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What Colleges Look For

The College Admissions Stories of 2020

Picture of Casey Near
By Casey Near on December, 30 2020 | 5 minute read

After what's been a doozy of a year, I decided to focus this final post of 2020 on establishing a narrative -- as best I could -- for the year that was, and a little bit of the year that will be. It can be hard connecting the dots with so much swirling, but since we’re knee-deep in the land of higher education at Collegewise, I thought I’d relay what I’m seeing, what happened this year (well, as best anyone can explain it), and where I sense the tide is turning.

As always, I hope this brings some solace and clarity and reminds you that focusing on what you (as a student, counselor, guardian, or parent) can control is the best path forward.

With that, here's what we learned -- and were reminded of – in 2020 in the land of college admission:

Humans run colleges.

This may seem obvious, but there's perhaps nothing more worth stating directly to students who feel anxious right now. In the wake of this year, I’ve seen great humanity at play. From colleges extending deadlines to give students time to enjoy the holidays and admissions readers a rest to colleges waiving requirements to colleges just reminding us they're living through this too, college admission officers power college admission offices.

Colleges adapted.

This was truest and clearest in the form of becoming test optional. For some colleges, with the wave of the first standardized testing cancellations in May and June, it took only days to make this decision; for others, months. But the vast majority of American colleges (with the notable exception of Florida's public university system) went test optional this year. Hundreds had already made permanent commitments to waiving testing requirements before the pandemic, and hundreds more made commitments beyond this year (for a history of the test-optional movement, more here, and a timeline of colleges' decisions here).

Test optional means test optional.

Many students and families understandably panicked about how colleges would read files without a test score. And while some non-holistic schools read in a more numbers-focused way (usually larger state institutions), most selective institutions in the US incorporate multiple factors into reading a file -- your letters of recommendation, the rigor of your coursework, and the way you contribute to your community and world around you. Time and again this cycle, they reiterated that they mean it when they say: optional means optional (and for more on that, an overview here).

Solutions remain local.

There's a common saying in education these days -- we're in the same storm, but we're all in different boats. What's happened in one district, let alone within someone's home or family, is different from another. But, we do know that students are always read in the context of their school environment. Most colleges require a school profile, which traditionally includes things like the school's curriculum and the percentage of college-bound students. And this year (and likely for years to come), it will consist of what happened in 2020: did your school transition to credit/no-credit grades, was it all remote or hybrid, and how did coursework adjust.

And, here's what I think will happen:

Colleges will likely remain test optional for the Class of 2022.

If securing a test remains difficult into the spring, colleges will likely have to stay test optional for this year's junior class. Hundreds had already been test optional permanently (Bowdoin, U Chicago, Indiana U), and others made a decision this year to become so as a three-year or longer pilot (Tufts, Colgate, the UC system). But, for the rest, they will need to make a decision come spring. And based on bad press, public pressure, and low application numbers that Florida's public universities received because of their decision not to go test optional, many will feel the pressure to remain so.

Colleges will stay open-minded & aware.

Based on how this year has evolved, it's clear that juniors will not have the same letters of recommendation from this year as they would have in the past. All students won't have the same activities, nor the same energy, frankly. This year has exhausted and befuddled most of us. Colleges know this. But, given that…

Colleges will expect students to remain open-minded & self-aware, too.

This year has impacted students differently. Students should be aware of what challenges are unique to them and which ones are felt by everyone in their ZIP code or school. Know that what's happening to your student is likely happening to a lot of other students. Activities will look different for everyone. The way classes are taught is constantly in flux. Students can't make a sports season suddenly happen, or remote classes go in-person. But colleges will always celebrate the kid who is focused on what they can control (themselves) and says, "well, how can I make this better?" It's what we often talk about when we say, "be a good student citizen." This year that might be the student who writes a thank you note to that teacher who went the extra mile to help from a distance or started cooking some dinners at home to share more in chores. And yes, all of those things show up on eventual applications (whether it's shared in a letter of recommendation or a list of activities).

With that, here’s to a healthy, joyful 2021!


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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