Class of 2021, Fasten Your Seatbelts!

January 1st is the regular decision deadline for many colleges in this country. Numerous schools publish data about the applications that they have received at this time of year. Below is the information that several colleges have shared about their applicant pools. Take a look and see what you think. I will share my thoughts too.

~Duke University has announced that they received just over 49,500 applications, an increase of almost 10,000 from last year.

~Harvard College received 57,000 applications, a 42% increase over the 40,248 students that applied last year.

~Brown University has an increase in applications of 26%. They had 46,469 students apply, 9,675 more than last year.

~Colgate University went from 8,582 applications to 17,392, an increase of over 100%!

~Amherst College received 13,930 applications in the regular decision round, an increase of 31%.

~Stanford announced that they have moved back their release date for regular decision to April 9th, due to a “notable increase in our application numbers”.

~The University of Vermont has increased their applications this year by 40% over last year.

~Tufts University’s application pool increased by 35%, to 31,190.

~The Ivy League decision day is traditionally on or before April 1st. This year, several members have announced that due to an increase in applications, the date to release admission decisions has been pushed back to April 6th.

Where did all of these applications come from and what does it mean for the class of 2021? I think that there are two core pandemic-related factors driving this increase. The first one is that the majority of colleges in this country were forced to become test-optional due to the pandemic limiting the availability of the ACT and the SAT. Students that had superb academic profiles and nationally recognized extracurriculars and athletics, but did not have the scores that match suddenly were able to consider a whole new range of schools that they might not have applied to if test scores were required.

The second factor driving this boom in applications is that these students were not able to visit campuses in the spring, summer and fall, before they had to apply. Many seniors decided to cast a wide net and apply to more schools, see where they get in and then go visit in the spring of their senior year.

So if you are a senior or the parent of a senior, what does all of this mean? My suggestion is that you fasten your seatbelts because I think this spring admission season is going to be absolutely unpredictable.


I work with families from all different economic demographics, full-pay to full-need and everything in between. And the one thing all families agree on is that college is expensive. Whether they can afford it or not, there is a consensus among parents that $80,000 a year is too much. If you have a high school student that plans to attend a selective private college, you will probably hit that price tag at some point in your child’s college career.

My inspiration for this post was a friend that I ran into on the ski slopes over the December break. I knew her youngest was a freshman but I did not know where he ended up in school, so I was eager to hear about where he matriculated and how it was going. When she told me his story, I knew it would make a great blog.

Her son is a strong student and was admitted to an array of engineering programs, including UVA, Lehigh, Villanova and SUNY Binghamton. This family resides in New York, so when they laid out their options, and Binghamton University offered a $10,000 STEM scholarship, the cost for room/board/tuition at SUNY Binghamton was under $16,000.

Take a look at the cost of room/board/tuition at these schools for the 2020-2021 school year and what the costs will be over four years and think about what you would do:

When this family saw that their son could attend college for four years as an instate student for the cost of one year at the other colleges, all arrows pointed to Binghamton. He could go to Binghamton University FOUR TIMES for the cost of the private schools. The great news is that after one semester, they are thrilled with their decision. Their son is thriving socially as well as academically and the parents are happy with the cost.

If you are the parent of a college-bound teenager, you might face a similar decision around cost. When your family looks at all of the options and one of them is significantly more affordable, cost concerns come into play. I realize that some people reading this might feel that the colleges that this student turned down possibly offer a higher quality education, but could it possibly be four times better? I suggest that every family talk about college affordability early and often.

I took the photo of the Binghamton Bearcat license plate of a proud alum that was displaying his school pride on his Rolls Royce SUV. Learn more about Binghamton University, a flagship of the State University of New York here.

Happy New Year! (And a tip for juniors)

Happy New Year from the snowy Adirondacks! I am excited to put 2020 in the rearview mirror and I have high hopes that 2021 is going to be amazing. I just sent out my January 1st email to my juniors that lays out our schedule for the next eight months. This plan will send them back to school in September with their applications DONE! In the dark of winter, it seems like a long time away, but it really isn’t. And if we want to complete this work by the end of August, that seed needs to be planted now.

Ideally, I like to see my students walk in senior year with all of their applications ready to submit. But there are exceptions to the rule. Here are a few reasons that you might find a senior working on applications in November or December:

  1. They applied to some EA/ED schools and they did not like their results, so they feel like they need to expand their list and cast a wider net.
  2. They applied to some EA schools and they feel like based on these answers, they would like to add another reach or two because they received a positive response to their application.
  3. They were still testing in the fall and got either stronger or weaker scores that have made us rethink their list and add some schools.
  4. A student happens to have a chance to see a school that they were not considering and they love it. True story-I had a family that had a flight diverted to Detroit and then their connecting flight was cancelled. This left them stuck overnight in Detroit in the dead of winter. They took advantage of this and visited the University of Michigan. Fast forward and this amazing kid graduated last spring from UM and has an awesome job!
  5. Senior year they develop a new academic interest and they want to add some schools that offer majors in this area.
  6. An opportunity develops around athletic recruiting during senior year at a school that was not initially on their list.

