The University Network

How COVID Has Impacted College Admissions

Summer is typically a time filled with excitement for students heading into their senior year of high school. But this year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, things feel a bit different. 

Like everyone else, students graduating in 2021 are concerned about the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. Many are dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety, and some are facing added food and housing insecurities. 

Uniquely, though, they’re entering the college admissions process in the midst of a global pandemic. They’re fearful that disruptions caused by the pandemic — such as canceled SATs and ACTs, pass/fail grading systems and cancelled extracurriculars, among other things — have hurt their chances of getting into their choice schools. 

And there has been a lot of speculation surrounding how colleges and universities will evaluate applicants this upcoming year. Speculation, however, only furthers uncertainty and exacerbates students’ anxieties. 

So, we at The University Network (TUN) set out to find the real answers by talking to admissions officers at a variety of institutions. Of course, they can’t speak for every college and university in the country. But, they’ve revealed some overarching themes that shed light on how next year’s applicants can expect to be evaluated. 

A more flexible review of applicants

It may be reassuring for students to hear that admissions officers are people too, with families of their own. They have empathy for what the class of 2021 is going through.

“Given the many disruptions and limitations caused by COVID-19, colleges and universities will be particularly flexible with the admission process,” said Gil Villanueva, the associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond. “It behooves colleges admission offices to meet students where they are in terms of the college search process.”

Villanueva, who has a daughter who’s currently a junior in high school, said he is very aware that the class of 2021 hasn’t had the chance to tour colleges, has endured changes in grading policies, has to navigate through testing cancellations, has varying access to college counseling, and has struggled with technology and connectivity issues, among other things.

These, of course, are components that University of Richmond will be considering when reviewing upcoming applicants. 

Other admissions professionals, including Stefan Hyman, Stony Brook University’s interim associate provost for enrollment and retention management, share this sentiment. 

“We’re looking at a whole set of different strategies to make sure that we’re still finding students who are a good fit for Stony Brook, but also making sure that we’re doing so in a compassionate way, knowing that students are going through a lot this semester,” said Hyman. “And I think it’s on us to be understanding of that and try to balance that compassion with making sure that we’re finding students who can be successful at our university.”

A holistic approach to reviewing applicants

Admissions officers at many of the nation’s colleges and universities have always made it a goal to review applicants as holistically as possible. They try to avoid focusing on just one thing, like a student’s SAT score or grade point average. Instead, they try to understand where applicants are coming from, who they are and what hurdles they’ve overcome in their lives.

This approach is not going away. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic will cause it to be more pronounced than ever before.

“We’re not just going to focus on one aspect or one factor. We are going to look at a myriad of things,” said Villanueva. 

In a letter to the class of 2021, Harvard’s admissions office explained, “We will continue to look at the whole person as we consider applications next year – as always. Accomplishments in and out of the classroom during the high school years – including community involvement, employment, and help given to your family – will all be considered.”

Kellie Kane, the director of admissions at the University of Pittsburgh, explained that her office will take a similar approach. 

“All applicants to the University of Pittsburgh already receive a comprehensive, individual review,” said Kane. “As such, Pitt will take into account any challenges students may have faced during the pandemic in the admissions decision.”

Even more than before, colleges and universities will be taking a close look at applicants’ essays and personal statements. That is where applicants can share their COVID-19 stories, including how the pandemic has impacted their life or inspired them. 

Alternatively, students who use the Common App can take advantage of an added optional COVID-19 question to write about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them personally.

“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,” said Hyman. 

Less focus on SAT/ACT scores

Even before COVID-19 hit, many colleges and universities phased out requiring applicants to submit test scores. And amid the 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 this upcoming admissions cycle if they aren’t able to or don’t want to.

The University of Richmond is one of those institutions. 

“It is very difficult for a lot of young people to go ahead and try to rally for these tests that are not going to be scheduled now until the fall,” said Villanueva. “And, of course, they still have classes going on; they still have a lot of things going on. So we determined that this is a good way to support students and their families.”

