Applying to College in 2020-2021–It’s All About the Extracurriculars

Many top colleges are dropping the SAT and ACT this year. Before we discuss the details, take a look at how applications were traditionally evaluated, please see my classic post: The Secret to College Admissions. Then read on, below.

Changes for 2020-2021–The SAT and ACT in Retreat

There are big changes everywhere in higher education. Some of these, like whether classes will be online or in-person, or a hybrid, will be relatively minor concerns by the time this year’s rising seniors go to college in the fall of 2021, but the changes coming for college applications this year are definitely worth looking at, now. Particularly where the SAT and ACT tests are being dropped or made optional.

How to Apply  to the University of California Without Using Test Scores
Sather Gate, University of California Berkeley

Foremost among them is a sea change in the importance of standardized test scores. Yes our friends at the SAT and ACT or getting the boot at many college application portals–like the University of California system. This is huge.

I realize there is a debate about grade inflation, and particularly with the spring semester of 2020 being something of a cypher in terms of interpreting grades, many have concerns about this. Me: not so much. Other than dropping the SAT/ACT does put pressure on you applicants to step it up in the areas outside of your required reading and testing. More on that in a moment.

Major Colleges Dropping or Suspending ACT/SAT Testing Requirements

First, a quick look at some of the names that are suspending or dropping the SAT and ACT. Suspending the tests: Williams, Amherst, Haverford, Davidson, Pomona, Rhodes, Scripps and Vassar colleges. Some colleges are exploring permanent changes. For example, Davidson, Rhodes and Williams (which often ranks as No. 1 in national liberal arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report rankings), are launching three-year pilot programs to test whether the tests are necessary at all. Vassar is planning to review their testing policy next year to see whether to extend the suspension of testing. So is Trinity University, a well-known liberal arts college in Texas. Tufts University plans a three-year pilot program (meaning a three-year suspension) of testing.

On top of that, 45 schools have temporarily waived testing requirements for high school seniors applying to begin college this summer or fall.

The Ivy League Sticks to the Tests–For the Most Part

In contrast, Ivy League and many other elite schools are not making any significant changes at the moment. Harvard claims that it’s not particularly useful to take the test multiple times (I disagree: in a game of margins, more than a few of my clients have benefited a lot by taking the test multiple times: so, whatever, Harvard). Princeton just adds that they know many students will not have the opportunity to repeat the test.

Harvard seems to be prety much just plowing ahead, while Princeton, at least, means to suggest that they are sensitive to differences in opportunity and will look all the more closely at the full picture. This is possible to do in the aggregate by data on the school you come from–public inner city with limited resources vs. well-endowed suburban high school is relatively simple to factor in, and they have the data to do that. Of course, that does not mean that any college can easily account for individual differences in access and opportunity. Like that kid living in a trailer park with spotty internet and a ten-year-old notebook to use, located on the edge of an upper-middle-class suburb.

The University of California Suspends Testing

There will be a lot of huffing and puffing about the schools that are suspending or dropping the test requirement–a quick survey of comments on the UC announcement has more than a few end-of-the-UC prophecies. But I am not really worried about that scenario. Likely some who would not have gotten in with the SAT/ACT in place will get a seat under the no-test policy, but the world won’t end, nor will the UC become a low-achievers’ paradise. Back in the day, UC gave a seat to any student in the top 10% in their high school class, which how is reduced by a double 9%–top 9% of students in California on a ranked index of all students, and top 9% at your school. That policy has not changed and clearly will shape who gets admissions.

UC is also discussing coming up with its own test vehicle to replace the ACT and SAT, which makes sense financially as well. Frankly, it’s about time some of the bigger universities started reducing the size and influence of the testing industrial complex, and the SAT and ACT have problems that have been the subject of discussion for years, like how they reward those with the dollars for extensive test prep, not to mention being able to afford homes in the better school district population areas–for those of you familiar with the debate here in the U.S., it’s also been a topic in the UK, as here: SAT favors middle class. I add here that the Telegraph, which I link here, is considered a right-of-center paper. Not the kind of paper to find a lot of liberal bias for equal opportunity.

Your Takeway: Get Going On Extracurriculars

Your takeaway is pretty clear, if you are a rising sophomore, junior or senior who will apply to college in the next three cycles: in addition to nailing grades, it’s time to put even more focus on extracurricular activites. And I always suggest picking extracurriculars that have intrinisic meaning, to you.

