How COVID-19 is changing the college admissions process

As high school seniors prepare their college applications, there is undoubtedly more uncertainty in the process than ever. Seniors wonder how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact their chances of admission to their dream schools, while juniors and sophomores wonder how to prepare their applications when clubs, summer activities, grades, and internships have been put on hold. 

Many colleges and universities have announced test-optional policies for the 2021 admissions cycle. However, there has already been a trend of eliminating the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT) requirements due to persistent inequalities among students in access to private tutoring and quality of education. Schools such as Yale, Brown, Williams, Barnard, the California Institute of Technology and Vassar have followed suit in light of the unprecedented global crisis. 

However, are these tests truly optional as these institutions claim? Vassar Director of Admissions David Toomer shared that if a score benefits a student’s application, then they are welcome to submit it. However, he added, “Truly we do not require the tests, and we do not want students putting themselves at risk to take a test. We hope it decreases the anxiety around the process and that students truly take to heart that it is unnecessary to test this year.” 

Over 500 colleges and universities, including Vassar, signed a statement claiming that becoming test-optional genuinely means that submitting test scores is unnecessary. Williams College has also signed the pledge. Williams College Assistant Director of Admission Kate Heekin said in an emailed statement, “We will not require SAT or ACT test scores this year (and we really mean it!). We have always read applications holistically and see it as an honor to go over all of the parts of the application that students send.” Time will tell if this change is permanent. Toomer wrote that the program will be reviewed at the end of 2021.

Due to this change, students wonder whether the overall criteria for admissions will be altered. Heekin shared that academic rigor and intellectual curiosity remain paramount in Williams’s admissions review. “We definitely recognize that the pandemic has caused so many disruptions to students’ activities and routines,” said Heekin. “We aren’t concerned with selectivity rates—we simply want to find a new group of students who are eager to contribute in the classroom and our small community.” Brown University also assured students that they are aware of the pandemic’s potential impacts on applications: “We will consider the many elements impacting and shaping your experiences as a result of COVID-19 … We want to see what you have accomplished with the resources and opportunities available to you in high school, as well as evaluate your potential to thrive within the unique offerings of Brown University.” Similarly, Toomer notes that the overall application process remains the same. He also noted that there is no penalty for not being able to engage in extracurricular activities or for changes in grading policies that are outside of a student’s control. If a student is worried about this, they can write about their pandemic-related challenges in this year’s Common Application, which has a prompt related to COVID-19.

Students aren’t the only ones for whom the admissions process has changed. Admissions officers must now connect virtually with high schools both domestically and internationally to convey the essence of their school, all while perhaps avoiding face-to-face connection. Williams College has created regular virtual info sessions and Q&A chats with tour guides on Zoom, as well as virtual tours and open houses. Brown has created live virtual tours with a student guide. “There are so many ways to talk to current students and admission and financial aid officers,” said Heekin. “We have also focused a lot more on trying to show campus and student life on Instagram. Most admission teams have dedicated a lot more time to making sure students and families can connect to us in the way that feels most comfortable!”

Apart from the admissions process itself, colleges and universities have been responding on a deeper level to the crisis:  over 300 schools, including Vassar, have signed this statement regarding expectations for the coming admissions cycle, which involves prioritizing self-care and family/volunteer engagements, as well as emphasising the context of a student’s application. According to the statement, simple acts such as helping to register voters or writing notes to frontline workers is an achievement in this time. In regards to academics,  they will be primarily based on those prior to the pandemic. 

Toomer shared this advice for high school juniors and seniors: “Admission professionals are trained to read files thoughtfully and with nuance. Because of the holistic review process, test scores are only one piece of the puzzle. Consistently strong grades in challenging courses tends to be the most influential factor.” 

He noted that while admitted students generally have high averages in rigorous courses, “Students who challenge themselves in high school, are engaged beyond the classroom, are intellectually curious, and care about the world around them will make for the most compelling applicants.” In other words, though current high schoolers currently face immense challenges, the most important elements of a college application remain unaffected. 

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