Traditional Student Demand

Three Ways to Improve the 2020 College Application Process

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No doubt, the application season of 2020 is stressful. Well over half of our partner institutions say that their applications are trailing behind last year’s benchmarks. College-bound high school seniors tell us they are stressed as well. As one student put it, applying to college this year is “like getting thrown into a pit without the ability to see, smell, hear, or taste anything, but you’re expected to survive.”

Eduventures checked in with 3,000 seniors across the country in late October to see how the college application process was going. Their feedback provided insight into how colleges can make the process more successful for both sides.

Not a Joyful Process

Before we dive into their specific concerns, let’s review the level of worries students have. Figure 1 shows that 61% have concerns about applying to college during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-four percent anticipate difficulties in financing college, and just over half (51%) believe their college choices will be affected by the pandemic.

Figure 1. 

But being “unsure” about how one feels about the process does not indicate minds at ease. What this chart really shows us is that about a fifth of students have no concerns about applying to college, and even fewer are confident in their abilities to finance college during the crisis. The public health crisis and related recession have wreaked havoc on family incomes and overall financial stability, so it is not surprising to see students worried about the financial implications of their impending college educations.

Remarkably, segmenting the data by both income level and first-generation status showed no significant differences in concern. Only white students are less likely to anticipate difficulties in financing college than underserved racial minorities (47% vs. 61%), and are less likely to believe that their college choices will be influenced by the pandemic (47% vs. 56%). The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect racial minorities more than white students, but what is the nature of these students’ worries?

American Ninja Worriers

If you read through the more than 2,500 often very thoughtful comments students shared about what it is like to apply to college during COVID-19, you will see a pattern of deep uncertainty about how it all works.  According to one student, “applying to college during a pandemic feels almost like an American Ninja Warrior Course, there are so many obstacles that get in the way of discovering the college for you, in addition to senior year and other activities.”

Applying to college is stressful under the best circumstances, but now students say they struggle to get the guidance they need to help them through, and the rules have changed. What are the greatest uncertainties of this new cohort? Figure 2 lists their specific concerns.

Figure 2. 

The top concern is a regret about not being able to visit campus. This complements findings from previous research that show students are worried about making the wrong choices due to their inabilities to visit campuses. Videos and virtual tours are helpful, but, as one student put it, “with a lot of very similar colleges, it's hard to narrow down ones when you can't visit campus.” This year could become a true wake-up call for institutions that try to be all things to all students and lack a distinct institutional identity.

Another big concern is not knowing how colleges will make decisions this year. While admission decisions are always a bit of a black box to students, high school counselors, private college counselors, and even certain websites have historically given guidance on applicants’ odds of being accepted to their dream schools. Now, many schools waive test score requirements, impressive extracurriculars are more difficult to achieve, and grading may seem unfair in a virtual environment. Add to this, high school counselors and teachers whose inaccessibility makes it difficult to meet application deadlines and requirements, and it’s really no wonder students are stressed.

The last recruitment cycle unraveled at a critical point, the yield stage, but last year’s seniors at least experienced a typical application stage. The college guide on applying under the current circumstances has yet to be written.

The Bottom Line

So what do you do now? We suggest you put students first. You may think you already are doing this, but students tell us this year is different and they need more help than ever. If you went the extra mile during the spring yield stage, you will need to stay on this path during this year’s recruitment cycle. A student-centered recruitment approach is more important than ever. But what does “student-centered” really mean?

  • Make application and admissions requirements abundantly clear and easy to find. Create a dedicated space on your website, like this one by St. Edward’s University, which explicitly describes how your admissions office helps students through the process. Place it prominently on your website’s landing page. Will you be test-optional? Explain exactly what that means. Not test optional? Let students know how much their test scores matter.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. This past spring, many admissions offices increased their personal outreach out of necessity. Keep the momentum going. Students told us last spring that they appreciated schools that communicated often and clearly about their COVID-19 plans, even if those plans were tentative. Students prefer over-communication rather than being left in the dark. And don’t forget to address what the student experience may look like in that first year. Few students expect to have a fully traditional on-campus experience next fall, but that does not mean they look forward to remote instruction. How will you make the student experience a positive one?
  • Give extra support to underserved students. The pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable populations. The college search process is no exception. Students who have historically relied heavily on high school counselors for help find themselves left behind. Allocate extra resources—both staff and financial aid—to these students. Use Eduventures Student Sentiment Research, or perhaps communication data of your own, to better understand how to reach them.

Going the extra mile in recruiting this fall can be easier said than done. But if your recruitment strategies alleviate stress for students, this may be your best bet at making more of them feel comfortable applying—thereby alleviating your own stress in the process.




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Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA

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