With college applications up, so is need for applications to be top notch

Will you see confetti, or will there be a somber screen?

For the class of 2028, most colleges had record-setting numbers of college applications. New York University received 85,000 applications, up 10.5 percent from last year. For the 20 years since creating College Essay Coach, I have seen the need for every element of the application to be top notch. There are five noticeable trends highlighting this increased importance to shine through.

First, community service is an increasingly important factor in standing apart from other applicants. Local volunteering includes COTS Walk, Penguin Plunge and Spectrum Sleep Out. Essays can share insight into experiences and values that are important to the applicant. This shows empathy while walking in someone else’s shoes.

Over time, community service expectations have grown in supporting groups such as Black Lives Matter and the Global Climate Strike. Community engagement can be personalized to illustrate a deep commitment to a cause, including creating an event. Colleges encourage making a difference around us.

The second big trend is how colleges use structured writing to evaluate critical thinking and analysis. Even before 2004, the SAT and ACT had timed and scored written essays that measured analytical reasoning. Thematic writing is paramount in college, whether it be blue book exams, research papers or PowerPoint presentations.

In 2015, the ACT revised its essay to include analyzing three perspectives of one prompt within 40 minutes. In 2016, the SAT revised its essay format, but discontinued it in June 2021.

Currently, the ACT essay is optional, but can be a good way to differentiate an applicant. It is scored across three criteria: developed ideas, structured arguments and language usage. Students learn how to take a stand with their writing and build confidence in communicating ideas. Achieving a top score on the ACT essay is an opportunity for the student to emphasize their ability as a persuasive writer with the admissions committee.

The third abrupt trend was the 2020 pandemic, which unleashed the test-optional movement. Since most high schools became virtual classrooms, the schools were not open to administer standardized tests. The AP exams were revised for online testing. The SAT subject tests, which were required for most highly selective schools, were eliminated. Nearly all colleges became test-optional for the 2020-21 admissions cycle.

The testing quandary continues today. In March, The Wall Street Journal profiled Quinnipiac University, which is test-optional, test-recommended or test-required, depending on the applicant’s intended major. Submitting scores can make-or-break for admissions for highly competitive majors such as engineering and business.

This March, The Washington Post explained that the number of students taking the SAT nationally has continued to rise each year since 2020. The College Board, which administers the SAT, reports that 1.9 million high school students in the class of 2023 took the exam, compared to 2.2 million for the class of 2019 (before the pandemic).

This year, Opportunity Insights, an educational research non-profit, analyzed how standardized test scores are a better predictor of college student achievement than GPA. The report compared performance gaps of admitted students who submitted scores to those who did not.

This upcoming 2024-25 application cycle, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, University of Texas-Austin and University of Tennessee are requiring scores. They join MIT and Georgetown, who reverted to being test-required for the 2021-22 admissions cycle.

The fourth significant trend was last June’s Supreme Court ruling, which effectively halted race-conscious admissions in higher education. Ending affirmative action highlighted the role of essays as a way for students to share their personal identity and social background. Colleges want to hear an applicant’s story to build a diverse campus community with various perspectives.

The fifth trend foreshadows a widening disconnect between choosing a major and getting a job after college. This February, The Wall Street Journal reported that 52 percent of college graduates are in jobs that do not use their academic qualifications. For example, 47 percent of biology or biomedical science majors remain underemployed five years after graduating.

To circumvent this ominous trend, students should have a plan to optimize the college experience. Adding internships and work experiences can build academic interests into careers. Some students may consider applying to graduate school to gain credentials and form networking opportunities.

These past 20 years have shown the increasing importance of having a well-supplied tool chest to both get into and succeed in college.

(Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.)