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What Colleges Really Want to See On Your Application This Year

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This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

It can’t be overstated that COVID-19 has altered how we go about our lives—even how we apply to college.

Those sweeping changes to colleges admissions now includes the College Board announcement that it’s discontinuing the SAT Subject Tests and SAT Essay.

(A little background: College Board is the not-for-profit organization that is responsible for the SAT and AP course standardized tests.)

Even though college officials have anticipated this change for some time, the pandemic has sped up the process. 

Other contributing factors include declining subject test enrollment, fewer universities making them a requirement (starting with Harvard University in 2010 and University of Pennsylvania in 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed), and College Board’s own desire to “reduce the demands on students.”

(Already signed up for an SAT subject test this year? No worries. U.S. students currently registered for an upcoming subject test will automatically have their fees refunded, while students outside the U.S. are still able to take their tests through June 2021. There is no longer an option to sign up for a subject test or essay with the SAT.)

So what does this mean for the landscape of college admissions?

Standardized Testing Stays—For Now

For the moment, standardized testing isn’t going anywhere.

Colleges still need a measurement to compare the aptitude of applicants, especially with students coming from such a wide variety of states and school systems. A private Catholic school in Ohio may grade and evaluate their students much differently than a public school of 300 students in Louisiana or a private boarding school in Colorado. 

So then how will colleges know if a student is skilled in a particular subject?

AP Tests Steal the Spotlight

It’s likely that the emphasis on taking AP tests will be in sharper focus, especially since so many colleges have already gone test optional during the pandemic.

Now, not every school region in the country offers AP courses.

So what can you do to level the playing field if this is the case at your school?

Get creative to get ahead.

Look at the course requirements for your top colleges and enroll in a few of those classes in a dual-enrollment program or at a local university.

Interested in dual enrollment? Start here.

This demonstrates that you are actively seeking out every academic opportunity available, despite the lack of AP courses at your school.

It’s important to show future colleges that you’re maximizing every advanced option you can and are self-motivated to succeed despite a lack of opportunity in your region. 

When It’s Good to Be ‘Extra’

In previous generations of college-going students, the emphasis has always been placed squarely on academics.

Not anymore.

“Get solid grades and participate in two extracurriculars, like tennis and orchestra, and you are all set for college” is a mindset of the past.

With this shift away from standardized testing, combined with colleges performing holistic reviews, top-notch student profiles are actually veering away from only academics and toward showing a more well-rounded student with strong interests and passions.   

And without extra subject tests to study for, you’ll been even more pressed to show colleges how you spent your time on worthwhile extracurriculars to build an impressive resume. 

Get involved in summer programs, either pursuing research programs or programs allowing you to explore a career pathway. This will illustrate your focus on the bigger picture of preparing for your future career.

Make a Statement

In addition to heightened interest in AP tests and extracurriculars, personal statements will see an uptick in attention.

Without the essay portion to showcase more of your writing, there will likely be a greater emphasis placed on your ability to write a memorable personal statement.

And if you pick up a few more activities or truly invest time in one of your passions, you’ll have plenty to say in your statement.

Put It All Together

Now that you know where admissions officials’ heads are at—AP testing, activities and an awesome admissions essay—it’s time to make moves in those areas.

For more ideas on how to use your passions to beef up your resume, explore these helpful tips and creative ways to help your resume stand out in the admissions pile.   

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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.