COLLEGE ADMISSIONS IN THE WAKE OF A PANDEMIC
Each year, over three million high school seniors across the country apply to college. For the most part, the application process has stayed fairly constant over the years. However, due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, rising seniors all over the country are staring at a black box. What are colleges looking for?
This year’s college application process will be challenging not only for students, but also for college admissions officers. Changes to the generally structured application process will make it difficult for students to predict colleges expectations and for colleges to understand student profiles. Furthermore, this pandemic may be exacerbating the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Wealthier students will have the time and capabilities to pursue unique extracurricular activities for their college applications while their less fortunate counterparts will be preoccupied with more serious concerns.
This pandemic may be exacerbating the widening gap between the rich and the poor
Many colleges are now temporarily test-optional, meaning they are not requiring standardized test scores from applicants for the 2020-2021 admission cycle. However, if submitted, most schools are still seriously considering these scores. Laurie Kopp Weingarten, an independent college admissions counselor and member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, spoke about standardized testing policies and the various stances taken by different colleges. “Which college is truly test optional and which colleges are what I’m calling reluctantly test optional? Those schools that are saying that it’s a two years or three years pilot, they really mean it. They’re really trying this.”
The University of Chicago, which has been test-optional since before the pandemic, writes that standardized tests can “provide valuable information” about an applicant. They add that they “encourage students to take standardized tests, like the ACT and SAT, and to share your scores with us.” This position reaffirms that schools will in fact look at standardized scores and these scores will be used as a factor in admissions, if submitted. Many schools also understand that due to the pandemic, students are unable to take the SAT or ACT before applications are due and state that this will not harm the student’s chances of admission.
Cornell University, which is test-optional for this year only, writes that “As appears to be true at test-optional colleges and universities, we anticipate that many students who will have had reasonable and uninterrupted opportunities to take the ACT and/or SAT during 2020 administrations will continue to submit results, and those results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work.”
This statement suggests that Cornell will also look to standardized testing as a measure of an applicant’s success in college and will be strongly considered if submitted. They add that “Applicants with no test results might more often be asked after review has begun for additional evidence of continuing preparation, including grade reports from current senior year enrollment when that can be made available in time for Cornell admission review.”
This clause goes to show that many elite universities claim to be test-optional without truly embracing the policy. It will be much more difficult for students who do not submit test scores to prove to the universities that they are deserving of admission. Students will need to show strong supporting evidence that they were unable to take a standardized test yet still have a profile worthy of the school.
Without standardized testing, it is unclear how colleges will effectively choose the right candidates. The ACT and SAT are typically considered a strong predictor of a student’s success in their first year of college. Since GPAs are highly variable between schools, standardized tests provide a rough but efficient measure of comparison between students across the nation.
The lack of standardization among grading in high schools complicates this matter further. Each school district implemented a unique way of assessing students this past semester including only giving a pass or fail grade, attendance based grading, or a no-harm system where grades can only increase during the disrupted school-year. These inconsistencies make it difficult for admissions officers to assess improvement over the year and consider grades this past semester, which are generally important factors in the application process.
In order to account for this, Weingarten believes that “Teacher recs and counselor recs will be more important than ever. [Colleges are] saying they’re going to scrutinize the transcript up until COVID. Some are going to start doing interviews.” She says that if a student’s grades during COVID are reflective of their grades before, “schools will give students the benefit of the doubt and will look to past years.” If students showed great improvement this past year, she says to “get those teacher recs to say that although almost everyone ended up with an A, this student from September to March had a strong A average, so colleges can see that it wasn’t a ‘COVID A’, it was a real A.”
“Teacher recs and counselor recs will be more important than ever. [Colleges are] saying they’re going to scrutinize the transcript up until COVID.”
Students will need to go beyond and prove to the school that they have been continuing to work hard over the past several months. Colleges need to see that students will continue to work hard once they enroll and will be an asset to have on campus.
It is still unclear how the academic quality of the incoming class will be impacted by these new measures. Weingarten believes the quality of students at highly selective institutions will not diminish as those schools have the time and resources to choose worthy candidates. However, some of the less prestigious schools are struggling to fill their classes as students are increasingly worried about the pandemic’s spread and its effect on campus life. These schools may be looking to accept students that they normally would not to ensure normal class sizes.
Another large part of a student’s college application is the student’s extracurricular achievements. Outside the classroom, high school students are involved in numerous activities including varsity sports, clubs, and research. College admissions officers understand that many students’ summer plans and internships have been cancelled due to the pandemic. The Harvard admissions department stated “Students who find themselves limited in the activities they can pursue due to the current coronavirus outbreak will not be disadvantaged as a result” Though they attempt to put students at ease by reassuring them that a lack of extracurriculars will not harm their applications, they fail to provide an alternative and leave students struggling to find another way to stand out from the tens of thousands of other applicants.
Yale University adds with a similar statement by advising their candidates to “demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for whatever you spend your time doing.” Unfortunately, few students can afford to take unique approaches to express these traits in an attempt to appeal to an admissions counselor. Wealthier students with heavily invested parents will be able to start non-profits, support local communities, and explore their passions while their less fortunate peers will be struggling to make ends meet. This pandemic may be contributing to the already widening educational gap between the rich and the poor as important resources are being disproportionately taken away from the poor. When students do not know where their next meal will come from, they will not be able to put in the time to research what schools are looking for and implement those ideas.
Furthermore, wealthier students attending private schools will be given more resources and information to help guide them during this pandemic. Their counselors will provide them with specific guidelines on how to create an appealing application while also providing constant updates on new policies adopted by various colleges. Teachers at private schools tend to write stronger letters of recommendation, which will hold more weight for the upcoming admissions cycle. The wealthy ten percent of students attending private schools will have a significant advantage compared to their public school peers this year.
Weingarten offers alternatives for lower income students by suggesting that students pursue volunteer opportunities, many of which are virtual. Students can record singing telegrams to patients in hospitals, write letters to sick children, teach kids online, or even teach themselves something. She emphasizes “I don’t think you need to be wealthy to be productive during this time but I also don’t think you need to be productive if something serious is going on in your family [regardless of income]. Many colleges are telling students to take care of themselves. Just be safe, take care of yourself, don’t worry about your extracurriculars.”
To help account for students affected by the pandemic, the Common App has added an optional question for students to describe the impact of COVID-19 on their living situation. This opportunity gives them a chance to explain their situation and help admissions officers understand why they were not as busy this past summer.
Hopefully, colleges will take this question into serious consideration when looking at the applications of affected students. Even with questions like this, it will be a challenge for counselors to compare students from across the nation and determine who belongs at their school come fall.
Edited by Josh Keller