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Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions has been out for five days. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both gave it positive reviews this past week. There was an excerpt in The Atlantic. And we have more media planned for the weeks ahead.

If you or a friend you know hasn’t had a chance to get the book yet, encourage them to do it TODAY. Saturday is still considered part of the first week on sale, a critical reporting metric in tracking sales and continuing to get support for the title from the publisher and more independent bookstores.

Also, if you bought the book through Amazon, once you finish it, I’d appreciate a review.

In next week’s newsletter, I’ll be talking about what I learned from the two years of reporting and writing the book, but this week I wanted to focus on applying to college in the middle of a pandemic.

First, two quick announcements:

?Tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. ET, join me, Scott Galloway, who has earned a lot of media attention in recent weeks for his predictions on the future of higher ed, as well as Susan Fitzgerald from Moody’s Investors Service as we talk about how you can put your college list under the financial microscrope. What do you need to know so you can check out the financial health of the colleges you’re considering? Debbie

  • More details and register for free here.

?Book giveaway. Grown & Flown is giving away 100 copies of Who Gets In and Why. Enter here to win here by Tuesday night.

Want to know more about the new book? Here’s a quick overview.

7 Hours in 5 Minutes

Over the last month, I’ve led more than a half dozen virtual town halls on the admissions search during Covid-19. During every discussion, new issues and questions emerged about the process this cycle, but some of the same subjects kept coming up over and over again. So you don’t have to watch hours of video (although you can if you want — details below), here is some of what students and parents need to know about the most frequently asked questions about applying to college this year.

1. Stop worrying getting a test score.

  • Although 400+ colleges, including some of the highest ranked campuses, suspended — or in some cases ended — their testing requirement, some families seem to be pulling out all the stops to get an SAT or ACT score.
  • Even if you don’t trust test-optional schools in a normal year, this isn’t a normal year. Take the University of Chicago, which before this year was the most selective college to have gone test optional. In a typical year, only 15 to 20 percent of applicants took advantage of the university’s optional policy, about the same proportion who were eventually admitted without scores. But this year officials expect they might not get scores from half of applicants.
  • While top colleges can certainly craft a class from half their pool, they won’t. Trust colleges on this one if they say they’re test optional in admissions.
  • That said, ask about financial aid, since many colleges also award their merit-aid based on test scores. Most colleges are dropping the requirement there, too, although it’s still early to know exactly how they’ll award that aid.

Bottom line: For most applicants to most colleges, grades and test scores align, so a score this yet won’t tell admissions officers any more than they already know from a transcript. What’s more, students tend to score higher the more often they take the tests. This year, it’s unlikely teenagers will be able to take the test more than once, meaning they won’t have their best score to submit anyway.

2. Control what you can.

  • Without test scores, those colleges where the ACT/SAT played a role in admissions — and it always played less of a role than many students and parents thought — will lean into other parts of the application where students have more control over their destiny anyway.
  • The high-school transcript is the most important piece of your application — yes, even more than test scores. While it’s too late to change your senior-year schedule, you can spend your time earning good grades in those classes.
  • Essays. One place where applicants can stand out this year is in their essay. I found during my year inside admissions most essays are unfortunately mind-numbingly similar. Teenagers often focus on the same things: overcoming an athletic injury, dealing with anxiety, depression, or their sexuality, or discovering themselves on a trip, with a fill-in-the-blank country such as Guatemala or Thailand (more on essays below).
  • Recommendations. Seniors might be worried that some of their teachers only got to know them during remote learning. That might be true of senior-year teachers, but most students have teachers to ask from previous years when they were in-person. This might also be the year to choose a teacher who may have had you more than one year in school to talk about your growth. Another tip from the book: also ask a teacher outside the subject you want to major in to show your breadth of interests.

Bottom line: Spend less time worrying about the ACT/SAT and more on your class work and completing your applications.

3. You don’t need to write about the pandemic.

  • Applicants should consider skipping the question added to the Common App and the Coalition App on how the coronavirus impacted them if the result wasn’t significant — a death in the family or a job loss — the University of Chicago’s dean of admission, James Nondorf, said during one of our recent virtual sessions.
  • Whatever you write there, other admissions deans told me they don’t want to read about seniors complaining that the end of high school was ruined for them by the pandemic. They already know that. You can turn a negative into a positive and write about what you were able to do because of the coronavirus.
  • There are no hard and fast rules on the Covid-19 question or essays in general, but during the year I spend embedded in the process, the essays that stuck out often did because the students wrote with an authentic voice that gave readers a sense of what the student saw, felt, or thought.

Bottom line: The best essays are honest slice-of-life stories, both entertaining and serious, that tell admissions officers something they don’t learn from another part of the application. They’re essays that aren’t trying to shoehorn 17 years into 650 words.

4. Early decision will be more important for colleges, but maybe not for you.

  • As the book explains, colleges pulled the lever harder than ever on early decision (ED) in the wake of the 2008 recession. They didn’t want to take a chance that they’d struggle to fill seats in the spring.
  • Schools that traditionally filled maybe a quarter to one-third of their classes through ED boosted that proportion to upward of half in the fall of 2008
  • Expect colleges with robust early-admissions pools (basically selective colleges) to do the same this year. They don’t have much room to grow that part of the incoming class — after all they likely won’t admit 75% early — but they’ll up the numbers where they can.
  • ED has always advantaged colleges, but maybe more so this year since applicants can’t get to campuses to take tours and might be doing their senior year online, making it difficult to talk to counselors.

Bottom line: Advice about whether to apply ED hasn’t really changed from before the pandemic. If you know where you really want to go and are sure of the financial commitment required, then apply early. Otherwise, wait until the spring when you can compare financial-aid offers and might be able to visit a campus.

5. The effects of deferrals this year will be less than you think on the Class of 2021.

  • As seniors hear about anywhere from 4% to 20% of incoming students this fall deciding to delay the start of college, they’re worried those students will take their seat in next year’s freshman class.
  • One thing I learned in reporting my last book, There is Life After College, is that during a gap year, many students end up changing their mind about where they planned to go to school, and apply elsewhere. Perhaps the same thing will happen this year.
  • Plus, most colleges want to keep their overall enrollment and tuition income steady from year-to-year. A smaller sophomore class next fall will mean many colleges will go after transfer students, or most likely if they have the capacity, increase the size of their incoming class next fall. Remember, most colleges need the tuition revenue right now.

Bottom line: My advice is to stop worrying about deferals. It’s one of those things you can’t control anyway.

?Last Monday night, I recorded a special session on admissions during the Covid-era with Lisa Heffernan, co-founder of Grown & Flown. You can watch a free replay of session here.

?Access to replay links of the four town halls I held with admissions deans remain available for those who have pre-ordered the book. Send your receipt in any form, from any bookseller to to receive recordings from the entire series.


Why the SAT and the ACT Will Likely Survive the Pandemic in Some Form
Despite colleges dropping their testing requirements because of the coronavirus, students continue to sign up for the exams, believing that a score is the key to admission. (

College Rankings, Take One
Read Chapter 2 of Who Gets In and Why to find out what the college rankings really mean and how they can be manipulated before checking out two new rankings out this week. (

College Rankings, Take Two
Surprise, surprise. The Ivy League dominated this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings. (

As always, thanks for subscribing.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...