.
When students go about changing themselves to appeal to a specific college, they lose a bit of who they are. We hope that our friends and partners love us for who we are and are not asking us to change. The same can be applied to college admissions. We want to find colleges who appreciate you for the person you are and the person you have the potential to become. This is why colleges often ask specific questions related to their school, they want to know that you share the same values that they do.
We hope that parents will ask questions of their students to ensure that everyone is on the same page. We encourage parents to let students drive the search and to find a place where they can be their authentic selves and still grow. Students, we hope that you take the time to discover what is important to you and showcase that in your applications.
This pandemic, and the simultaneous social movements, have taught us a lot about ourselves, our needs, our communities, what we are looking for in life, and how we can define our legacy. I hope that we take advantage of that reset. As one of those who gets to advocate for students every year, I always want to make sure that a student is happy and in a place to succeed in whatever way they see fit. After all, they are the ones who are going to enroll, live in the dorms, take the classes, and have the experiences.
COVID has retrained all of us in different ways. Colleges and universities are trained and eager to evaluate students beyond a test score and I hope that our students and parents will take advantage of that opportunity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After eight years working in college admission for two colleges in Southern California, Justin Voss moved to the other side and joined Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim, California as a college counselor. During that time he has helped thousands of students navigate the college admissions process. Justin is currently completing a doctorate degree at Creighton University in Interdisciplinary Leadership. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, playing music, and spending time with his family.