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Next up: College Application Landscape Significantly Different for High School Class of 2021

Kerby Meyers
October 09, 2020

3 minute read

After the abrupt conversion from in-person to online instruction amid the pandemic’s surge in March, the higher education community spent much of the summer focused on reopening this fall.

Yet, on a quieter front, college administrators sustained a parallel push: Keeping the prospective student funnel active–and college application levels high–for the high school class of 2021.

The recruitment process, a critical CX element in maintaining a robust applicant pipeline, underwent a number of modifications in order to keep students in the mix. Technology emerged as a core driver, facilitator, and, in some ways, an obstacle for college-minded high schoolers as they prepared for, applied to, and considered colleges and universities nationwide.

A big piece of the puzzle

Perhaps the largest non-classroom components of pre-college preparations are the standardized ACT and SAT tests, which dominate high school juniors’ discussions for months.

Inside Higher Ed reports that one year ago, around 1.8 million students, or 52% of the class of 2019, took the ACT. College Board reports that nearly 2.2 million, or 64% of the high school graduating class of 2020, took the SAT. Of those, approximately half did so during in-school testing days.

When schools shut down in the spring of 2020, however, in-school testing experienced cancellations, leaving most juniors on their own. Subsequently, as high school facilities remained closed into the summer, numerous Saturday testing dates faced cancellations as well.

Although many called for remote testing to cushion the falloff in sessions, the developers of the ACT and SAT refrained from moving the tests online. Instead, the ACT stuck to its plan to roll out an online option for remote students in the fall of 2020—too late for the class of 2021. Similarly, the College Board, which oversees the SAT program, initially planned to speed up an at-home offering but changed its mind in June.

To the students’ relief, in recognition of the ACT and SAT logistical challenges, Fairtest reports that more than 1,600 institutions made testing requirements optional this fall.

Already tech savvy in some ways

The abundance of colleges agreeing to “test-optional” considerations further smoothed the college application process, which, compared to the admission test process, was already well-prepared for a pandemic-like disruption.

Around 900 schools, for example, tap the Common Application platform, that allows students to enter basic information, upload transcripts and letters of recommendation, and enter a foundational essay in a centralized spot.

Schools may also belong to smaller networks, and many require additional essays or short-answer responses, which are commonly integrated into the centralized platforms.

In lieu of visits

While testing and application processes may be refined with technology, capturing the essence of a bustling campus is challenging online-especially when the campus is shut down.

To provide prospective students with at least a taste, admissions departments quickly ramped up tech-facilitated enhancements, investing in:

Virtual campus tours—once a luxury, videos showcasing the highlights of a campus are now a necessity.

Synchronous information sessions—frequently scheduled videoconference gatherings feature administrators, faculty, and students delivering presentations and hosting question-and-answer sessions.

Browser-based live tours—prospective students join a current student or two on a tech-enabled stroll through the campus.

Online college fairs—dedicated portals offer colleges and universities a virtual booth with secure meeting spaces.

Furthermore, many schools sharpened their e-marketing efforts, coordinating and personalizing landing pages, social media sites, texts, emails, and chatbots, frequently in sync with snail mail efforts as well.

Given the wholesale changes that higher education recruiters have made in wooing the class of 2021, the effort will likely serve as a benchmark for years to come.

Kerby Meyers
An independent consultant specializing in the development of relevant messaging and strategic content, Kerby Meyers helps ensure that his clients' communication efforts resonate with customers, prospects, employees and investors. He has been connecting corporations with key stakeholders for more than a dozen years, with an emphasis on companies in the financial services industry.
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