So I aim to send them back 100% done but there are circumstances where students are working on applications during senior year. Because they have already completed so much writing over the summer, this work usually goes smoothly.

And finally, here is my tip for juniors. I know that many of you have not been able to visit college campuses due to the pandemic. (I know first hand as I am also the parent of a 2022 student). I do not know how much admission offices are going to open this spring. The truth is, I think it will be a mixed bag. But here is the thing that most high school parents forget; colleges open in August. Some southern campuses are in session by early August and most schools have students on campus by the third week in August. I anticipate that by the fall, college campuses will be in session and open to prospective students. So I think that families should plan on taking advantage of the second half of August to visit colleges before their seniors head back to their own schools.

I hope you had a peaceful holiday and I wish you the best in 2021!

Thoughts on the Topsy-Turvy 2021 College Admission Cycle

Greetings on the winter solstice. I wanted share a few thoughts about the 2021 application cycle in the waning days of December. At this point, the majority of the Early Action/Early Decision (EA/AD) answers are in. And the only thing that has been consistent is how unpredictable the decisions are.

I am hearing from double-legacies with incredible academic profiles that are being denied. I have students telling me that they are getting congratulations from family and friends when they learn of their deferral from a selective school to the regular decision pool. And I am sure if you are reading this, that you have similar stories to share.

The test-optional facet of the 2021 cohort appears to have shifted the landscape. Colleges that required scores in the past have allowed students to apply without testing this year. I have colleagues sharing heartwarming stories about students that were unable to test because multiple test dates were cancelled that have received acceptance letters. The flip side of test-optional is that many of these schools have seen record levels of applicants in the early round. One of the most extreme examples is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the past, they review 9,000+ early applications. This year they received over 15,000! And they explicitly said that they were not increasing the number of students that they accept. So this makes the EA acceptance rate an ultra-selective 4%.

If you are a senior, or the parent of a senior, the one thing that I can suggest is to make sure that you love your list. One must be excited not only by the most selective schools where they are applying, but also by the schools that offer a more generous threshold for admission. When a student only likes their reach schools, it is a recipe for heartbreak.

I will leave you with one story that had a positive ending. The week before Thanksgiving, I received an inquiry from the parent of a senior. We scheduled an appointment for a phone call, where I learned that this parent was distressed that the first college decision that their child received was a denial from a selective state flagship. The family was concerned that this rejection was a harbinger of future decisions and they were quite anxious. When she told me the name of the school that sent the rejection letter, I was not surprised. This is quite a selective school and I would have suggested that this student apply in the regular round, not early action. I asked about the rest of the list and the level of stress on the other end of the phone started to diffuse when I told them that I thought their list was great and that this first decision was not surprising nor was it indicative of the way things would go for the rest of the applications. This parent was palpably relieved and asked if we could schedule another appointment with the student after the holiday to review the list, the essays and the Common App. I was happy to oblige and we made a date for the week after Thanksgiving. Two days before our appointment, the mother texted me and said that she needed to cancel our meeting and asked me to call her. I gave her a ring and she had the most wonderful news. Her child had been accepted early to one of their dream schools and they no longer needed to review their application. So in a matter of days, the anxiety and distress this family was feeling turned to full-blown elation. If your family has a senior, I wish the same for you during this holiday season. Peace and health in 2021.

Annual December Stress Antidote

The college admissions world kicks into high gear in December as schools start to send their Early Decision (ED) letters. This application plan is binding: if they admit you, you are committed to attend. Some of the most selective colleges in the country will be releasing their decisions in the next two weeks. Students typically apply to their first choice school, so these decisions usually have two results on the receiving end, unabated joy or extreme disappointment. The highs are high and the lows are low.

If you are a senior, these weeks are intense, even if you did not apply early anywhere. Years ago, I watched this stress build and I looked for some piece of wisdom to share with my seniors. I could not find what I wanted to say, so I wrote my own piece below and it still holds true. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, fasten your seatbelt and read this as often as necessary.

