For thousands of high-achieving seniors like Valley Stream South High School student Ibrahim Qadri, carving out time for family, friends, and schoolwork can be a challenge on its own. But for the past few months, his schedule has been devoted to one all-consuming task: applying for college.
Students, especially promising ones like Qadri, can find themselves spending hours chatting over the phone with admissions officers, answering college essay prompts, writing out personal statements, and compiling an impressive rundown of school activities in the hopes of standing out amid a wide pool of college applicants.
“Many nights my friends and I found ourselves struggling to study for a calculus test with a college deadline only a few days away,” said Qadri. “I had around 25 college supplemental essays to write with all of them due at around the same time period. I had to finish editing my personal statement and organize all of my extracurricular activities. So it was very overwhelming at the start.”
But for Qadri, it paid to go through the rigors of crafting a strong application and applying to as many worthwhile colleges as possible. One big reason: There’s just a lot more competition in the admissions process in recent years.
“The competitive nature of college and university admissions is out of control,” said Valley Stream Central High School District guidance director Kelly Whitney-Rivera. “Everybody is performing well, and students [everywhere] are all applying to the same schools.”
The volume of those college applicants in the past two school years alone has ballooned by roughly 20 percent and is growing at a record rate, according to a report from application-processing nonprofit company Common Application.
Clear, hard markers of academic excellence — grades and standardized test scores — still weigh heavily on college admissions. And top-notch scores certainly give applicants a big leg up in securing scholarships and generous financial aid packages for the majority of colleges nationwide.
But many colleges that rolled back SAT and ACT exam score requirements amid wide cancellations during the pandemic have now shifted over to test-optional or test-blind policies — an idea flirted with by some colleges years before the pandemic.
“Students often have strong grades, but their standardized test scores may not be reflective of their academic profile. Some students just don’t do well on standardized tests,” said Ron Feuchs, an independent college counselor and founder of Stand Out For College, a company that helps families navigate the admissions process. “With test-optional, schools that normally would have been out of reach to these students [are now fair game] and this drives up the number of applications.”
Top colleges that are trying to place less stock in SAT and ACT scores are taking a “holistic” view of college applications in an effort to recruit a more diverse pool of candidates, students who may show immense promise even if they don’t neatly square with the standards that have conventionally been used to identify the ideal applicant.
But with more college applications for admissions officers to sift through and limited room for spots at top schools, students feel a greater need to stick out from the growing sea of applicants.
Judging criteria can vary vastly from school to school, noted Feuchs. And sometimes acceptance is based partly on what “institutional priorities” the school has for that given year, such as upping the number of first-generation college students or traditionally underrepresented students.
“In general, we tell students to make sure that they are well-rounded,” said Whitney-Rivera. “That they have courses that highlight their strengths and show that they are rigorous students. Activities that show they are involved with the community and contribute positively. But we also urge them to speak with their counselor about what each college institution that they’re applying to is looking for, because it varies and there’s no set formula anymore.”
Despite the anxiety of the application process, it pays to keep in mind that the great majority of colleges admit most of their applicants. A recent analysis by Pew Research found that among the roughly 1,300 colleges and universities sampled, more than half admitted two-thirds or more of their candidates.
Parents and students may flock to the big-name universities with historically low acceptance rates, hoping to leverage the school’s branding power to fast-track them to better career and internship opportunities, but prestige is not the only thing competitive applicants are looking for in a school.
Factors like access to a welcoming and enriching campus culture and a priority on mental health support are becoming top priorities for students.
“My current top options are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, and Columbia University, as I want to pursue my interests in research and computer science,” said Qadri. “But when it comes to considering which college I want to go to, my number-one priority is how my interests and personality will complement the student’s life. If I’m going to be at college most of the day, studying until long nights or just grabbing lunch, I want to be in an environment that’s vibrant, diverse and, most of all, fun.”
“We want to make sure that when students pick a school, they pick those that match every component of their life and in all the target areas: academics, financial, social, emotional, and overall well-being,” said Whitney-Rivera. “It’s going to be four years of your life, so we want to make sure they feel that they fit in socially and feel like it’s a home.”
As students wait to find out their college-admission decisions in the coming weeks., Qadri is grateful for the unflagging support of his counselor in applying “from solidifying a college list to pressing submit on the application, my school counselor was there for me every step of the way.”
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