REFLECTIONS on 2021: What we learned about students and college admissions

When 2021 came to a close, we took some time to have some deep discussion and crunch some numbers to see what information we can glean from the unprecedented 2021 Admissions Cycle. Some learnings are a continuation of what we have been seeing in our 12 years working with students and other observations are new. College counseling is not a static endeavor, we at College Calm believe it is essential to continue to evolve to meet the needs of students. We spend a great deal of time at College Calm thinking about how we can better meet the needs of students and families and 2021 has given us a great deal to ponder. Below are the five things we hope families can think about as we approach the new college application season. 

For the Early Action Cycle, the merit aid was incredibly strong for our students. 

We teach our students how to thoughtfully research colleges and think about all kids of fit including academic, social, and financial. Finding good-fit colleges and creating a balanced list often leads to offers of merit aid. As of January 1st, our class of 2022 has collectively received over 120 acceptances and earned over $2.2 million dollars in merit aid. From the beginning, we do exercises with students that help them determine their college values and priorities. From the College Calm College Values Sort game to fine-tuned organizational tools to capture college information, our students work through the process in an efficient and effective way.  

Distance learning is making it even harder for students to manage their time and thoughtfully and thoroughly complete tasks. 

Digital, emotional and physical fatigue is real for teens and we see it every day in our practice. Even before distance learning, the tools that are supposed to help students keep track of their appointment are actually making it harder for students to break down larger assignments and manage their time to allow for focused and intentional work. In our work, we see so many students completing assignments at 11:30 pm the night before. We know this last-minute approach does not create the most thoughtful work and is often not the best use of time. This is not something new, this has been happening over the years, but this year students really struggled to sustain focus and make meaningful progress. As a response to what we are seeing, we created an intensive workshop series and we are encouraging both our current and new students to attend our workshops to kickstart the big parts of the process in large blocks of time. Many of our students attended our College List Building Workshops in January and they are making great progress. The next one (the most important one for our package students) is Activities and Majors on 2/27 @ 9 am. If you would like to attend, please fill out this google form. 

Students applied to more schools and the ED acceptance numbers decreased significantly. 

The national numbers on acceptance rates for Early Decision at the most selective schools are pretty depressing. Test-optional policies continue to increase applications as students who did not perform well on tests still applied to the most selective schools. No schools felt totally out of range, so many students decided to apply to many highly selective schools. In our community, affluent families felt immense pressure to choose an Early Decision school. We believe we will continue to see an increase in applications. However, what colleges are looking for has not changed. They want students who demonstrate intellectual curiosity, initiative, and introspection, which we talk more about on our blog. 

Standardized testing was confusing and complicated.

This year testing options were clearer and fewer tests were canceled but testing remains complicated. We had a mix of students submit scores and not submit scores and when we get all of our data on acceptances, we will be looking for patterns. We work individually with students in our program to determine the best course of action regarding testing. Testing is always an opportunity to show a strength, but this is not a place where we can give a one-size-fits-all solution. It depends on your profile, college list, and goals. We are still recommending students take either the SAT or ACT, but if your scores or practice tests are not on par with your grades, we want to have a conversation and think about testing holistically. 

College essay questions are moving towards topics of social justice, inclusion, service, and contribution. 

College campuses are looking for students who will be involved on campus. Many have over 200 student organizations that need participants and leaders. Students who want to gain admissions at a highly competitive school will need to take initiative with the resources available to them and find a way to stand out. This year colleges were very interested in how students pivoted during and “after” the pandemic to meet the needs of their community. Don’t think grand here, this is more about thoughtfulness and initiative than it is about the final product. Did you spend time thinking about others or ways to use your strengths to help another person? The students who rocked their applications had activities and experiences with social justice, inclusion, and community engagement. 

As we ride into the unknown (or whatever is next), we are very proud of our students. We will continue to offer a range of services to meet the needs of all kinds of students. We have limited openings for the full program for the class of 2024, a few part-time options for the class of 2023 (including essay support), and updated 2024 workshops (coming this summer). Don’t worry, we’ve got this!