As early application results come in, I have noticed a heightened state among college-bound seniors as they wait for results from the schools where they applied. I searched my archives of articles to find something that might help students take stock and maintain perspective, but none of the articles said what I wanted to say, so here are my two cents. Keep your eye on your own ball. Do not pay attention to the admissions chatter. Think about what you are looking for in a college and what you want your life to look like after the 45 months that you will spend at college. Consider your strengths and weaknesses as a student as well as how you learn best. Continue to explore areas of study and career paths that interest you. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish in college like studying abroad or completing an internship. Explore the websites of ALL the colleges where you are applying and see if anything jumps out at you. College admission is just the beginning. The kids that “win” at the college game (if there even is such a thing) are the students that arrive on campus with a sense of purpose, use their four years well and graduate on time. In precisely five months you will be submitting a deposit to the lucky school that gets to have you for the next four years. Use this time to ponder what you want in a college so that when your choices are on the table, you have a deeper sense of what you want in a school.

Three Things To Be Grateful For In College Admissions Due To The Pandemic

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones in 2020! They say every cloud has a silver lining and I suppose every pandemic does too. I want to point out a few things that the Coronavirus has brought to college admissions that we can be grateful for. As we head into the final stages of the 2021 application cycle, as well as the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it would be appropriate to look at three changes that are an advantage for applicants:

1. There has always been a lengthy list of schools that offered a test-optional application plan. The group maintains an excellence set of resources to find schools that do not require standardized testing for admission. You can access their website here, But that list has expanded geometrically. Colleges that require test scores for the 2021 cycle ( and I think that this will be a continued benefit for the 2022 kids) are in a minority and if testing is not your strong suit, this is an advantage for you.

2. Colleges are operating in a world where the complex data that they use to build and shape a class are not going to work as effectively as they have in the past. It is going to be harder for schools to predict who will come, so whatever a college’s admit rate has been in the past, my guess is that they are going to have to admit more students to fill their class in 2021. These increased rates of admission are an advantage for seniors.

3. Everything that you used to see when you visited a college has been moved online and then some. You can stream live tours, information sessions, videos on specific majors or what the housing is like. You can engage with current students and admissions representative in chats. Admissions offices have done an incredible job creating online opportunities to engage with them and there are excellent resources available. There is no substitute for seeing a campus in action, but this is a great place to start.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended so many aspects of our lives but the list above are things to be grateful for if you have a 2021 college applicant. Health and happiness to you and your family as 2020 comes to an end.

Senior Emergency Plan

If you are a senior or the parent of a senior and you are behind on your college planning, this post is for you. The pandemic has created stress and hardship but one of the silver linings is that for seniors in high school, there has never been a better time to apply to college. And, the majority of schools will take applications without ACT/SAT scores! Below is a plan to complete a Common Application in ten hours or less.

Step #1-Open an account on the Common App and start filling it out the basic information. You will need to have access to your courses and detailed information about your family. Time required-1 hour.

Step #2-Use this guide from the College Essay Guy, Ethan Sawyer, to fill out the activities section and the honors/awards section of the Common App. This is a place to show off what you have done over your secondary school career. This is not a place to be humble. Time required-1 hour.

Step #3-Start drafting your personal statement. The “college essay” is not a traditional essay and should not be intimidating. It is a short personal statement where you get to share something about yourself. I do an exercise with my students where I give them an essay that another student has written and I time them while they read it. On average, it takes them about two minutes to get through it. I guarantee you that it takes a seasoned admissions professional ninety seconds or less to read one. So, the question is this: if you had ninety seconds with an admissions director in an elevator, what would you want them to know about you? Here is a breakdown of how to approach the essay:

Day 1- One hour

~Figure out what you to share about yourself. 15 minutes

~Draft a journal-style piece to tell your story. Do not consider the word count here, just keep writing until you have told your story. When you are done, put the piece aside for the rest of the day. 45 minutes

Day 2-Thirty minutes

~Review your writing and take a look at the word count. The limit is 650 so if you are over that (and most students are), find passages that are redundant or not germane to your story. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 3-Thirty minutes

~If you are still over the word count, read through and see what parts are critical to your story and what you can eliminate. Force yourself to get at our under the word count. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 4-Fifteen minutes

~Review your work and smooth out any parts that are awkward. Make sure your language is not redundant. Double check that you are not over the word count. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 5-Fifteen minutes

~Read through one more time and make any revisions. When you are ready, share it with someone else for a final proofing and editing.

Step #4-Enlist two teachers (ideally from different subject areas) to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. This should be done in person and you should follow up with an email that thanks them, shares where you are applying, what you hope to study and lets them know what deadlines you are facing. Time required-30 minutes

Step #5- Meet with your school counselor to determine where you are going to apply. They will have important context about how colleges evaluate students from your school. Time required-1 hour

Step #6-Submit transcript requests to your high school.-Time required-15 minutes

Step #7-Sit down and submit your applications. (And if you have SAT/ACT scores that you wish to send, complete this task at the same time)-Time required-1 hour

Once you have submitted your applications, you will receive links to your application portal for each college. It is critical to monitor these to ensure that your documents arrive and your file is complete. Good luck!

