There has been a rise in early applicants to US universities as many of them are not requiring SAT or ACT scores from students this year. Image Credit: Getty Images. For illustrative purposes only.

Dubai: There has been a rise in early applicants to US universities as many of the universities are not requiring SAT or ACT scores from students, UAE-based education consultants said. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students were not able to take standardised US university entrance tests such as SAT and ACT. As a result, many universities have gone “test optional”, meaning they don’t require the scores as part of securing admission.

Education consultants in Dubai said the development had allowed many students to apply early for 2021, before November 2020, to receive the response from their first-choice university by December 2020.

Peter Davos, founder and CEO of Hale Education Group, said almost all of its students applied early this year, as the pandemic offered them the opportunity to begin working on the bulk of their applications in March, a process they typically begin in August.

Peter Davos

As most students did not travel over the summer, they were able to channel their additional time into their college research, personal statements, and supplementary essays, he said.

‘Applications tsunami’

Davos said leading US universities experienced “an explosion in applicant numbers” this year. For example, he added, Harvard University’s early applications were up 57 per cent year on year, Columbia University’s early applications rose 49 per cent, Yale University’s increased 38 per cent, and Dartmouth University’s climbed by 29 per cent. “This is largely attributable to the fact that almost all selective universities went test optional this year, encouraging many applicants with weak test scores who otherwise would not have applied to do so. The top ranked universities were not prepared for this tsunami,” Davos said. He pointed out that regarding Hale students, none of them applied as test optional candidates though.

Another factor driving this “flight to quality” and increase in applications to the most selective universities was financial, as “the universities with the deepest pockets and most generous financial aid packages attracted more candidates who were adversely impacted by the pandemic”.

‘Committed to attending’

Sanjeev Verma, Director, Intelligent Partners, said there was “an increase of 30 per cent of our highly competitive students choosing early decision as the medium for gaining admission”.

Sanjeev Verma

Early decision plans are normally binding, meaning students who are accepted under this plan have to attend the university they applied to.

Early decision plans are normally binding, meaning students who are accepted under this plan have to attend the university they applied to. “While it does have restrictions, early decision is best suited for students applying to top tier schools and who are confident in their choice of university and their own capabilities. It increases the probability for admission to top tier schools as it shows the school you are committed to attending,” Verma said.

2021 ‘extremely competitive’

He added that 2020 has led to “even more students chasing even fewer seats; using the early decision path to gain admission can be even more rewarding. Should a student be admitted to an Ivy [League university] or equivalent, then there is nothing to worry about as their dreams have come true. And if they don’t get in, they have enough time to apply during the regular admissions cycle”.

Verma expects 2021 to be an “extremely competitive” year for students. Instead of starting their first year online in 2020, many students decided to defer their joining date to 2021, he said. “Additionally, every year sees an increase in students applying. What this means is simple – there are going to be fewer seats available for admission in fall 2021, resulting in an extremely competitive year,” Verma added.

What is the end result?

The “end result” of pandemic-led disruptions, such as universities going test optional, has made student’s academic grades from school more important than ever, Verma said. “In normal times, a student’s academic grades would count up to only 40 per cent of his or her application to a top tier US [university]. The balance 60 per cent was determined by an aptitude exam, essays, extracurricular activities, community service and references.

“This year, for the first time ever, top tier schools have waived the need for students to sit for aptitude exams such as the SAT and ACT. The pandemic has also made it impossible for students to use their holidays to participate in extracurricular activities or community services. The end result is that academic grades have never been more important, an extremely favourable development for scholarly students lacking the other attributes,” he added.

UAE-based students said the development has increased their interest in attending university in the US. “As many universities in the US are going test optional, I am thinking about applying to university in the US as I don’t have to take the SAT/ACT test, which needs time and preparation,” said Benny Joel, 19, who is from Singapore.

Hamsa Prabha, a 20-year-old student from India, said: “Since competitive exams are non-compulsory for applying to most universities in the US, I now consider the US as one of my study abroad destinations as there no tedious preparations involved.”