The Class of 2021’s College Application Process — in the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Aparna Deokar


January 27, 2021

Many of BUA’s seniors were able to breathe a sigh of relief after the first week of January this year: COVID-19 has been a rollercoaster for everyone, from young schoolkids to elderly grandparents, and high school seniors all across the world are no different. To learn more about how the pandemic has affected BUA’s seniors and their college application processes, I interviewed Ms. Evans and Ms. Atkinson from the college counseling team for their thoughts on how the college application process has changed this year as compared to previous years, Saoirse Killion ’21, a humanities-focused student, and Aditi Deokar ’21, a STEM-focused student.

Unfortunately, tours for many colleges were canceled in junior spring and senior fall for the Class of 2021. Tours really help seniors to get a feel for college campuses and are often a source of inspiration for the common “Why this college?” essay, in which students write about why they’re interested in attending a particular college. Reflecting on her own essays, Aditi said it would have been “better to have more personal anecdotes about each college” and a better perception of the colleges overall — she had to steer her essays more toward focusing on academic influence than environment. Ms. Evans said, “It is different to not be able to really gain a sense of the surroundings of a campus. Even sometimes going through that process of getting into a car or getting on a plane and [going] to a campus — you can learn a lot about what feels right to you, how you might feel about going a little bit farther or closer to home.” Colleges tackled the problem of tours in many different ways, including virtual tours and detailed college websites. Saoirse commented that she “virtually toured all the colleges [she] was interested in.” She saw these tours and other online webinars, panels, and sessions as “very helpful” and said that they “made the whole college search process more equitable.” Similarly, Aditi noted that she was able to get a lot of information out of the college websites, which was the main source of information that she used, and she said that BUA’s alumni fairs really helped her as well. But she also said that the virtual tours were less helpful than normal tours, mainly because they were geared toward a wider audience. 

Another change from previous years was that a significant number of Class of 2020 students worldwide deferred their college enrollment to 2021; in other words, many of last year’s high school graduates took a gap year after getting accepted. This affects this year’s seniors, since to prevent the undergraduate class of 2025 from getting too large, fewer seniors will be accepted in many colleges, though the extent to which deferrals will actually affect this year’s admissions is uncertain. Ms. Atkinson said, “In our conversations in the fall with admission officers, [deferrals don’t] seem to be as big of a deal at most places our BUA students are applying as people might think.” Both Aditi and Saoirse touched on the fact that it was difficult to know exactly how much they were affected by deferrals, since the regular decision statistics have not been released. Aditi did mention that the college that she applied to early decision admitted fewer students than it had in past years and had a lower acceptance rate.

Test-optional policies have also made acceptance more competitive this year. The main change that test-optional policies initiated was that potentially lower-scoring students were able to apply to higher-ranked colleges, making applicant pools more competitive. These policies are by no means new; as Ms. Evans said, “Standardized testing has been under scrutiny for a few years anyway.” But many more colleges all over the world decided to give students the option not to submit standardized test scores this application season, since many tests were cancelled last spring and fall. Aditi elaborated on this, saying that she was “lucky to have gotten most of her standardized testing out of the way early,” but that she knew this was a problem and that it was a huge help to many students to have BUA hold a testing session. This testing policy seems like an upside for students unable to take the tests and students who may have scored lower than they desired, but for other students who were able to take the test and score well, their scores may have counted for less.

Acceptance rates are expected to shift this year as well. Students are applying to more colleges, and yield rates, or the percentages of applicants who accept their admissions offers, are decreasing. We expect colleges to accept more early decision applicants, who have binding acceptance contracts, to guarantee enrollment in the Class of 2025. However, we expect a decrease in early action (the nonbinding early application cycle) and regular decision rates, because the numbers of applicants in these cycles have significantly increased. “We’re hearing that especially at the most selective schools, there’s a significant increase in the regular decision rounds,” Ms. Atkinson said.

Comparing 2020 and 2021 admission rates from some institutions that BUA students often apply to illustrates these changes. Last year, Harvard had an early action admission rate of 13.9%, which decreased this year to 7.4%; last year, MIT had an early action rate of 7.4%, which decreased this year to 4.8%; last year, BU had an early decision rate of 31%, which increased this year to 43.7%, all as expected. Brown is the outlier: last year, it had an early decision rate of 17.5%, which decreased this year to 16%.

One last change that has happened very recently is the postponing of Ivy Day, the date when Ivy League colleges release their decisions for the regular cycle. After getting a significant increase in applications, all of the Ivy League colleges agreed to postpone Ivy Day from March 31 to April 6. This has in turn pushed the date for students to turn in their college decisions from May 1 to May 3. Aditi, when asked about how this would affect her, said that she’s glad the colleges will have more time to think about her application, but thinks that the main upside is that the decision deadline is extended, which is good for students appealing for more financial aid.

To end, Ms. Atkinson imparts a message: “Essay writing, engagement with colleges, and coursework — what kids choose to take while they’re at BUA and BU and how they do in those courses — those still tend to be the most important parts of the college application. And the BU Admissions agreement continues to be such a huge gift.” And to encourage everyone to keep their eye on the big picture, Ms. Evans says, “[Ms. Atkinson and I] are here to help guide [students]. At the end of the day, they’re going to be alright. I encourage students to just take it one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. [College] should be a great journey and experience. To the younger students — live in the moment, focus on what you’re doing right now, enjoy the learning.”

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