But How?

But now we have the Covid paradox: most extracurriculars are closed down, from internships to camps and a range of group activities. And where they are open, you have to weigh the risk of doing an extracurricular against the risk of getting sick and/or infecting those you care about. And taking that risk mainly or solely to boost your college applications.

Rather than taking extra health risks, I suggest taking another tack: find a way to pursue and develop your interests independently. This means more time online, of course, but rather than filling in blanks and uploading assignments into Google classroom, you have to choose your own path.

Suggestion one: Find a way to pursue you interests through a website. An easy way to do this is to go to a service like, where you found the post you are reading now, and build a website. You can figure it out and get a site up in an afternoon, includig picking a free theme.

Suggestion two: Try to find a way to help others, whether through information or through networking. Possibly use a website you set up.

I will be more specific with ideas in my next post, but with up to 20% unemployment in many areas, food security has become a big issue. Brainstorm for a bit and you might find a way to use a website to link up those needing food with excess food, particularly if you happen to live in one of those suburbs where there is an excess of fruit trees that tend to go unpicked.

Suggestion three–find some other way to organize people to do good, using a website and social media, or to create a community with shared interests.

I will let you ponder those ideas and brainstorm for yourself. I will post on extracurriculars again soon, with more specific suggestions. And of course I will be starting my annual analysis of application data soon, as well. So come back early and often, or click to follow this website, so you get regular updates.

How to Apply to College in 2019-2020–Part 1

Who should read this post: anybody applying to college in the United States of America in 2019-2020. The first part of this post will be pretty California-centric, but I also look at some information on the Ivy League and more application data on Harvard specifically. We still await a full data set on applications for this year’s applicants, who will enter college in this coming fall of 2019. This tends to come after those accepted actually show up to enroll in the fall, at which point universities can confirm their application yield, so it will be another 4-6 months before we have a complete picture of this year’s application data.

Overall, the tendency is for GPA and SAT/ACT score numbers to edge up incrementally (for GPA at about a tenth of a percent or less per year over the last 10 years for the U.C. and over the last 15 years at most Ivies). Keep that in mind with data from the fall of 2018. That said, let’s get to the process of creating a list of target schools.

How to Start an Application Target List

When you sit down to make a list of target colleges, it’s all about the D words: Dreams and Data. The data you start with includes GPA and test scores. Other data like total applications, admit rate, etc., matters, as does the information on your school that is available via Naviance, if your school has it, but it’s best not to start by trying to plug in all the data. It can be overwhelming.

Instead, always start that list on an aspirational note, with your dream schools. Once you have done that, you can list schools you have heard of that seem appealing. We assume that your dream opportunities are reaches, and you can decide later if it’s really worth the application fee and perhaps writing some essays. As you move on to schools that are not perhaps as dreamy but that still are appealing, you want to use data and research to create a target list with two more tiers. And at that point, you need to look at the data.

As a rule, in creating three tiers, the top tier of reach schools are those for which your data is below the average for admits, or for which any applicant, including those with a perfect GPA. is iffy (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Harvard); the next tier, the “fit” schools should have targets for which you fit the average data profile. In all cases, this includes both GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). The last tier is safety schools, those for whom 75% or more of the people with your data were admitted.

There are more variables and nuances to creating a good list, but if you follow that approach, and split your applications relatively evenly into each category, you will end up with multiple acceptances. Note that when it comes to sorting the variables, you also want to separate holistic from objective schools–if the school is objective, the GPA and SAT/ACT averages are slightly better predictors. For an explanation of holistic vs. objective applications, and for an overview of how your college application will be evaluated, please see my post The Secret of College Admissions.

Data has to dominate the discussion once you have a rough list of schools. I most often find that when I sit down with clients–let’s assume a typical suburban, Northern California student for this example–they vaguely understand that it’s become a lot more difficult to get into name-brand colleges, and they may understand that a school like U.C. Berkeley has a high GPA average, but they are usually surprised when I tell them that the average GPA for Berkeley has been over 3.9 for several years now. That is over 3.9 unweighted.

This is obviously also true of UCLA, which had over 100,000 freshman applications last year, but then I have to explain that the same is true of U.C. Davis–in fact, Davis had a higher average GPA than Berkeley a few years ago, at 3.92 unweighted, while Berkeley downgraded their final GPA to 3.9 when they updated their numbers for yield in October of 2017. The details of these adjustments can be hard to dig up, but Berkeley made that adjustment after they determined yield in the fall–that is, were able to see who actually showed up to school after being offered admissions and then accepted it and moved into the dorm (there are those who accept and go elsewhere . . . ). My inferences is that they used the GPA not just for those admitted, but for those who actually showed up–their yield.

