How to Get Into College | Overcome 2021’s Hypercompetitive Admissions Landscape

Matt Larriva
Jun 02, 2021
Home » Blog » How to Get Into College | Overcome 2021’s Hypercompetitive Admissions Landscape

College enrollment is down another 5% this year after falling 10% in 2020, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that fewer people were wanting to attend college. But look at applications (all-time highs) and admissions rates (all-time lows), and you’ll be left wondering which way is up and trying to figure out how to get into a good college despite the bleak college admissions figures from 2021.

So, what just happened? How does one make sense of this?

It’s a bit of statistics and lies: remember that one student can apply to many schools.

With the growing number of schools accepting The Common App (a single app that allows you to apply to multiple schools), schools saw huge increases in applications—if you’ve already filled out the application, why not just send it to one more school even if your chances are low?

While on one hand, the increased ease of application is a huge step forward in educational access, on the other hand, the increased applications without more college seats means a sharp decline in acceptance rates.

Here’s a look at the Ivy League admissions statistics recently reported by the Washington Post:

SCHOOLAPPLICATIONSADMIT RATE %ADMIT RATE 2020*
Brown46,5685.46.9
Columbia60,5513.76.1
CornellNot Availablen/an/a
Dartmouth28,3576.28.8
Harvard57,4353.44.9
Princeton37,6014.05.6
UPenn56,3335.78.1
Yale46,9054.66.5
(*2020 rates comes from preliminary releases at a comparable point in the cycle. Source: Washington Post)

How to Get Into College: The Best College Admissions Advice

If you want to get into a good college, here’s what you can do to gain an edge:

  • First, learn what colleges look for.
    • If you’re seeing your classmates with strong GPAs and seemingly compelling extracurriculars be rejected from top-tier schools, then those schools might be changing their target applicants.
  • Next, take an SAT and ACT.
    • Schools are claiming testing optionality, but their admissions numbers tell a far different story.
  • Finally, make your application tell a compelling story.
    • A handful of interesting but disjointed activities are far less compelling than a few, aligned activities.

What Do Colleges Look At?

Don’t just assume you know what colleges and college admissions officers are looking for. Rather, understand what colleges want: colleges look for well rounded student bodies, not well-rounded students.

Parents are confused and disheartened when their children who had toiled to earn top grades, challenge themselves in multiple college-level courses, and engage in sports, student clubs and community service are rejected from semi-competitive schools.

While this is partially because of the surge in admissions, it’s also because those (courses and extracurriculars) are passive activities whose only barrier to entry was signing up. Clubs are the worst because they’re passive and hard to stand out in (compared to sports).

Universities want students engaged in active pursuits of intellectual curiosity. If your activity simply required you to sign up to do it, then it’s probably not going to distinguish you.

Think instead about creating, producing, and social impact. Someone who joins a literary club will lose to someone who wrote a book; someone who joined band will lose to someone who started a program to play music in hospitals; someone who signed up for a volunteer trip will lose to someone who identified an underserved population in a community and forged access to vaccines or voting.

Not everyone needs to start something to stand out, but those who pursue their intellectual curiosities to their ultimate will often find themselves forging new paths which will be well viewed by schools.

Testing “Optional” is Anything But

Take the SAT or ACT. Students are mistaking testing-optional for testing-unnecessary.

The numbers tell a different story:

Three out of every four students accepted at Penn through early admissions submitted test scores; at Georgetown, that number was 93%
Source: MarketWatch

If you’re not going to submit an SAT or ACT score, competitive schools will want you to have a good reason. These are not the types of schools who wants students interested in doing the bare minimum.

Even semi-competitive schools are so inundated with applications that they will look favorably upon students who submit additional points of academic strength, as the SAT or ACT can.

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Now, there are many students who are not and should not be required to take SATs and ACTs—namely those who do not have the time or means to prepare because of socioeconomic circumstances; those who have learning disabilities; and those for whom the test would represent an undue burden.

But if you apply to a competitive school and your background is clearly one of opportunity, then they’re going to wonder why you didn’t test.

These tests are powerful.

Students who pursue their intellectual curiosities will often find themselves forging new paths which will help them get into college.

You hear stories about students with 4.3 GPAs being denied from elite colleges all the time, but you don’t hear about students with 1600s on their SAT being turned down. That’s because grade inflation is so pronounced that the schools often need additional evidence of academic prowess. That doesn’t have to come in the form of an SAT, but it should be on your application.

Make Your Application Tell a Story

Focus on constructing a clear narrative for yourself. These admissions officers are very talented, but they’re not superhuman. They cannot understand how awesome of a candidate you are if you don’t help them, and the biggest way to help them is to let your candidacy tell a story.

Don’t be the student who joined every club and was friends with everyone; that’s too common.

Instead, be the student who was interested in books from the time they could stand, and who, Freshman year, hosted a literary conference at their school who then, Sophomore year, wrote a book, then went to illiterate populations to distribute her book their Junior year, who then, Senior year, had an article in The Post written about them.

That’s “the literary candidate” and that’s going to edge out so many others because schools will say, “this is someone who has a focused intellectual curiosity. We’re interested to see what they can do in our institution.

Recap: Three Tips To Give You An Ethical Edge in College Admissions

The admissions landscape is more competitive and confusing than ever. Here’s how to gain some clarity and confidence in your candidacy:

rory gilmore talking about college admissions
  1. figure out what your target school wants
  2. don’t be fooled by the testing optional trend
  3. and remember to make your candidacy tell a story

Good luck!


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