Many high school seniors looking to attend the most competitive U.S. colleges are about to have their hearts broken after an already difficult year.
Students on average applied to 9% more colleges as of March 1 compared with last year, according to data from the Common Application, a nonprofit that lets individuals apply to multiple schools.
Colleges have already begun informing students about their decisions for the fall semester. The eight Ivy League schools are expected to do so on Tuesday, later than usual because of the deluge of applications. Harvard, for example, saw a 42% increase from 2020.
“It’s been a hard year, and so many more kids applied,” said Jed Applerouth, who runs Atlanta-based Applerouth Co., a test-prep and tutoring firm. “When the schools on your list are only taking a small number, you have to apply to more schools.”
Once again, the pandemic has upended the college-admissions cycle.
In 2020, high school seniors made decisions without visiting campuses after being accepted, and some delayed their start by taking gap years. This year, they had limited options for in-person campus tours, and with schools scrapping standardized-test requirements, they found a lot of extra time to submit more applications. Plus, they had nothing to lose by throwing in more applications to schools not asking to see their SAT or ACT scores.
But just because applications are up doesn’t mean college admissions offices won’t struggle to fill classes because of the increased competition.
“The chances of a college getting a student go down because they’ve applied to more schools,” said Common App Chief Executive Officer Jenny Rickard, a former associate dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. “It becomes anybody’s guess what percentage of students are going to enroll.”
The past year has been a trying one for high school seniors and their parents. As juniors last spring, just when they were about to begin visiting colleges and compiling their wish lists, they were forced to finish the school year alone in their bedrooms.
“He did eight different virtual tours and they kind of all looked the same,” Renee Mahan said of her son, Sean. His public high school in San Francisco still hasn’t resumed in-person classes and he wasn’t able to take the SAT.
Colleges had more applications to sift through, often with fewer data points, such as standardized-test scores coupled with pass-fail grades.
Sean Mahan, who has top grades and is part of a model railroad club, wasn’t accepted to the University of California-Los Angeles, which set a record for applications at almost 140,000, a 28% increase from last year. But he learned last week that he won a seat at the prestigious Berkeley campus, alleviating a great deal of uncertainty. He’s still waiting to hear back from a few other California schools, including Stanford University.
“It’s been nothing like we expected at all,” Sean’s mother said. “Covid really changed the world for him.”
The cycle will continue into the summer as schools, uncertain about who will accept invitations, begin reaching out to students on wait lists.
Nori Leybengrub, passed over for early acceptance to her top choice, the University of Pennsylvania, is weighing offers from several other schools, including Temple University, the University of Maryland, Lehigh University and George Washington University.
Leybengrub, 17, a figure skater who tutors middle- and elementary-school students in Baltimore, is hoping to wind up at Northwestern University, where she’s currently wait-listed.
Her classmate, Lilah Lichtman, is looking forward to the year being over.
She agonized about whether to take the SAT in the fall, but decided not to because schools that interested her weren’t requiring the tests and she didn’t want to risk her health or her family’s.
“It wasn’t worth it,” said Lichtman, 18, who writes for her school newspaper and plays on the tennis team.
She ended up applying to 11 schools and didn’t get in early to her first choice.
Lichtman visited just one campus before the pandemic — Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her mother, an alumna, had talked glowingly about the school for years. She liked its small size and media studies program and the fact that it doesn’t offer fraternities and sororities.
She applied in a second round of binding early decision and learned in late January that she had been accepted.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to go in the fall,” Lichtman said. “Fingers crossed that things can be semi-normal.
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