Current sophomores shouldn’t get too excited yet, though, as many institutions have only become test-optional for the class entering college in 2021. They’re treating this next admissions cycle as a trial run to see if the tests can permanently be phased out. 

Across the country, however, institutions are confident they don’t need the tests to effectively evaluate applicants. 

“We believe this shift will serve the complex and unique needs of freshman applicants for the 2021 class,” Wes Null, the vice provost for undergraduate education and institutional effectiveness at Baylor University, said in a news release highlighting the university’s transition away from standardized testing. “We are confident that, through a holistic review process, we will be able to identify incoming first-year students who will thrive at Baylor and contribute to our campus community in significant ways.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that students should completely forget about taking the SAT or ACT. Despite the number of institutions that have dropped standardized tests, there are many still require applicants to submit test scores, even if they don’t put that much weight on them. In that light, it’s important for applicants to check standardized test policies for each unique college and university they’re interested in applying to.  

Support of altered spring semester grades

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-to-day 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.

Overwhelmingly, however, colleges and universities have been quick to assure applicants that altered grading systems won’t affect their likelihood of admissions. 

“As long as the student has them as ‘pass’ grades, we are not going to have that adversely affect their admissions decisions,” said Kane. “We will make the assumption that, generally, whatever types of grades they made in the past probably would’ve been the same types of grades they made in their junior year as well. Anywhere we can give students the benefit of the doubt is generally what we want to do in this situation.”

And this isn’t the first time admissions counselors have seen an altered grading system. 

“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.”

It’s also important for applicants to remember that even if COVID-19 turned one semester’s grading system to pass/fail, institutions 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 Hyman. “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.”

A new form of extracurricular activity

When nation-wide social distancing rules and closures were put in place, high school students lost their ability to participate in traditional extracurriculars, including spring athletics, volunteer opportunities and research opportunities. 

Colleges and universities understand that. 

“Many of you had events to attend. New leadership roles to step into. Campaigns or policies you wanted to introduce. Or well laid-out summer programs or research programs to pursue,” Giselle F. Martin, the director of recruitment and talent at Emory University, wrote in a letter to upcoming applicants. 

“Leadership doesn’t always come with a title,” she added. “Your humanity and ability to engage with your own family, friends, and neighbors right now supports the well-being of the broader community.”

This, however, doesn’t mean that applicants will benefit by just sitting around at home. Institutions will prioritize those who’ve made the best out of a bad situation, whether that comes through actively helping family members or using the time to better themselves. 

“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.” 

Acceptance of APs as course credit

It’s widely known that AP exams were shortened and conducted online this year. While the College Board, the organization who owns and administers AP tests, said that things went well, students had another story to tell

Notably, all AP students, but particularly low-income students who may rely on passing AP tests to shave off some time and tuition money they have to spend on college, are wondering if institutions will still count passing grades as course credit.  

Overwhelmingly, however, institutions have answered yes. They’re taking the approach that students who worked hard to take and pass their AP exams this year shouldn’t be discounted due to circumstances that were beyond their control. 

Villanueva said that Richmond will still honor its existing AP credit policy. So did Kane at the University of Pittsburgh. So will Baylor. And the list goes on.

At some schools, however, “yes” is murmured with a bit of uncertainty, as worries have been raised that the shortened tests didn’t allow students to effectively portray what they’ve learned. 

“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.”

Final advice for applicants

For those entering the thick of their college application process in the midst of a global pandemic, feelings of stress and anxiety are warranted.

But, applicants should rest easy knowing that admissions officers are on their side. 

“Everyone in college admissions knows that this has been an extremely stressful time for students, both at the secondary level and at the higher education level,” said Kane. “We understand, and we are empathetic to their situation. We will do everything in our power to help make the application process as stress-free as we possibly can.”

Members of the class of 2021 can find comfort in the fact that they’re all in this together. And admissions officers, some with children of their own, understand what students are going through and intend to approach evaluating next year’s college applicants with empathy.

“I tell my junior in high school to ‘Hang in there. Take a deep breath. Just know that colleges and universities want smart, talented and dynamic students like you,’  ” said Villanueva.