The Class of 2021 and College Admission

Is There Reason to Worry?

young woman holding binder in college building

There are so many rumors floating around about how the class of 2021 will be impacted for college admission. I’ve gotten nervous phone calls from parents and lots of questions from students. So, I thought it might be time to weigh in with my perspective.

What Has Changed for the Class of 2021?

The college admissions process looks different than it has in years past, thanks to the pandemic. For many students, that’s great news. For others, particularly students that were hoping for SAT or ACT scores to prop up a lower GPA, maybe not so great. Here are just a few of the things that have upended the traditional admissions process.

  • Over one thousand colleges have become test-optional or even test-blind, at least temporarily, due to students’ inability to safely take the SAT or ACT college entrance exams
  • Many colleges have announced that they will not consider SAT Subject tests in admission this year.
  • Due to upheaval at the end of last school year, AP and IB test scores may not be considered as much as in years past.
  • Many high schools went to pass/fail policies at the end of the last school year, replacing traditional letter grades. In schools where letter grades remained in place, colleges are likely to consider those grades with some grace.

The Bad News

I thought it better to get this out of the way first! And to be fair, it really is only speculation. That’s the best that any of us can do right now.

We know that many students from the class of 2020 chose to take gap years. In fact, Harvard made headlines when it was disclosed that 20% of their incoming class decided to do so. But at MIT, just down the road, only 8% of incoming students chose to do so. We don’t know for certain what percentage of the incoming college class across the US chose to take the year off, but the estimate has been around 10% total.

The concern is that due to so many high school graduates from the class of 2020 choosing to take a year off and begin in 2021, there may be fewer seats available for the class of 2021 at admission time. However, I actually don’t fully buy into this scenario. I believe that at many colleges, it will mean that in the fall of 2021, they will just have a slightly larger than normal class of first year students. After all, those colleges will be in need of revenue after a disrupted year!

There is one group of colleges that may be a concern – the most highly selective colleges. With admission rates already in the single digits, those colleges always have more qualified applicants than they can accept. They put qualified students on waitlists, and frequently, they don’t ever need to pull from those lists because so many students accept their admission offer. However, we know that this year, those colleges DID tap their waitlists, presumably to fill up seats left empty by students that chose to defer their admission for a year. Next year, these institutions may have no need to make up for a smaller-than-usual freshman class for the 2020-21 school year.

So, I do think there is a real possibility that admission at those highly competitive colleges could potentially become even MORE competitive this year. There you have it. That’s the bad news. BUT, the news is not all bad.

The Good News

The good news is that this year, the admissions process will have to shift and in a good way for many students. Students’ inability to test and the disruption to the school year means that colleges will have less data on which to base their admissions decisions. Colleges will have to truly take a look at the whole student. And that means opportunities!

While I still strongly recommend that students with an academic record that makes them a contender for one of those highly selective schools take entrance exams if possible, it won’t be possible for every student to do. But for those students that take them and do well, their scores might be more impactful on their application than they were previously, due to fewer score submissions.

At the same time, because score submissions are likely to be limited, it means that students who stand out academically in other ways, beyond testing, may have a better chance of acceptance to those colleges than in years past.

GPAs and the rigor of a student’s chosen curriculum will matter at least as much as other years. But this year, students’ essays as well as their activities, may matter more than ever. And outside of those “reach” colleges, there is also likely to be even more opportunity than ever before. Colleges will truly consider the whole student.


While there are many unknowns about this year, the one thing we DO know is that colleges still want to enroll students of good character with strong academic achievement records. Students can’t go wrong by showing that they’re engaged and involved in their community – no matter what form that takes. Colleges have repeatedly said that they understand the circumstances that students are in, and they plan to show flexibility in admissions. It should be the year of truly student-centered admissions.

And class of 2022, stay tuned – I think some of the changes are here to stay!

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