Washington University accepts exceptional students after an exceptional admissions cycle

Sumers Welcome Center
Admitted students will visit campus in April for outdoor, self-guided tours of campus. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

The 33,634 applications have been reviewed. The 4,374 admission decisions have been released. 

And now — on campus and online — Washington University in St. Louis is making its final pitch to prospective students. Starting April 1, admitted students will be visiting campus for WashU Walk-Through, a two-hour outdoor experience that includes a self-guided tour and the opportunity to see a mock residence hall room. 

“A lot needs to happen between now and May 3, which is the date students must confirm their intention to enroll at WashU,” said Ronné Turner, vice provost for admissions and financial aid. “We are counting on everyone to continue to help us as we welcome admitted students to campus in a safe way. The admission and financial aid team spent a lot of time evaluating applications to determine who to accept.

“Now we ask the campus community to get involved in our efforts to help admitted students understand why WashU is a great place to go to school. While students, staff and faculty will not be able to meet with admitted students when they visit campus, we can still make them feel welcome by helping visitors find their way around campus and answering questions, keeping safety protocols like wearing masks and physical distancing in mind.”

Turner said she is thrilled with this year’s pool of talented applicants, who hail from across the globe, including all 50 states and 45 countries. Among the admitted students, 13% are Pell Grant-eligible, 15% are Black, 15% are Latino and 10% are first-generation in their families to attend college. 

Admissions: By the numbers

Total applications: 33,634

Total admitted students:  4,374

Total Early Decision 1 and 2 applications: 3,754

Total percent of applicants who submitted test scores: 59%

Total virtual admission programs: 686 programs and 1,467 high school visits

Still, Turner admitted she is concerned by the pandemic’s troubling impact on college admissions in general. Common Application and federal student aid completion rates are down; economically stressed students are opting for work over higher education; and college counselors are struggling to reach students virtually.

“There will be long-lasting consequences for our nation and higher education,” Turner said. “Because equity is a priority at Washington University, we knew we would have to try some new things to let students and families know that a WashU education is within reach.”

Those efforts included waiving admissions fees for all students who were applying for financial aid. The university also increased communications to students eligible for the WashU Pledge, now in its second year, by mailing more than 11,500 letters and postcards. The initiative provides a free undergraduate education to admitted students from Missouri and southern Illinois whose families make less than $75,000 a year.

“Those efforts paid off. We expect to continue to meet our goals to increase the percentage of Pell-eligible and first-generation students,” Turner said. 

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions faced another daunting challenge: providing a holistic review to 33,634 applications, a 20% increase. Like many selective schools, Washington University went test-optional this admissions cycle, prompting the spike in applications. About 41% of Washington University applicants did not submit an ACT or SAT score.

Emily Almas, assistant vice provost and director of admissions, said scores always have been just one of the many metrics considered in the admissions process. So, she knew from the start that her team could evaluate candidates without scores. Still, other factors complicated their work. The pandemic impacted schools and students in wildly different ways. Some schools stopped giving grades; some stellar students struggled to stay focused amidst the chaos of COVID-19.

Admissions officers worked long days, nights and weekends, sometimes reaching back out to applicants, school counselors and teachers for additional insights. Staff and current students also conducted 2,768 virtual interviews as a way to get to know applicants. 

“The pandemic dramatically changed life for teenagers in many different ways, and we were really careful to understand the individual circumstances,” Almas said. “What are a student’s interests? How did their coursework prepare them for WashU, which is a really rigorous and challenging place? How did what a student do outside of a classroom reflect their interests? We looked at all of this in the context of what was available to a student and also in the context of COVID-19.”

For the first time, Washington University also invited students to provide a short video about themselves, and 27% of applicants took the university up on the offer. Many of these inspired Almas. 

“We had students do everything from showing us their pottery collection to giving a walking tour of their neighborhood,” Almas said. “We saw dance moves and heard spoken word poetry.  Hearing the voices of these incredible young people expressing themselves was amazing and, honestly, made me feel really hopeful and grateful that so many incredible people apply to WashU.”

While Turner and Almas are confident in the quality and character of admitted students, they are less certain about who will say yes. The university has reserved 1,795 seats for the Class of 2025, about 60% of which already have been filled by Early Decision 1 and 2 candidates as well as the 60 students who matched to Washington University through QuestBridge, which connects talented low-income and first-generation students to selective universities. Typically, admissions offices use sophisticated models to give schools a good idea of who will accept and who will pass. Not this year.

“We don’t fully understand the impact COVID will have on student choice,” Turner explained. “So, trying to figure out how many students to accept so we meet our institutional enrollment goals without over-enrolling has been a challenge. We know we are going to enroll a great class; we just don’t know how elegantly we will get there.”

The lessons learned from this cycle will inform years to come. Washington University already announced it will be test-optional for the upcoming year. It also plans to continue to waive fees for financial aid applicants. In addition, the university will expand its successful virtual programs to prospective students. Last year, Admissions hosted more than 600 virtual academic sessions, campus tours and information sessions and more than 1,400 virtual high school visits. In all, more than 12,400 applicants participated in at least one virtual event. 

“In this time of great uncertainty, we do know virtual programming is here to stay,” Almas said. “In-person recruitment will return in various forms. But we’ve been happy with the success of our virtual efforts. Whether you live a few hours away in rural Missouri or in another part of the world, you can tune in and have a conversation with a person in our community. That is so powerful.”

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