27 January 2021
The Ivy League: key takeaways from 2020

Having been an admissions officer at Yale University, I thought that I had already seen the biggest Ivy League admissions disruptions. Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, and a disastrous software rollout for the Common App in 2013; all were easily eclipsed by 2020.

Indeed, 2020 will have a longer lasting effect on the world of admissions.

Given the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the higher education sector, you’d think that Yale and other Ivy League schools would be similarly affected… Yes and no.


So, what hasn’t changed for Ivy League institutions after this extraordinary year? Well, applications continue to rise.

I thought that we might see this number remain the same or decline a couple of percentage points, but Ivy Leagues saw a jump from between 22% and 57% in applications. As it turns out, the attraction of an Ivy League education is powerful even in the face of virtual/hybrid learning and socially-distanced residential life.

By waiving SAT or ACT requirements, more applicants decided to have a go at applying. The other attraction is that students may apply knowing that deferring matriculation by a year or two is an option, and they can attend once the pandemic is over—that’s what about a fifth of admitted Yale students did last year!

Additionally, Yale and other Ivy League institutions will continue to prioritize admitting a class of students that represent America. Yale’s most recently-admitted class of students had more Pell Grant-eligible students, more first generation students, more underrepresented groups, and increased rural/geographic representation.

COVID adjustments

Still, COVID-19 has forced Ivy League admissions offices to recalibrate in significant ways.

They’re following health protocols: Alumni volunteers have been asked to adhere to these rules when interviewing applicants and, in some cases, the number of applicant interviews have been significantly cut down. And campus visits and information sessions on the road have been cancelled.

Ivy Leagues have also expanded their respective virtual presences: Multicultural recruitment events, open houses, information sessions, and campus tours have all gone online; social media accounts, and even podcasts, have become key tools.

This explosion of online content helps to recapture some of the magic that came from in-person events. It also serves to reach new audiences who wouldn’t have visited Yale before applying.


Finally, standardized testing is under greater scrutiny and Ivy Leagues have reconsidered its place in their admissions processes. They’ve now made the SAT and ACT optional for their applicants in light of the pandemic.

While it was the right thing to do, it will complicate the evaluation of applicants’ academic abilities, shifting most of the weight onto transcripts. Admissions offices also lose their early outreach strategy targeting high-scoring prospects without these exams.

To combat these struggles, they’ve already started forming partnerships with alternative sources of prospects like college search websites (i.e. Cappex, Niche.com).

Ivy League outcomes

I predict that at least one of these changes will stick after the pandemic. The increase in virtual/online content will remain because it provides another medium for reaching underrepresented and low-income students who cannot visit campuses or attend information sessions.

In terms of what will return, I am confident that in-person campus visits and information sessions will be back ASAP. I’d also guess that the decision to make standardized testing optional will eventually be reversed.

While I have heard that Ivy League admissions officers are still able to make clear judgments without this factor, the uptick in applications is adding hours onto their work weeks. It seems unsustainable, and the increase isn’t necessarily translating proportionately to an increase in strong applications.

2020 will always be a terrible year because of COVID-19, but Ivy League admissions offices may look back and remember this year as the one that brought about a much-needed virtual revolution.

If your institution is looking to go digital with recruitment, I’d be happy to tell you more about Unibuddy. Shoot me an email at [email protected] to schedule a call.


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