Fish Early And Explore Smaller Pools

The rivers throughout the West are desperately low this summer due to extreme drought. Consequently, the wise and skittish fish are holding up in inconspicuous depressions, under logs, and along the bank’s edges where there are insects and shade. These areas do not hold a lot of fish; anglers have to tread stealthily and lay down a very gentle line to avoid spooking them.

I wish the college application pools were this individualized and nuanced, but one phenomenon we witnessed from last year’s “crazier than ever” Covid application cycle was that the more selective colleges – those that typically reject 75% to 95% of their applicants – were teeming with wide-eyed and hopeful senior applicants. The application pools at these colleges were spilling their banks on the demand side of the admission equation, witnessing a national surge by 17%. With more than ample applications, both sides would agree it was “the most chaotic selection experiment in American higher education since the end of World War II” (WSJ, 3.16.2021). And in large part we know why.

With the inability of seniors to access closed SAT and ACT testing sites due to the pandemic, 1600 colleges and universities (roughly 600 more than the year prior) were test optional for the pending Class of 2025. Applications from unfettered aspiring seniors, a significant percentage of whom would not have applied based on their test scores, poured into already ridiculously deep and competitive pools. “Unburdened from having to submit test scores, Harvard University received more than 57,000 freshman applications, a 42% year-over-year jump. USC’s application pool beat the prior record by 7%. And NYU topped 100,000 applications, up 17% from last year (WSJ, 3.16.2021).” As a result, acceptance rates continued to drop at the most selective colleges and universities generating even more unpredictability, uncertainty, and  anxiety for high school seniors. Given these conditions, how should seniors approach these increasingly competitive pools? I have two recommendations for your consideration.

One, fish “early action” (EA) when you can. Early Action is a non-binding application window that allows seniors who feel they are ready to have admission offices assess their academic profile, extracurricular activities, essays and teacher recommendations by November 1st do so. Not all colleges and universities have an EA option (versus Early Decision which is a binding, contractual application), but for the ones that do, it offers seniors an “early read” and likely one in a bit smaller and more personalized applicant pool before other aspiring applicants climb the ladder into the highly concentrated “fish farm” pool of regular decision.

Two, in putting together one’s college list that covers the spectrum on the selectivity index (statistical reaches, possibles, and probables) try to include some smaller applicant pools. Some of the most selective programs like Pomona, Haverford, and Bowdoin generate 6,000 to 10,000 applicants compared to others like Boston University, Tufts, Northwestern, and USC that generate 30,000 or more. This does not mean that colleges with smaller pools are easier to get into percentage wise, but given the lower numbers your application will be reviewed in a context where you may shine a bit more. Thus, vary the size of your applicant pools.

With roughly 1400 schools (to date) continuing their test optional policies, 2021-2022 will be another exceptionally competitive admission cycle, but fishing early (action) and finding smaller pools may help improve your odds of landing an acceptance at one of your choices. Be a wise consumer.