In 2018, trends in college admissions can be boiled down to a single point: increased unpredictability, both for students and colleges. As the number of applicants continues to increase each year, students have a harder time predicting which colleges they will be accepted to, and colleges have a harder time predicting which students will choose to attend their campus.
Yield rate, the number of accepted students who actually enroll at a college, is extremely important — it’s what allows a college to plan for their budget, departmental resources, and other things. If too many students enroll, the college risks not having enough space in residence halls and classrooms. This happened to UC Irvine last year, which caused them to rescind 500 admissions offers, ostensibly because students didn’t submit documents on time or received lower senior year grades. While many of these students appealed and were reinstated, colleges will be especially stringent about requirements if they’re overenrolled, and in some cases, resort to desperate attempts to cap enrollment.
To prevent this from happening, colleges are using their waitlist more. It’s safer for a college to accept fewer students upfront and later pull from the waitlist to bring their enrollment numbers up to capacity. This also allows colleges to further refine and diversify their freshman class and make sure that every department has enough students. Of course, this also means more uncertainty for students. Chances are still slim to be taken off a waitlist, as the applicant pool continues to increase.
So what should students do? Below are three solutions to the increased unpredictability in college admissions:
Diversify Your College List
Your college list should include a variety of schools, including different geographic locations, acceptance rates, large and small, public and private, liberal arts and national universities. One reason we keep seeing admissions rates decrease is that more and more students keep applying to the same set of schools. California students don’t seem to want to leave California, and if they do, they often limit themselves to urban areas on the East or West Coast. Sound familiar? What these students don’t realize is that there are amazing towns and cities all over the country, rich with culture and opportunities, and colleges there are vying for more California students on their campuses. When we talk about college fit, we don’t mean passively sticking with what’s familiar, but branching out in a way that helps you grow. College is meant to be a time to broaden your perspective and experience new challenges, and attending college in a new part of the country is wonderful way to enhance your educational experience.
If out-of-state tuition is holding you back, consider schools that are part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). These schools offer reduced tuition to students in nearby states, so they’re an excellent affordable option. In addition, many small private schools, if they are target or safety schools, offer merit aid to incoming freshman to attract them to their campuses. This offsets the sticker price of tuition, bringing it closer to the price of an in-state public college.
So don’t just think about the obvious college choices! Even if you think you know what you’re looking for, give yourself the option to try something different. I once worked with a student who thought for sure she wanted to attend a UC; but she was also accepted to Whitman College, a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, WA with a focus on experiential learning. She not only fell in love with the charming college town, but also Whitman’s unique Studies in the West program, where students conduct environmental field studies and meet leaders of conservation efforts. As an aspiring environmental lawyer, she felt right at home at Whitman. You never know what might attract you to a particular college, and by giving yourself a variety of options, you’ll also give yourself more chances to be accepted.
There are several advantages of applying early: getting work done upfront, which makes the rest of college applications much easier; receiving early admissions notifications, which can relieve stress if you have an early acceptance; and benefiting from increased admissions rates. That’s right—admissions rates tend to be higher for early applications as compared to regular deadlines. The reason for this is twofold.
For one, students applying early are typically the strongest applicants; they are well prepared and their GPA and test scores are high enough that they don’t need the extra semester to show improvement. This is the cream of the crop of applicants, so it’s no wonder more students from this pool get accepted.
The second reason early applications benefit from higher admissions statistics is that by applying early, students are demonstrating their interest in the college. Ah, there it is: demonstrated interest. An admissions trends article would be incomplete without the mention of demonstrated interest. Demonstrated interest can come in many forms: participating in campus tours, attending local college fairs and events, signing up for their email newsletters (and opening emails—yes, they track this), contacting your local admissions representative, or writing a compelling Why Us essay. Every point of contact you have with a college is noted in order to gauge how much you’re really into them and how likely you are to attend their campus if you’re accepted. In an increasingly unpredictable college admissions landscape, the ability to predict yield is increasingly important.
Applying early to a college is one way to show that you’re interested in their college. Early Decision (which is binding, meaning if you are accepted you commit to enroll), clearly tells a college they’re your first choice, because you’re willing to forego having any other options if you’re accepted to that college. If you have a first choice college, a college you would be absolutely thrilled to attend above all others, you should consider applying Early Decision to show your commitment. Applying ED will give you an advantage if your profile is strong enough to compete at a particular school.
Also be aware of Early Decision II, a second chance at the binding agreement with a later deadline, usually in January. If you don’t get into your first choice college through ED in November, you can apply to another college with ED II. A student we worked with in the past did exactly that — when she didn’t get into Pomona with the first ED round, she applied ED II to U Chicago and was accepted. This gives students a chance to apply to a higher reach school for the first ED round if there’s an ED II school they feel strongly about.
As for Early Action, the non-binding early option, this doesn’t give the same advantage as ED or ED II, but it does show a higher level of interest than applying Regular Decision, because of all the colleges on your college list, you will likely only end up applying early to a few.
Bottom line: take advantage of applying early!
With larger applicant pools every year, “soft” factors like extracurriculars, essays, and personality (as opposed to hard factors like your GPA and test scores) continue to be increasingly significant. Colleges want a dynamic student body, which is why they want students who actively pursue their interests and goals. But even more than this, they’re looking for depth—for students who have taken their interests as far as possible.
Students with clear passions not only demonstrate a high level of engagement, they also stand out more. Compared to a well-rounded resume, one with a well-defined focus tells a more coherent story about the student and therefore makes a stronger impression. One of our previous students, a Caltech and Harvard admit, was a finalist in a top-level competition for computer science, which landed him an internship at a tech company. After that, he participated in a prestigious research program where he used machine learning to track agricultural data. Ultimately, he started his own nonprofit to teach coding to kids from lower-income families in his area. By diving deeply into his main interest, he opened doors for more prestigious opportunities later on. His resume alone, over half of which contained activities related to computer science, made it clear what his main interest was and how it developed over time.
Your extracurriculars tell a story about how you took charge of your interests, which shows colleges that you will be active and engaged on campus. While it’s possible you may change your major or your interests, they know you’ll still be the kind of student who loves to dive into whatever you’re interested in and get involved in whatever community you’re a part of.
This means you should strive to develop a clear focus, rather than dabbling in multiple things. Pursue meaningful activities that truly motivate you. Of the students I’ve worked with, the ones with clear passions and unique interests receive the best college results—the acrobatic gymnast, the poet, the chemist. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing, but join that niche club or start that quirky hobby. Instead of striving to be well rounded in a lot of different things, choose one or two main areas into which you want to go in depth. This will ensure that you are truly motivated to go above and beyond in that interest, and will give you authentic material to write about in your college essays.
Above all, don’t despair! Remember that colleges want you. The majority of colleges in the US accept more than 80% of their applicants. If you remain open to the many opportunities that exist in a variety of campus settings, and you accurately and sincerely represent yourself on your applications, you will have good college options.