Across the country, high school seniors are making the choice of a lifetime, as colleges send out their admissions and rejections and the May 1 decision date approaches. The process has been much more chaotic than usual this year: From virtual campus tours to the elimination of standardized testing to universities in financial crisis, the college admissions world has been transformed by COVID. I talked to Emily Selden, a Des Moines, Iowa, admissions consultant, about the end of an application season to remember. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Slate: Why has this school year been totally insane in the college admissions world?
Emily Selden: OK, that could be a seven-hour conversation. When the class of 2021 was applying, November through January, that was a time when we particularly didn’t really know what the world was going to look like. There were no guarantees being made by colleges. A lot of these students were unable to visit in person. So they were making decisions without a lot of the information that students typically have. That led to students applying to more schools than they would have in another year.
Why were they applying to more schools?
One, maybe students who were certain they wanted to go far away now felt more comfortable also having some choices that were closer to home. But also, a lot of colleges and universities became test-optional because taking the ACT or SAT became an impossibility for so many students. So that also created this sense for a lot of students that, Oh, well, now that they don’t need tests, maybe I should give it a shot.
What’s an example of a school that a student like that might consider that maybe wouldn’t have been on their radar before?
The Ivies, Stanford—the ones I always refer to as universally unlikely for students. Where you can be “perfect” from an application standpoint, but if you’re sitting across from me I still can’t say you’re definitely getting into Stanford or Harvard.
Unless you’re Jared Kushner.
I wouldn’t have even said it out loud about Jared Kushner. So for those schools, students are like, Well, I might as well just drop in a Stanford, because why not?
So you’ve got more kids applying to more schools. What kind of chaos does that create?
First of all, back in the fall and early winter, those students were doing way more work than they typically would. Adding a highly selective college … the amount of work and time that goes into completing those applications is often shocking to families. But I also think students felt, Well, I have the time, right? What else am I going to do?
“This year my extracurricular is applying to colleges.”
“The musical isn’t happening, so I might as well write some more essays.” And now it’s the spring and maybe you added those schools without doing much research about whether or not it’s actually a fit for you. And that means the students probably got a lot more denies than they would have if they had had a better-researched college list.
So students are getting more rejections this year?
Acceptance rates went down substantially across the board this year, but it’s really a reflection of more applicants as opposed to a change in the quality of student. Duke’s acceptance rate went down from 6 percent to 4 percent. That’s bonkers.
Is there any evidence that schools are accepting fewer people because all those people who anecdotally deferred last year created a shortage of spots?
I think you’re right to say anecdotally, because colleges are generally not that transparent about that number. I did just get an email from Yale noting that about 300 students took a gap year and are returning next year, but the school went ahead and decided to offer admission to the same number of kids as usual. They had 47,000 applicants this year, compared to 35,000 the year before.
There are the highly selective colleges that have large endowments and that saw a real rise in applications. But then there are the bulk of schools that took a major financial hit this year, and right now some schools are hanging on by their teeth. They lost tuition revenue, they lost room and board revenue this past year, they’re struggling. And they are certainly interested in making sure that they have a full class this year, no matter what. So I think we’ll see more activity on waitlists than we usually do as schools are especially concerned about making sure that they can completely fill a class. And that creates more chaos for families.
Did every single one of the kids you consulted this year write an essay about the pandemic?
No, they didn’t, because they worked with me! It was a good move for the Common App to add an optional space for students to write about the pandemic and how it affected them.
That’s a way of getting kids to not make their whole essay about the pandemic.
There certainly were students who needed that space to explain the situation. I worked with one student who had to move from living with one parent in rural Canada to living with her other parent in Florida, just because of internet connectivity. So for students who needed that space, it was excellent. There were plenty of students who needed to be talked out of their deep desire to use that space to explain how COVID had affected them. For some of them, I encourage them to go ahead and write it. And I think just doing that made them feel better. But you don’t necessarily need to submit it to schools.
One thing that was hard for all of us about the pandemic is our worlds became very small. And I think for a lot of students—and adults!—it became hard to see outside your bubble. I really encouraged students to think about how unusual the way they were impacted by COVID was. You had to do school from home and your activities were canceled and you didn’t get to see your grandparents—I mean, that sucked for all of us and I’m not taking away the suckiness for you, but you have to think more broadly.
Right. And from a purely mercenary standpoint, will that make your essay stand out?
Think about those admissions officers. They read an essay about someone whose parents were first responders in a hospital and had to sleep in the garage for 10 months. And then they read your essay about your senior football season. In what way do you want to be perceived?
As the parent of a high schooler, I’m so curious whether you are already seeing schools look at this year as a punt. Do you think schools are basically going to be like, you know what, we’re not even looking at high school grades from 2020–21?
Colleges always will work hard to understand the context of a high school record. And the good news is everybody knows the context of this past year.
Boy, we all experienced the context.