5 Things That Juniors Can Do Right Now In A Pandemic

The pandemic has thrown a wrench in many aspects of the college admission world. From visiting campuses to sending in applications, we are all dealing with a new paradigm. In New Jersey, next week is the November break that in a normal year, many families use to visit colleges. I remember doing this several years ago and crisscrossing New England to arrive on campuses littered with other New Jersey license plates. Many schools are not offering tours or in-person visits now. So what can a junior do right now?

  1. Get on some campuses. I do not care where you go, or if it is a school that interests you. You just need to go. These schools are going to have students on campus for the next few weeks, so the window to see a college in action is closing and who knows what things will look like for the spring semester. Even if they are not offering formal visits or tours, go see who is there and get a sense of the vibe. And I recommend that you even take off a day from school to do this!
  2. Come up with a testing plan. Take a look at the schedule for the SAT and the ACT. Decide when a good prep window is for you and get organized to prepare and test, either in late 2020 or spring of 2021.
  3. Explore schools that interest you through virtual information sessions and online tours. If they ask for your email, give it to them so you can demonstrate interest.
  4. Focus on your academics. Curriculum and academic performance are the number one thing that colleges are looking for when they review your file.
  5. As you progress through your junior year, build good relationships with your teachers. You are going to need two letters of recommendation from people that have had you in class.

There are surreal times and as we all put one foot in front of the other, I hope this helps you gain a sense of some of the things that are in your control. And happy teacher’s convention weekend!

Thoughts From Mr. Fiske (Or Calm in the Heart of Application Season)

Earlier this month I had the great fortune to attend a professional webinar with Mr. Edward Fiske, the man behind Fiske Guide to Colleges. It was so interesting to hear his perspective on colleges in 2020. His career began in the 1960s as a journalist and he still works on the annual publication of the guide that bears his name. I enjoyed learning everything from how they decide which colleges to include in the guide to what makes them different from other college books and how things have changed over the years. I put a few quotes from the webinar with Mr. Fiske below with some comments from me. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, things are ramping up as the October 15th deadlines just passed and the November deadlines are approaching. I hope his sage words offer calm and perspective. Here are a few takeaways:

Too much information is useless information.-I have heard that getting information about college admissions is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. I am a firm believer that students need to start early and take time to sort out what they want from their college experiences and which schools offer the best fit. However, at some point, there are diminishing marginal returns on the information.

The colleges’ ability to manipulate the applicant pool is astonishing.”-The truth of the matter is that colleges hold many of the cards in the admissions world. They can leverage institutional funds to recruit students and they can put application plans in place to increase their yield. (I am looking at you Colgate, with ED1, ED2 AND ED3) It is important to be aware of this so that you can chart your own course and take the steps that are best for your student.

The US diversity of higher education options is phenomenal.”-This statement speaks for itself. There are thousands of choices and more than half of them except more than half of the applicant pool.

There are dozens of schools that would be a good match.”-And this statement is why my mantra is “Love Your List”. When a student is only excited about their reach schools, it is a recipe for disappointment and heartache. I wrote a piece about this, here. Do not fall in love with one school.

Find a place where the personality of the school will serve your needs.”-I wrote a piece that I publish every year in February for my seniors that has a beautiful quote that speaks to this, called, “A Valentine for my Seniors”. It speaks to this very point.

The American system of higher education is a real treasure.-And at the end of the day, this is the point that I want to drive home. There is no other country in the world with the array of options that we have. I work with students of all academic ranges and there are schools for everyone. So if you are in the heart of the application season and feeling some stress, I hope that Mr. Fiske’s comments offer a calm perspective.

The College Admissions Book You Need to Read

Tomorrow is the publication date for Jeff Selingo’s new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. I was able to get my hands on a copy a few days early, thanks to River Road Books in Fair Haven. I am halfway through it and I attended a private Zoom meeting with Jeff last night. If you are the parent of a college-bound high school student, this is a must read.

Jeff Selingo is a journalist who has reported for over two decades on higher education. He was the editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the bestselling author of two books about college, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow and College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students. He was well-positioned to write about college admissions.

Jeff embedded in the admissions department of three different colleges to research for this book. He takes an in-depth look at how decisions are made at University of Washington, Davidson College and Emory University. This is an interesting slice of schools: a large state flagship in the Pacific Northwest, a small liberal arts college in rural North Carolina and a medium-sized school in Atlanta. If your family is negotiating this passage, Jeff’s book will help uncover some of the mystery of who gets in and why. I highly recommend it!

I am posting quotes on my instagram story as I read the book. You can follow me at louiselarsen14.