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COVID-19 and College Admissions: How College Admissions Will Be Affected

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IvyWise counselors Christine, Nat, and Eric discuss how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting higher ed and how the Class of 2021 can navigate the altered application cycle this semester on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast, giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

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It has been well over a year since the pandemic’s onset and information and responses are still continuing to evolve. High schools, colleges, and universities across the country are viewing students’ safety as their ultimate priority and making new policy adjustments to protect everyone on campus.

The college admissions process was already complicated, and the ongoing pandemic has only added to the complexity. Students, applicants, and families may be wondering what to expect going forward, and luckily our team of expert counselors is here to provide some clarity around how coronavirus will impact college admissions.

Uncertainty About Grades

While many high schools have now resumed in-person classes, almost all students experienced virtual learning at some point, and at some institutions, it may continue to be a reality for certain classes or groups of students. There’s no doubt that the transition to remote learning was challenging, and as a result, some schools chose to temporarily move to a pass/fail grading system to take some of the pressure off during unprecedented times. This decision will continue to impact transcripts for students across the board, from those who were just beginning high school when the pandemic struck to recent graduates who have already begun their college journeys.

Grades are the most important factor that colleges evaluate. Our counselors are all former admissions officers, so we know that admissions officers will take into consideration the unusual circumstances that students have encountered this year and last. In the absence of grades for certain classes, admissions officers will focus more on the grades students were able to receive prior to the pandemic, as well as their academic performance once traditional grading resumes. If you were on an upward grade trend prior to the pandemic’s onset, colleges will take that into consideration when looking at your transcript.

SAT and ACT Cancellations and Make Up Test Dates

Testing for college entrance exams has been heavily affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last year and earlier in 2021, many testing dates needed to be cancelled to help keep students safe, which cast uncertainty about future exam dates. However, most exams have posted upcoming testing dates that students should keep on their radar.

SAT: Upcoming testing dates include October 2nd, November 6th (US Only), and December 4th

SAT Subject Tests: In January 2021, the College Board announced that both SAT Subject Tests and the optional essay portion of the current SAT exam would be discontinued.

ACT: Upcoming testing dates include October 23rd and December 11th

TOEFL: After ongoing testing site closures impacted students across the globe, ETS announced that students can now choose between taking the test at home or at a local testing center.

Many Colleges Will Continue Test-Optional Admissions

Back in 2020, many colleges decided to move to test-optional admissions policies in response to the limited availability of future test dates for students applying. Many schools have extended these policies for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, with some institutions considering a longer-term or even permanent change.

While many schools are maintaining their test-optional admissions policies, at least for the time being, that doesn’t mean they are test-blind. They will still accept SAT or ACT scores and will stay look favorably upon students who demonstrate a strong performance on their exams. In fact, some schools even stated in their test-optional policy announcements that students who do have SAT or ACT scores should consider including them in their applications, so students should still consider testing as part of their college prep plan if possible.

Will Colleges Accept AP Credit For Exams Taken at Home?

As many students know, AP Exams were taken at home last academic year. While many AP exam test-takers encountered issues with the new at-home format, the College Board considered the AP testing season an overall success. The issues students faced, however, did lead them to scrapping their plans for an at-home SAT.

With the adjusted AP exam format, many students are wondering if colleges will accept scores from at-home exams. Expect that AP credit awarded will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis at every college. Every school has its own system for awarding AP credit, so some may accept scores for credit while others may not.

Interrupted Extracurricular Activities

With the ongoing disruptions due to the pandemic, some extracurricular activities remain on hold. Competitions may still be paused, some sports seasons are suspended or modified, and even things like volunteer projects may have been impacted. Extracurricular activities are a great way to explore your interests and colleges want to see what students are doing in their spare time, so what happens when all of those carefully selected activities are no longer happening? Keep in mind – every student is continuing to face disruption right now. Admissions officers know this and they want students to know that these interruptions in regular activities will not be held against them.

Last year, over 300 colleges and universities in the US released a statement reassuring students that any activities or summer experiences cut short or canceled will not be held against students when applying to college this fall. Context is key, which is why both the Common App and Coalition App have provided a section in the application for students to provide more context on how they were affected by the coronavirus response. This is separate from the standard Additional Information section. Students can also use this time to get creative with their extracurricular pursuits and continue to explore their interests from home.

College Visit Changes

After many schools initially announced the cancellation of college visits and information sessions, some have recently begun to reopen their campuses to visitors. Generally, these invitations come with safety protocols such as masking, testing, vaccination status checks, and social distancing. Colleges have also expanded their virtual touring options and accommodations in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Whether it’s in person or online, students should continue to research and learn about colleges of interest. Schools that track demonstrated interest may still look at virtual information session registration as a way to gauge students’ interest, so if your top-choice schools are offering virtual info sessions you should take advantage and register for them. Learning about colleges doesn’t have to stop even if you can’t physically visit one yet.

