Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 9-12

4 min read

The Current Landscape of College Admissions

Sep 22, 2022 8:00 PM

In years past, many high school students and their parents followed a similar script as they planned for college: take the most challenging classes in high school to boost their GPA, be in as many extra-curricular activities as possible, earn the highest ACT or SAT score possible, apply to a college with said score, and get "in" based on the institution's formulaic criteria for admission. While this approach worked for many students to gain admission to colleges and universities in the past, the landscape of college admissions has changed significantly in the last few years. 

Shifts in College Admissions

Parents and students aware of the recent changes in college admissions are empowered to make decisions that best fit their goals and dreams for the future.

Number of Applicants

In my work in admissions at The Ohio State University, just in the last three years, we have seen the number of applications increase by 20,000. In 2019, we received 50,000 applications. In 2020, we received 60,000 applications. In 2021, we received 70,000 applications. This phenomenon is also happening at competitive higher education institutions around the country. This year, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) reported receiving nearly 150,000 applications, a nine percent increase from the previous year. While there are certainly a number of factors that contribute to the rising number of freshman applications at institutions like these, one of the most notable changes of the last three years is the "test-optional" application alternative.

Test-Optional Admissions

With limited or no access to standardized testing in 2020, colleges and universities put into place test-optional admissions, simply meaning that ACT and SAT scores were not a requirement for admission to an institution. Most of these policy pivots have stuck around; most institutions continue to offer a test-optional application route. With this being the case, colleges and universities have moved towards a holistic review model of application consideration. That is, standardized test scores are no longer the hinge-point benchmark for fielding applicants. Essays, letters of recommendation, co-curriculars, leadership opportunities, and work outside of school are all part of that holistic review, as well as a thorough review of a student's academic record to assess the rigor level of the curriculum they have completed. At test-optional schools, test scores are considered if a student chooses to submit them, but that choice is entirely up to the student. 

While a great ACT or SAT test score may still be of benefit in the college admissions and merit scholarship process, a lower score or no score is no longer a barrier. Schools that were once viewed by students as out of reach because of their admissions criteria have become more realistic options as students are able to demonstrate their strengths and skills to universities outside of test score submission.

Upper School Girl

Building a Class

Another shift I have observed over time is that, in many cases, colleges and universities are moving away from simply admitting students based on how they meet a standard set of criteria. Many institutions are moving towards viewing the admissions process as building a strong freshman class. Building a strong freshman class involves asking questions beyond "What is your GPA?" and "What extra-curriculars are you involved in?" It is about evaluating incoming students and finding those who are going to come to campus, take advantage of an institution's resources, engage with professors, get involved in campus activities, give back to the community, and be successful in the classroom. 

Talking Points for Parents and Students

As I interact with students in various stages of their high school experience, there is one question and one word of encouragement as they prepare for college. 

The question I often ask students is: What is your long-term goal? Some high schoolers focus much of their energy on what colleges they get accepted to. It's a common point of conversation among high school juniors and seniors, "What schools did you get into?" The reality is, though, that future employers and graduate schools will never ask this question. What they will want to know is, "What degree did you get and from what institution?" Rather than focusing on what institutions they "get into," I encourage students to consider what school they want to graduate from in the coming years.

In order to be able to answer this end-goal question, students (and parents) must do some research as they consider colleges and universities. Research should include a thorough exploration of programs offered at institutions, what resources are available on campus, and how schools in consideration match their individual priorities.

A word of encouragement that I emphasize with students is a bit counter-intuitive to the mindset of many college applicants over the last many years: Do things in high school that you WANT to do. Admissions offices get excited when they see something specific in which the student is passionate. Whether a student loves choir, marching band, FFA, 4-H, running an online shoe business, or building model airplanes, passions shine a little bit brighter when students don’t just do things to look good. Students nowadays are highly creative and passionate, and those are the types of qualities we want to see in a college application.

[To hear more on this topic, make sure to check out the accompanying podcast episode, "The Latest in College Admissions," on Navigating Your Child's Education, a podcast for parents.]

Austin Martin
Written by Austin Martin

Austin Martin is the Assistant Director of Domestic Recruitment at The Ohio State University. Before this, he worked in admissions at Oklahoma State University and the University of Iowa.