4 Changes That Parents of College Applicants Need to Know | College Admissions Playbook

Linda D. Garrow

As parents of teenagers know, a lot has changed since the parents were teens themselves. And the college admissions process is one of those things.

While the way students apply to college hasn’t changed as dramatically as the ways students communicate with friends, watch TV or listen to music, college applications are different enough that parents can’t totally rely on the wisdom and experience they gained when they were applying a generation ago.

Granted, the fundamentals of college applications have remained consistent:. Schools still consider factors like student GPA, extracurricular activities, personal essays, recommendations and – increasingly less – scores on standardized tests. But there are several key differences that parents must now be aware of in order to help their children apply to college.

Standardized Tests

The ACT and SAT are still the two main standardized tests that college applicants in the U.S. take. While the ACT has not changed significantly in recent decades, the SAT has gone through noticeable modifications.

For example, the analogy section, arguably the test’s most distinctive trait in the 1980s and 1990s, was eliminated in 2005 when the SAT shifted from a 1,600-point scale to a 2,400-point scale. The maximum score shifted back to 1,600 in 2016, at which point the SAT eliminated the specific assessment of vocabulary. Now, the SAT exclusively tests vocabulary in context, which requires test-takers to deduce meaning from context rather than access memorized definitions of rare words.

A result of changes to the SAT is that it now more closely resembles the ACT. In fact, studying for one test can help students prepare for the other. For this reason, many students decide to take both tests and then focus on the one that suits them better. Parents should know that some of the older study methods – including the time-honored study of vocabulary flashcards – may no longer apply.

There’s also a trend toward test optional admissions, with some schools adopting these policies temporarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding test center closures, and others planning to continue these policies – or even more assertive test-blind policies – permanently. This means that students don’t just have to decide which test to take, but whether to test or submit a score at all.

Even test-optional schools will generally put high value on high test scores, so students should still try their best on these tests and use test optional as a fallback if they don’t earn a score that would be an asset on their college applications.

The Common App

Before computers with an internet connection became a common household item, college applications were printed on paper, filled out by hand or typewriter and sent to colleges via fax or snail mail. Although there are some exceptions, colleges now expect applications and all supporting documents to be transmitted digitally. This way is not only easier on the administrative end, but it is also faster for everyone and poses less of an environmental burden.

Even more convenient is the fact that more than 900 American colleges subscribe to The Common App, an online platform for applying to colleges. Thanks to the user-friendly features of the Common App, a student can send a generic college application to multiple colleges while saving hours of time.

Note that students still must answer supplemental questions and essays separately through the platform, but it is still easier than doing everything by hand.

More Applications, More Competition

Many applicants in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s targeted around a half-dozen schools. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for the modern high schooler to apply to up to 15 institutions.

One reason is that the Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges at once. When it’s easier for students to apply to more schools, that tends to raise the number of applications for each school and the competitiveness of each school. This means that it’s not just easier for applicants to apply to several schools, but doing so is more necessary to raise their admissions chances.

As a result, colleges have increasingly turned to waitlisting as a way to prevent overbooking the incoming class. As such, a student accepted to a particular university in 1985 may not see the same favorable outcome in 2022.

If your child is waitlisted, try to see the college’s decision positively. It may be more indicative of stiff competition in the applicant pool rather than a reflection of poor performance on your child’s part.

Also, be aware that applying to a greater number of colleges will likely mean more application fees for your family. Although it is sometimes possible to obtain fee waivers, you may need to spend more money on this step than you had planned.

Online Presence

Another factor that colleges have begun to consider when making an admissions decision is the applicant’s online presence. This can include a student’s social media accounts, as well as any webpages that admissions counselors find through search engines like Google.

What these individuals discover online can help or harm a student’s chances of admission. Of course, intolerant status updates and pictures of alcohol or drug consumption could be grounds for rejection. On the other hand, posts and other online content that evidence a student’s personality, talents and achievements in a positive light can only work in his or her favor.

As a parent, you can remind your child that colleges have eyes everywhere. High schoolers should be selective about what they share on the internet and monitor what others are saying about them. At the same time, students should take advantage of colleges’ affinity for online searches by putting their best foot forward.


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