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  • Kate FitzGerald and Mimi Danzis

College Admissions in a Time Like None Other

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged into the 2020-2021 school year, many seniors are still preparing to apply to college. However, the college admissions process has been drastically changed since the class of 2020 applied last year. Students are left asking themselves: are colleges going to require standardized testing, are the grades from last year going to be counted, what about all the extracurricular activities that I couldn’t do, and most importantly, how will I set myself apart from other applicants?

Standardized testing raised a large amount of concern. No one knew where to take the SAT/ACT or even if they should. Most schools have declared they are test-optional and are not requiring standardized testing this year. Some universities are taking this as an opportunity to examine how important these tests really are. Many smaller schools, like Swarthmore College and Harvey Mudd College, are not requiring test scores for the next two years. “We are not encouraging students to take these tests. It is perfectly fine if the student has not taken or chooses not to report these test results,” said Peter Osgood, the Director of Admission at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. In past years they were requiring subject test scores, but this year, they mentioned that they will not even look at them.

Jim Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, said, “[Swarthmore] is doing a two year pilot program for the class of 2021 and 2022, and we will be test optional. We wouldn’t want students to be at a disadvantage, and this will unfortunately not be a one year issue.” The decision to go test score optional was not done in the typical way. As Jeff Schiffman, the director of Admissions at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, puts it, “usually it takes years of research and data and has to go through lots of approval processes,” but this year, Tulane made the decision to go test score optional in just one week.

Every school district took a different approach when it came to grading last year. Some schools went to a pass/fail system, others froze grades, and others kept letter grades. Many universities have been anticipating this and are accepting applicants grades at face value. Harvey Mudd College said that “it is not our place to doubt the school’s decisions or actions.” Many schools, however, do what’s called holistic review in their admissions process. Holistic review is the idea that GPA and test scores do not accurately reflect a student’s intelligence and capability, and they look at other factors such as extracurriculars, jobs, and the character of the applicant. They want to consider the applicant as a person and try to get to know them when deciding whether to admit them to their college. One school that does this is the University of Connecticut. “We begin to review not only GPA. We also look at the students' character. We want to know how much of an opportunity students had at their school to challenge themselves, and if they didn’t, we want to focus on…the reason they didn’t. We want to know if students took advantage of the opportunities they were given. Students are competing within their own environment, not against students from other high schools,” said Aida Silva, Senior Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at UConn. Other schools, however, are looking at grading differently such as Tulane University which stated that “Grades will always be important even if the student is pass/fail this may make it more important.”

Throughout all of high school there has always been pressure to participate in as many extracurriculars as possible, but obviously things have changed since last school year, and most universities understand that participating in extracurricular activities is not possible for many high school students this year. Tulane University said that if there was “a giant eight month hole in the students application, we would not even bat an eye.” Schiffman went as far to say that he “would be actually concerned if I saw a student doing extracurriculars in the pandemic.” Peter Osgood from Harvey Mudd College said something similar, explaining that they “will understand and empathize if activities and events important to the student were cut short,” but they would love to know if “the student developed new interests or hobbies with some new found time.” Swarthmore College said they are taking a similar approach, stating, “We recognize that extracurriculars were interrupted. We care less about what you do, than why you do it and we know that disruption was real in the spring. We anticipate that distribution. Our question for [applicants] is not so much how that impacted you, but what did you learn about yourself and how it recommitted you to your academic interest and/or extracurricular pursuits.”

When applying to college, many students look to the acceptance rate to estimate their chances of admission. However, the pandemic is likely to skew those illusive numbers. Zach Messitte, the President of Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, said, “my guess is that the most competitive schools will become easier to get into. Also, many schools went deeper into their waitlist in the spring.” As for international students applying to American schools, at Ripon College, “International numbers have gone way down. We usually have about 30 per class of 250, and the numbers have gone way down to single digits,” Messitte said. Less international applicants could make it easier for students in the United States to get into certain colleges. Harvey Mudd College thinks that they will have a smaller applicant pool due to the fact that “Colleges can no longer visit high schools or attend live college fairs. Virtual sessions are not at all the same as personal connection,” and kids can not attend tours to see if the school would be a good fit. Osgood also thinks that many kids will want to stay closer to home. Tulane, on the other hand thinks that they “will not see fewer applicants. I think the question will be enrolled students.” They do not believe that students are not applying right now because of COVID-19 but “they will apply and then see what the world will look like in the months when they need to make this decision.” If there is an impact on admissions from the pandemic that leads to a decrease in applicants and enrolled students, “it may erode small liberal arts schools like Ripon,” Messitte said. Whereas, larger state universities may be able to take the hit that a decrease in applicants and enrollment may bring. No school is entirely sure what the application pool will look like.

There are still a lot of uncertainties in the admissions process for this year and years to come. Even admissions directors are not entirely sure of what is going to happen. Students should keep this in mind and understand that they are not the only ones who are unsure of what's to come.


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