But still–these numbers represent a high wall to climb over. More specifically, these numbers mean that a typical California student who gets, say, 3 “B’s” in the a-g U.C. college prep classes in 10th and 11th grades, (and so likely has a 3.8 unweighted GPA), sees their chance of admissions to the top three UC’s at about 1 in 4. So if your dream schools include Berkeley, UCLA and you see Davis as a safety, and you have less than a 3.9 GPA, Davis is not a safety school. In fact, that would suggest that Santa Cruz is more a “fit” and that U.C. Riverside is a safety–or an “easy” fit.

As another number here, Riverside had a 3.66-4.09 weighted GPA for the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted students in fall of 2018.

When you are compiling data, know that the UC has a centralized set of data, but how that data has been presented has varied over time. Currently, the central UC data set is showing averages based on the 25th-75th percentile, but a couple of years ago, most UC’s presented as simple average. In addition, the current data set uses a weighted average. This is for the class that entered UC campuses in fall of 2018.

For other schools, your best bet to find firm data is to seek their Common Data Set–I will plug Harvard’s CDS below, just to give you a snapshot of the elite on the East Coast. You can continue to look these up for yourself for any other school you wish. The down side of this . . . . many hours of your life gone, sorting through 10-15 pages of data and checked boxes. That sums up one of my functions as a college advisor–saving you time, as well as making sense of what is to be found in the data. I have already done the leg work on this stuff.

Here is Harvard’s most recent, confirmed data set: Harvard Common Data Set.

If you search Harvard’s CDS using the term “GPA, “you will discover that Harvard’s average weighted GPA for fall of 2018 was 4.18. And don’t forget that this includes cohorts with below-average GPA’s–some prodigies who are great at one thing but not so great at others; some athletes; some whose parents endowed the university with a bunch of money to get their kid on the “Z List” or the “Dean’s List.” You know, like Jared Kushner, whose father kicked a large chunk of money Harvard’s way, ahead of Jared’s admit. (Seems pretty unfair, I know, but when the money is not a bribe per se, and in effect puts up new buildings, funds scholarships and programs . . . the good of helping many outweighs the evil of a single mediocre student being admitted. Most of the time. Unlike, say, those families who bribed officials through Mr. Singer-a very different thing.

For those interested in more Ivy for this year, here is a link to early application data from the most recent application cycle–I will discuss creating an early app list in more detail later, but the date here is suggestive when considering who would be an early app from your dream tier of your target list: Early Ivy League Application Data for 2018-2019.

Returning to our California student, this all looks pretty discouraging, I know, but I would point out that what matters in the long term is a degree, and when it comes to your degree, the words “University of California” have more meaning than “Berkeley” or “Santa Cruz”–particularly to employers.

And continuing with our list, let us also assume this 3.8 range California student is interested in medicine. In addition to expanding this list from reach schools that include Berkeley, UCLA and Davis, I would add Santa Cruz and Riverside, and throw in Santa Barbara. With decent essays, I would expect at least two admits there. But I would also expand, if the budget allows it, out of state. Plan to add 15 thousand to your total costs, at a minimum, when you look out of state. That is per year. Most of that will be additional tuition costs.

So before looking out of state for my pre-med California applicant, I would add two-three Cal State campuses, then, if the ca. 45-60 thousand-dollar cost of going out of state is acceptable, look at the University of Washington, Arizona State (which would offer a tuition deal to most California students that would make tuition much cheaper), focusing on its Barrett Honors College and Polytechnic campus, and possibly add Oregon State and U Colorado. One or two smaller, private liberal arts campuses, inside California or outside, might round out the list–though we’d be bumping up to a ceiling at 14-15 applications.

At this point, you start looking at the application work load, including how many application essays are needed and how many of these can be reused in whole or part.

And then you should start writing essays. Now is better than August or September. Summer will be over in 8 weeks for many of you (It is June 20th as I write this), and high school coursework, athletics and activities together with doing applications can be truly overwhelming. Get some essays done sooner rather than later. I will be posting a set of the important prompts that are available now in a day or so.

Until then, be well and do good research.