The college application journey can be daunting and confusing, even more so in today’s constantly shifting landscape due to the COVID-19 pandemic and our new reality of more complicated traveling requirements and different border restrictions. Our Directors of College Counseling from both SAS’ Pudong and Puxi campuses sit down to talk through some of the trends they’ve noticed in the last few years, and what to expect in the near and now.
1. Test requirements may soon be obsolete
Maybe not 100%, and maybe not right away, but it does feel like test requirements are becoming a thing of the past. At least for American schools. “There’s certainly been a movement towards more schools dropping test requirements, the biggest one being the University of California System. It’s a big deal as they’re so influential,” says Sean Menton, Interim Director of College Counseling on our Puxi campus. “And with COVID, we’re seeing more schools go optional because in some places, students aren’t able to access or are afraid to go to test centers because they worry about getting sick. So there’s been two reasons—the pandemic, and just market pressure in general.”
So, if scores are increasingly becoming less of a factor during the application process, what are colleges looking at then?
2. Passion matters, now more than ever
They’re still looking for good students—students that would be a good fit, that demonstrate that they have a steady performance at school through their GPA, and that are authentically passionate and excited about learning and making a difference.
“And here’s the thing. Some students are going to start thinking they have to join a million activities, or spend X amount of money on a very selective or popular summer research activity, when that shouldn’t be the case,” says John Paul (JP) Yates, Director of College Counseling at SAS Pudong. “These count for almost nothing in the admissions process. College admissions officers don’t necessarily place a lot of value in experiences like that, because they may not be a true reflection of who you are as a person.” It’s very easy to tell, according to JP, when applications are merely checking all the boxes that they think would get them into a certain college.
Instead, students should focus on what they’re truly passionate about. “Admissions officers spend all their time reading applications, they’ve seen everything, and the stuff that truly jumps out are genuine passion and interest. You can’t fake that kind of energy,” says JP. “No one has the magic formula on how to write an essay that will get you into XYZ school. The schools themselves look for different things every year. So the best thing a student can do, is to just be yourself. Be a really enthusiastic version of yourself. Be involved and be passionate about what you’re passionate about…and you’ll end up at the right place for you.”
3. Enrollment at US universities are falling
We saw a drop in international student enrollment for the 2019-2020 intake, a first since 2007-2008. And we continue to predict that there will be further drops in the coming years. “And it’s not 100% because of COVID. It might have been accelerated by COVID, but we would have seen negative numbers maybe three or four years later regardless. And the simple reason is that the US is wildly over capacity with university seats,” says JP.
In the past, international students would have helped fill those gaps, but with COVID and international mobility now being a lot harder, a lot of people are rethinking going to the States. “This is why we’re seeing enrollment go down overall. We’ve started seeing smaller colleges close down, or merge with others, in the last four or five years.”
4. But applications are up at the most selective schools
“There’s always been a trend of applications at these schools increasing over time, simply because the process is getting easier. In the past you might have needed to attend a face-to-face interview, or mail your transcripts, but with improvements in technology, you can do all these online. The universities themselves, too, have been marketing themselves to a much wider population,” Sean explains.
He continues, “and recently with the pandemic, there’s also a term being thrown around called the COVID 4.0. What it really means is that, whether it’s normal college gatekeeping measures being temporarily dissolved, or Distance Learning affecting the grading system, students are finding they’re scoring better than they’d initially predicted for themselves. And with many universities going Test Blind or Test Optional, they’re finding the confidence to apply to schools that they’d otherwise be a little more hesitant to. So across the board, we’re seeing noticeable jumps in applications for the bigger name schools.”
But this jump shouldn’t be cause for concern or stress for students or their parents. Says JP, “the priority should be looking at the strength of a program, rather than strength of name. If you’re a student looking to study sociology for example, is this big-name school really better for sociology over that less selective one?”
JP stresses looking at graduation results as an indication of good schools, rather than the name. “Just because a college is less selective, doesn’t mean it’s not as good a school as those with higher selectivity. It may be because those colleges have a clear idea of the type of students they’re looking for, and will only consider and admit those that fit those profiles in the first place.”
“We emphasize this time and time again, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to look for the best fit.”
5. Some applications are getting automated
“It’s something we’ve noticed, but parts of the application process are being automated as a way to help with gatekeeping,” says JP. “For example, some schools are filtering based off of where a student is applying from in the world. An American student applying from SAS, for instance, may be asked to submit a TOEFL score, even though English is their native language, just because of the location he/she is applying from.”
It doesn’t necessarily signify anything, aside from making the application process a little more drawn out and complicated, so Sean suggests students take this into account when they’re looking at their college application journey. “A portion of it has to do with budget cuts. In the past, there might have been a real person on the other end we could speak to, to explain our situation and to talk about waiver requirements. But now, I tell my students, you might want to take one of these tests (TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo) just to be safe. Or you might need to do some extra footwork when you’re putting your list together to see what is really required.”
6. British universities are the new trend
…for those outside of the EU, that is. While applications from the EU registered a decrease in 43% overall, non-EU applications are on the upswing, with a 14% increase. “Some of that has to do with Brexit and EU applicants now being considered international students, so there’s been a reclassification of kind,” Sean explains. “We’re also seeing a high level of commitment from the UK towards this region; British universities chartered several flights at the beginning of this academic year to bring students in from China.”
The application process for the UK is vastly different from American ones, so if a student is interested in applying for a British university, it’s best to start the conversation with their counselors and college counselors early. “It’s less about whether you should take AP or IB, and more about the way the British curriculum is structured that requires you to know what you want to study at an earlier age,” says JP.
7. (Some) Canadian universities want more
“Historically, the application process was pretty straightforward, depending on the program and department of course. For example, many didn’t ask for teacher or counselor recommendations, so it was less complicated than if you were applying to an American school,” says Sean. “But that’s not necessarily so anymore. We’ve seen some schools ask for essays when they hadn’t before, we’ve seen requests for applicants to do video answers to an interview,” and it’s possible that more and more Canadian schools will start asking for similar things in the future.
The college application journey can feel tough, but with enough preparation and intentionality, students and parents shouldn’t feel the need to over-stress or over-think it. “It’s really a joint effort between the student, parent, and the high school. We like to say that the college counsellor is the GPS, the student the driver, and the parent the compass,” says JP. “The parents provide guidance on the direction, and the college counselor is there to help make sure you know how to get to wherever you’re going. But ultimately, the journey is unique to each individual, and we really should have faith in the person behind the wheel. We need to trust that the driver knows what they’re doing.”