The Impact on International Students

All of the factors mentioned above, especially testing, on top of other issues like travel restrictions, visa processing delays, and more are deeply impacting international applicants to US universities. For international students planning to apply to college, canceled testing and travel restrictions will make it even harder to plan for the admissions process. This isn’t just worrisome for international students themselves, but also colleges and universities that rely on tuition from international students as a source of revenue. It’s critical for international students planning to apply to colleges in the US to develop a plan for applications now, which includes available testing, a balanced college list with varying deadlines, and more.

How Applications Will Be Evaluated This Fall

Admissions officers are human, and they’re also encountering the same difficulties as everyone else – canceled events, working from home, inability to engage in regular activities, and more. They understand the toll this is taking on students and will take this into account when evaluating applications for the class of 2026. Over 300 colleges and universities in the US have come together to reassure students that any negative impacts that COVID-19 has had on academics, activities, summer plans, and more will NOT be held against students.

Admissions officers will “read in context,” meaning they will certainly take into consideration activities that stopped short or competitions that were canceled because of coronavirus. This applies to all aspects of the college application, from grades and test scores to activities, demonstrated interest, and more. Especially with many schools going test-optional for the admissions cycle, the process may become even more holistic as colleges evaluate applicants within the context that this was this second very unusual school year.

While we don’t expect schools to dramatically alter their admissions rubrics, those guidelines will certainly become more flexible allowing admissions officers to weigh factors differently in order to give a more holistic review. For example, with extracurricular activities halted and some grading that might not reflect students’ full ability, more weight might be given to recommendation letters that can fill in additional context. And with colleges visits and information sessions modified, schools that rely heavily on demonstrated interest might rely more on essays for informed interest.

Tips for Seniors Applying for Fall 2021 Admission

There is a lot of uncertainty right now for current high school seniors, however, that does not mean that you can’t be proactive. If you’re planning to apply to college this fall, here’s what you can do to stay on track.

  • Stay Engaged: If you’re a student affected by school closures due to coronavirus, it’s important to continue to stay engaged with your studies. Give full attention to any virtual lessons that your school might offer. If your school is not offering supplemental or virtual courses during the closure, seek out other opportunities. Online platforms like Coursera and edX offer a plethora of course options for students. Many educational resources are being offered for free right now so do some research and explore your options.
  • Continue Test Prep: Don’t assume that all schools will go test-optional. In fact, many may still require test scores as part of the application process. If you’re planning to apply to schools that currently require SAT or ACT scores you need to continue to prepare, especially since there is the possibility of additional test dates being offered this year. Not only will this help you reach your goal score, it will also keep you engaged while school is out. Many tutors, including IvyWise’s test prep experts, offer virtual lessons so that students can continue to learn remotely.
  • Do Virtual Information Sessions and Visits: There’s no substitute for an in-person visit, but many colleges are offering virtual information sessions and directing students to virtual tours of the campus. While a virtual tour isn’t the same experience, the virtual information session can be! You can learn about the school from an admissions officer and in many cases get your questions answered directly. This will be important for schools, like Tulane for example,  that rely heavily on demonstrated interest as part of the application review process – if they’ve seen that you participated in their virtual admissions events that can only help your demonstrated interest.
  • Refine School List: This is a critical college prep time for students both in the US and abroad, so now is the time for students to take a look at their balanced college list and refine it based on their current goals and any obstacles they think they might face down the line. For example, students need to ensure that they’re adjusting their testing schedule based on the requirements of their top-choice institutions and when they think they might be able to sit for the SAT or ACT. If they’re unable to meet those requirements, they might want to consider test-optional universities or schools with varying deadlines. Doing research is key and now is the time to do a thorough search while school is “out.”
  • Get Creative! As far as extracurricular activities go, there’s a lot NOT happening – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Get creative with how to stay engaged with your interests during this time. Colleges will be interested to see the variety of ways that students have responded to this unprecedented time, and if you can use this time to further explore your passions then you should! Get through that reading list you’ve been putting off. Take some online cooking classes. Offer virtual basketball coaching tutorials. Whatever your passion is, find a creative way to engage with it.
  • Prep for College Apps: Many students might not be ready to think about college applications right now – and that’s okay! But for those who are, now is good time to get a head start. Brainstorm some essay topics (try NOT to write about coronavirus) and work on a rough outline of your personal statement. Take a look at the activity section and start to think about how you want to present your extracurriculars. We advise that juniors start working on their college applications the summer before senior year, and with many students at home with a lighter schedule now could be a good time to get going.

There’s plenty of uncertainty in the college admissions process already, and the current coronavirus outbreak and response is complicating things even more for students across the globe. If you have questions about how to proceed with your college prep, or want to learn more about virtual tutoring and test prep opportunities during school closures, contact us today.


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