Two Truths About College Admissions in 2021

By Ashley McCarrick

Amidst the constant change, unimaginable hardship, and incredible resilience of 2020, the college admissions process changed in ways we couldn’t have expected. In our next two blogs, we will discuss the fundamental changes we experienced, what we learned, and what students can do to be successful in the current environment.

To keep yourself from curling into the fetal position, you must understand two underlying truths.

Truth #1 – More students than ever feel uncertain and anxious about the future.

Although the statement initially sounds dire, consider this spin: You are not alone. Students and families across the country are experiencing the same circumstances and feelings that you are. There’s something comforting about navigating this process as part of a community.

I didn’t need research to understand this truth—you can almost feel the stress seeping out of the students and parents I meet. With almost weekly changes to testing, college admissions requirements, and their high school experience, confusion leads to worry. That doesn’t even take the life-altering changes due to COVID-19 into account.

The result in college admissions is that students are changing how they apply, where they apply, and even when they apply to college. According to a survey by EAB, students are applying to more colleges and waiting longer to hit submit. Students also included more in-state colleges to avoid complicated travel to college campuses and to alleviate fears of paying $45,000 per year for online classes at a private college.

Tips for families:

Acknowledge the uncertainty.

You can’t control what is happening behind closed doors at college admissions offices, your school district, or the local health department. The sooner you embrace this idea, the better.

Create a college list that gives you options.

Find colleges that meet your needs with a range of price points, locations, and selectivity. Doing your research is more important than ever.

Truth #2 – Colleges are uncertain and anxious too.

Colleges are facing a different kind of uncertainty, mainly around enrollment. Will students return to campus? How will COVID-19 affect the number of applications the college receives? With students applying to more colleges, what yield can the college expect? College enrollment managers have bitten their fingernails until there’s nothing left.

Even before the pandemic, many colleges were facing financial difficulties. According to the Hechinger Report’s Colleges in Crisis series, more than 500 colleges showed financial warning signs, ranging from declining enrollment to rising costs, at the beginning of 2020. The pandemic only intensified the problems.

Some colleges are responding by relying on Early Decision to guarantee a certain number of attendees. Since many of these students will not qualify for need-based financial aid, the college is hoping for committed students willing to pay the price.

Other colleges were encouraged by an increase in applications but may be surprised by a decrease in the college’s yield, the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll. It’s a bet some colleges are willing to take, but only time will tell if it pays off.

Colleges got creative this year, using extended application deadlines and unconventional acceptance offers. Georgia Tech offered some applicants guaranteed transfer admission in the fall of 2022, while others offered acceptance if the student agreed to live off campus or start in the summer. Colleges are trying to keep their options open, like asking three girls to prom in hopes of getting one date.

Tips for families:

Research the college’s financial health.

Check the bond rating, enrollment statistics, and recent news articles about the college for red flags.

Compare the college’s acceptance rates for Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision.

Before you apply, know how much of an advantage Early Decision might give you. Be sure to read the fine print though!

Next Steps

Now that you understand the current college admissions environment, read our next blog to learn about the biggest mistakes we saw students make this year and how you can avoid them.

If  you need help applying to college, our college counseling team can guide you through the entire admissions process. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you.

Ashley McCarrick has helped students reach their college goals since 2004 and is the Vice President of Client Development for KD College Prep. As a lead member of the College Counseling team, Ashley develops and presents educational programs about the college admissions process and provides individual guidance to parents and students as a college counselor. Ashley is a member of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, Lewisville ISD Advisory Council, and a frequent contributor to the KD College Prep blog.


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