All across the United States, high school juniors are worried. Like most Americans living through the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re concerned about the health and safety of their loved ones, anxious about what tomorrow will look like, and fearful that life may not return to how it once was.
More uniquely, though, they’re worried about navigating their college admissions process for the 2021-22 academic year. With SAT and ACT exams canceled, high schools moving to pass/fail grading systems, AP exams being conducted online and many campuses closed for the foreseeable future, the class of 2021 is facing challenges endured by no class before them.
Naturally, this year’s high school juniors, who are soon to be entering the thick of the college admissions process, have a lot of questions. And we at The University Network (TUN) have set out to find answers.
After speaking to two independent college counselors and a university admissions professional, we put together this article to highlight and address high school juniors’ most immediate and pressing concerns.
Should students still opt to take the SAT/ACT?
The simple answer is yes. If students are able to take the SAT or ACT, without it causing them too much added stress, it’s a good idea. But it is not something for students to devote all of their time and energy towards.
“I’m advising (my students) to try to take it one or two times before applications are due,” said Joe Korfmacher, a college counselor at Collegewise. Largely, Korfmacher says he gives that advice to his students so that they can keep their options open.
But the SAT and ACT don’t matter as much as most applicants think they do. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities phased out requiring applicants to submit test scores, mostly due to concerns about the tests not being equitable.
And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that number has rapidly increased. There are currently more than 1,000 colleges and universities with test-optional policies. And seemingly every day, a new institution steps forward to announce that applicants will no longer need to submit an SAT or ACT score if they aren’t able to or don’t want to.
“There are so many schools that have gone SAT- or ACT-optional that I don’t think it’s something to stress about,” said Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, an organization that helps high-need students.
It is also unclear, at this point, when and where students will be able to take the SAT or ACT. Currently, the SAT is scheduled to be administered again starting August 29, and the ACT intends to offer tests throughout the summer, including one on June 13.
But If schools aren’t able to open back up in the fall, there’s the possibility that these tests will be moved entirely online, without a proctor. And if that’s the case, college admissions departments will likely put even less focus on students’ test scores.
Grades were moved to pass/fail. How will admissions officers interpret that?
In March and April, many of the nation’s high schools moved to a pass/fail grading system. With so much uncertainty surrounding how online classes would be taught on a day-today basis and out of consideration for those who struggle to find consistent access to a computer and the internet, schools thought it wouldn’t be fair to grade students as usual.
But concerns have been voiced by those who worry about how admissions officers will interpret pass/fail grades. This, however, shouldn’t be too big of a concern.
“There are countless ways that high schools assess students’ performance,” Andrew B. Palumbo, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wrote in a letter published by the Washington Post. “Admissions professionals see a range of grading point scales (4.0, 4.5, 5.0, 12.0, 100, etc.), narrative transcripts and yes, pass/fail. Our goal is not to set expectations for your school; instead we’re responsible for understanding your school’s grading system.”
Additionally, admissions officers at most of the country’s institutions take a holistic approach to evaluating applicants. Although, due to COVID-19, they may be missing one semester of letter or number grades, they still have access to applicants’ grades they earned during previous semesters and know which courses they took.
“We’re certainly looking at their cumulative high school GPA, but then we’re getting into the weeds in terms of understanding the strength of their course schedule,” said Stefan Hyman, the interim associate provost for enrollment and retention management at Stony Brook University. “We’re looking at which types of gateway classes they’ve taken and how that relates to what they intend to study in college to try to understand if they are a good fit for that major.”
Will passing AP exams transfer to course credit?
A key question on many high school juniors’ minds is whether the AP exams, which they studied and paid for, will transfer to college course credit.
Unfortunately, this is still largely up in the air. For the most part, colleges and universities would like to give students credit for their AP courses, but they worry, due to the exams being shortened and online, that students aren’t able to fully portray what they’ve learned. And for that reason, institutions are hesitant to give students full credit for courses, even if they passed their AP exam(s).
“The short answer of that is yes, we still plan to give credit,” said Hyman. “What we’re looking at is to make sure … that if we accept a class as an equivalency for our college level class, then there is a next sequence to that class, the student is prepared for the next sequence. What we don’t want to do is put a student into a class that they’re not ready for.”
How should students respond to canceled extracurriculars?
Colleges and universities are very aware that students have had many of their typical extracurricular activities, including athletics, volunteer opportunities and research opportunities, canceled. And, overwhelmingly, admissions officers intend to be empathetic when evaluating next year’s applicants.
But, that doesn’t mean students should sit on their hands. Institutions will prioritize those who’ve made the best out of a bad situation.
“There are still ways that students can make the most of their time,” Hyman said. “And I think we want to encourage them to use this time in as productive ways as they possibly can.
“It’s an opportunity for students to … really dive into some of their passions,” he added. “For example, an artist or a musician can use this time very productively to enhance their craft.”
Hurd warns, though, that students’ number one priority right now should be the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. Students shouldn’t pile on extracurriculars, as that’s never been a good technique.
“It was always better to do less, but do it well and be committed to it, than to do a lot and be scattered,” Hurd said. “And so, I think that this is a reflection moment where I think any admissions officer is going to have a lot of respect for a student who has been thoughtful and reflective in taking care of themselves and their loved ones during this pandemic and not worried about filling out 10 activities in the fall.”
How can students stand out from other applicants?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a tremendous opportunity for next year’s college applicants to stand out by telling their COVID-19 stories, including how the pandemic has impacted their life or inspired them.
“The reality is, the way that college admissions is going to go in the fall is not going to be based on numbers and scores the way it might have been in the past,” Hurd said. “Everybody is going to have to be able to tell a story that is going to be much more based on experiences and aspirations and narrative than just on numbers.”
Understanding that, the Common App recently announced it will be giving next year’s applicants an option to write about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them personally.
“That’s definitely an opportunity for (applicants) to talk about what they were planning on doing and how that was taken away,” said Korfmacher. “But it also gives them an opportunity to talk about what they did instead.”
Hyman also pointed to essays as a way for applicants to stand out.
“I think a lot of stories … are being written right now in terms of experiences that students are going to be able to share with us in their college essays and in other ways about how they are making the most out of this experience,” he said.
How can students pick a school without touring it?
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to physically tour a campus you’re interested in can seem like a miniscule problem. But, understanding the feel for a campus, its surroundings and the people who live there is a big deal. After all, students are deciding where they’ll be for the next four or more years.
Nearly every college and university is now offering virtual tours, which are relatively informative and can give applicants a good feel for what the campus they’re interested in looks like. But students can also expect to spend a significant chunk of their time in college off campus, particularly when they move out of the dorms.
For that reason, it’s important for students to develop an understanding of their surroundings. Students should check out nearby streets and nature on Google Maps. Looking up the menus of local restaurants and bars is also an easy way to get excited about moving to a new place.
And for students to get a better sense of the type of people who go to the college or university they’re interested in, they should check out the social media pages of some of the clubs the school offers. The most ambitious can reach out to a student majoring in the subject they’re interested in to ask them about their experience.
COVID-19 has made the college admissions process, which was already taxing on students, even more stressful. But members of the class of 2021 can find comfort in the fact that they’re all in this together. And admissions officers, who are human too, understand what students are going through and intend to approach evaluating next year’s college applicants with empathy.