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How Changes To The College Application Process Are Making It More Difficult For Students

BOSTON (CBS) -- Colleges are seeing a record number of applicants this year and the process has become more stressful than ever for students. Education Consultant Cathy Costa explains that there are a number of reasons for the uptick in competition.

Common Application

A change in recent years is that many colleges accept the same application - the Common Application - with some school-specific additions. "Obviously, the Common Application, being an online application that is easy to send to multiple schools, has caused proliferation of applications from each individual applicant over the years," Costa said. "People are just applying to more schools."

'Test Optional'

"In addition, the pandemic has changed the game in the sense that many schools are test optional so kids are feeling empowered to apply to schools that previously they might not have felt they were a good match for, or they were likely to get into," said Costa.

Grade Inflation

"The other thing that the pandemic has done is create a lot of grade inflation. The schools were kinder to kids and gave a lot of As out and so there are a lot of kids with very high GPAs. With the absence of tests scores they feel like they are a match for schools that perhaps they aren't really likely to get into."

'Demonstrated Interest'

"One of the things that just seems like a stronger influence is the importance of demonstrated interest. This is when a student interacts with a school to show them that they're interested in coming there. At its strongest, it's applying early decision and saying 'you're my favorite school.' It also includes visiting colleges, interacting with them through virtual tours, which is a new thing that became much more available during the pandemic," explained Costa. "With all these applications coming in, many schools are looking at who has interacted with me and looks like a real serious candidate versus who looks like they just threw in an application.

And who do you think is more likely to get in? The person who has demonstrated interest. More and more schools are behaving this way. They are wait-listing high stats applicants who previously look like they should have gotten in but if they didn't interact, the school doesn't take them seriously."

Schools are looking to protect their yield, Costa said, which is the percentage of students that actually come to the schools after being accepted. Schools feel like the more a person interacts with them, the more likely they are to yield.

Deferring and Waitlisting

"It is dispiriting, schools that have previously been very reliable - I don't call them safeties; I call them schools where you're in the upper percentage of applicants statistically - they're not as reliable this year. Some of them are waitlisting, which they've never done, or deferring early action applicants in particular, and they've never done that in large numbers before," said Costa.

"We speculate about why that is: Are they getting more applications and they can't handle them? Is it that they're not taking these applicants seriously and they want to wait until regular decision and compare them to other applicants? It's hard to know."

Changing Priorities

"The other factor is that schools have these institutional priorities which means they hear from their board what kind of students they want coming in to that school. Colleges are trying really hard to look like our society and become more diverse and be more welcoming to all different kinds of kids. So they change their behaviors from year to year in the sense that maybe they're looking for more first generation kids this year or more kids who are Pell-eligible applicants, and what that does is it changes their behavior from year to year so it's harder to predict," said Costa.

"I really encourage kids to open their hearts to all the schools that they apply to. I think sometimes they get fixated on a particular schools and its easy to take it personally if you don't get in. Sadly. many of these decisions are not personal. They are wrapped up in institutional priorities and other things that kids can't control. So I really encourage them to open their hearts, go to accepted students days at all of their schools and compare the reality of the school versus the marketing and the perceptions that they've heard from other people and compare it to their honest goal."

Costa recommends students find something they are genuinely interested in and that interest will come across in applications.

"Students really have the power to get engaged in things that really interest them and show intellectual curiosity, initiative, all of those characteristics that colleges are looking for in their applicants. Students have the power to show that, even during the pandemic," she said.


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