How COVID-19 Disrupts the College Search

Published by Wendy Nelson on

How COVID-19 disrupts the college search for the high school class of 2021 is only partially understood at this point. There is a lot of speculation, based on what is happening with college admissions for high school Seniors in the class of 2020.

I recently did a Facebook Live about Adapting the College Search for the class of 2021 in my Upside Down College Search Facebook group. (If you join the group, you can check out the recording.)

I addressed a number of “things that are keeping you up at night” when it comes to the college search process for your class of 2021 student. I will cover these points in a series of blog posts, starting here.

Things that keep you up at night #1 – This year’s Seniors are going to defer admissions and steal competitive spots from the Class of 2021

Lack of Admissions Spots

Many families are concerned about lack of admissions spots for the class of 2021 due to class of 2020 students deferring admissions because they don’t want to start college online or deal with the uncertainties around the Fall semester.

The potential for a large number of 2021 admissions spots to be taken by 2020 students mostly applies to the most competitive colleges, like Ivy League and other “top 50” schools. It applies to the colleges with the lowest admission rates, generally where less than 30% of applicants are admitted.

If this is the type of schools your student is planning to apply to, then this is a genuine concern.

For colleges that are less competitive, enrollment has been dropping year over year for several years. A large number of colleges have still had admission spots available after the May 1 decision date for several years now. For these schools, it is unlikely that students waiting a year to start college will have much of an impact on admissions.

Let’s look at this by different types of colleges:

Regional Private Colleges and Non-Flagship Public Colleges – The chance of lack of admissions spots for the class of 2021 is pretty small. These colleges typically have a lot of spots still open after the May 1 deadline and/or accept most of their applicants.

Flagship Public Universities –  It will depend on whether they admit by major and what major your student is applying for. If it is a highly competitive engineering program, for example, then lack of admissions spots will be a genuine concern. If it is a major that admits most or all applicants, then it shouldn’t matter much if there are more applicants than usual.

Nationally-Known Private Colleges – The need for concern about lack of admissions spots will vary. It depends on the usual acceptance rate. The lower the acceptance rate, the more it will hurt class of 2021 chances if this year’s high school Seniors take a year off before starting college.

Tips to Calm Your Worries About Lack of Admissions Spots

  1. Apply to more schools – Have your student increase their applications, especially if they are applying to the more competitive colleges I talked about above. Just keep an eye on application fees because those can really add up.
  2. Stay away from “reach” schools – For most students, “reach” schools are the ones that have the lowest acceptance rates. A “reach” is usually measured by ACT or SAT score. If your student falls below the school’s mid-50% ACT or SAT range, it could be a stretch to gain admission. You can also look at the school’s median GPA. If your student’s GPA is below the median by .25 or more, that may be a reach. Also look at other factors that applicants are judged on. These could be number of AP courses, strength of extracurricular activities, class rank or other factors. Anytime your student falls below the norms for admission, this could indicate it would be a reach to get admitted.
  3. Research acceptance rates – If you haven’t already done this as part of your student’s college search, you or your student should research the acceptance rates for any colleges they are interested in. This can be done through college search websites like
  4. Shoot for early acceptance deadlines – There are two types of early deadlines, Early Acceptance and Early Decision. We are talking about Early Acceptance here and we will talk about Early Decision below. Early Acceptance means that your student applies to the school in an earlier round than the regular acceptance deadline and hears the school’s decision sooner. There could be three outcomes from an Early Acceptance application – acceptance, denial or deferral to the regular admissions pool. If the student gets deferred, their application will be judged against all of the other regular acceptance applicants. Often, a school will admit a larger proportion of applicants in the Early Acceptance round than in the regular acceptance round. This is one of the biggest reasons to apply Early Acceptance. Also, having the possibility of getting deferred rather than a straight decline could give your student a greater chance for admission.
  5. At schools with rolling admission, apply as early as possible – Rolling admissions schools will keep accepting students until their class is full, therefore it is advantageous to apply early. In the climate of recent years, the class may never get full. However, applying earlier and getting what might be that first acceptance will give peace of mind.
  6. If money is not an object, consider an Early Decision application at top choice school – I talked about Early Acceptance above. Early Decision is different because it is a binding decision. A student is only allowed to apply to one school Early Decision and this should be their “top” school because if the school grants admission, the student must withdraw all other applications and commit to this school. The student is committing before finding out whether the school will offer merit or need-based aid. That is why it is a very risky thing to do unless the family can afford to pay in full.

To summarize, the fear that class of 2020 students will wait a year and take admissions spots from the class of 2021 students should only be a big concern at the most competitive colleges. If your student is applying to very competitive schools, they should increase the overall number of colleges they apply to avoid “reach” schools, and apply as early as possible.

Next week, we will focus on your fears around ACT and SAT tests.