Applicants from high schools with a ‘track record’ could have even bigger edge this year

While researching for his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, journalist Jeffrey Selingo spent an entire academic year shadowing and interviewing admissions teams. In a column for The Washington Post, Selingo highlights one particular surprise from his time embedded at Emory University, Davidson College, and the University of Washington: “how often admissions officers were evaluating high schools as much as they were students.” 

Officers’ comfort with known “feeder” schools—those where students tend to apply to selective schools, or perform well, or enroll at high rates—may become an even bigger factor this coming admissions cycle, given how the coronavirus pandemic has upended much of the criteria admissions officers typically use to judge applicants. 

Related: How will admissions officers evaluate applicants this year? >

“For admissions officers, there is comfort in certainty: Can students do the academic work here? Will they enroll if accepted? Such questions become easier to answer when colleges are familiar with a high school—and in some cases, when they can read between the lines of a recommendation written by a counselor they recognize,” Selingo writes. 

Will colleges take a chance on students from lesser-known schools?

Even before the pandemic, a small percentage of high schools dominated the admissions process at highly selective schools. Looking at a decade’s worth of applications to one top university, Selingo found that just 18 percent of the nation’s 43,000 public and private high schools accounted for more than 75 percent of the 130,000 applications analyzed—and 79 percent of admitted students.    

Selingo points out three key factors that may “make life more difficult this year for bright students from high schools without a track record of sending lots of people to competitive colleges.” 

First, admissions teams won’t necessarily be able to rely on ACT or SAT scores. Most of the country’s bachelor’s degree-granting schools have dropped the requirement for ACT/SAT scores for fall 2021, amid testing cancellations and mounting equity concerns. Without the ability to look at scores, however, officers may be less likely to take a chance on a high-performing student from a “less rigorous” high school.

The pass-fail grading systems many schools have adopted during the pandemic also could complicate matters. Selingo points out that “nothing carries more weight in admissions than grades and the strength of an applicant’s high school curriculum.” 

Finally, many financially strapped colleges will be even more conscious of students’ likelihood to enroll and pay. Admissions officers may look to prioritize students from high schools where applicants reliably enroll.

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