The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the relationship between college-bound students, families, and the institutions themselves. Some believe that these changes are permanent—from the de-emphasis of SAT/ACT scores to the widening economic gap between well-off institutions and struggling universities to the trend of more students delaying their freshman year. Only time will tell how the pandemic will alter university trends for future generations. However, I believe these five trends will be of greatest impact in 2021.
Trend 1: Authenticity and resilience are prized traits for applicants
I often tell my clients that admissions committees are less interested in students who dabble in a dozen clubs than those who go all-in on their strengths and show excellence in their chosen fields. This has never been more true than in the Covid-19 era, when many students do not have the option to participate in extracurriculars as they have in years past.
In my book Get Real and Get In, I highlight students who have doubled down on their strengths and ‘wowed’ admissions committees by being themselves. There are plenty of ways students can get creative and showcase their talents and hard work. I’ve had clients write books, conduct sophisticated research, and found national and global organizations. Colleges want to see applicants with the internal drive and resilience to lead something bigger than themselves. Stories of adaptability, ingenuity, and community-mindedness will undoubtedly impress in the pandemic era.
Trend 2: Standardized tests will be “optional but preferred”
The list of top-tier universities which have de-emphasized test scores has grown to over 900 as of this writing. Yet this does not mean a more level playing field for all students. Unfortunately, universities in which an SAT or ACT score is optional tend to accept students with test scores more frequently than they do those students without. For example, at the University of Pennsylvania, 75% of students admitted in the early round submitted standardized test scores, whereas only 25 percent did not.
This trend causes some to question: what does ‘test-optional’ really mean if, all other factors being equal, universities more frequently choose the student with test scores? Critics claim that an “optional but preferred” testing policy pays lip service to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion—while continuing to advantage students who have the means to prepare for and take standardized tests.
Trend 3: More students will continue to apply to early admission programs
In the fall of 2020, early admission applications to Penn rose by 23%. MIT saw an unprecedented 62% increase in early applications from the fall of 2019 to 2020. Harvard has seen an increase of 57% from last year. This dramatic increase in early applicants among highly competitive schools may be explained by the fact that many of these schools, including all of the Ivies, no longer require SAT and ACT scores. Another factor: in years past (before the pandemic), students who applied early were more likely to gain acceptance—though the rate of early acceptance is decreasing at elite institutions due to the sheer volume of applicants. For instance, Harvard accepted about 7% of its early applicants in the fall of 2020, as opposed to nearly 14% of its early applicants in 2019. With travel plans curbed and high school seniors choosing to connect virtually with universities, I predict that students will continue applying in high numbers to highly selective colleges which they may not have considered pre-pandemic.
Trend 4: The return of international students to campus
With the advent of the Biden administration, I predict we will see more international students back on campuses. The Trump administration proposed legislation that would limit international student visas to four years (and in the case of some countries, two years). This was in opposition to the long-standing practice of allowing students to stay in the US as long as they are in school and progressing in their studies. Trump’s policies resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of international student visas issued, from more than 600,000 in 2015 to 364,204 in 2019.
In a pre-election poll conducted by the Graduate Management Association Council, international candidates indicated that they would be more likely to matriculate in the U.S. if Biden became president. Under the new administration, federal agencies will likely work hard to facilitate international students’ higher education. I believe we will see a significant increase in international scholars, even if some Covid-19 restrictions remain in place across college campuses.
Trend 5: More students taking a gap year before college
The Covid-19 pandemic caused many students to consider a non-traditional start to college. The number of students who chose to take a gap year rose significantly in the fall of 2020. The class of 2021 may choose a similar path and defer their college admission in order to explore non-academic interests. I predict that many students who choose a gap year will involve themselves in civic action.
The activism and organizing efforts of Gen Z, born in the late ‘90s, are well documented and have been compared to the youth movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Members of Gen Z—which include current high school seniors—report being highly concerned about the environment, racism, discrimination against the LGBTQ community, economic inequality, and many other issues. Given the unrest in 2020 in regards to racism and pandemic inequalities, there will be a strong pull for future college students to go out and make a difference in their communities. This will especially be true if Covid-era restrictions remain in place this fall.