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What Do College Admissions Officers Care About in the Age of COVID-19?

Students sitting in a lecture hall during a university class.

The coronavirus pandemic that swept into the United States in March 2020 forced schools to close their doors, summer programs to cancel, testing centers to close indefinitely, and campuses to end visits and tours. Grades, clubs, athletics, volunteer work, standardized tests—all of these elements of the high school experience were in complete disarray.

In short, the normal metrics by which college admissions officers evaluate applicants were simply not the same during the early period of the pandemic. What has replaced them?

Standardized Test Scores Matter Less

Those in the know about college admissions have long been aware that excellent grades and scores are only a part of how highly selective colleges make their admissions decisions. At the same time, they’ve remained an extremely important part! Even if high grades and scores are only the first step to admission, not having them can prevent applicants from any consideration at some schools.

Now, however, these all-important academic metrics are in turmoil. Thousands and thousands of students saw their SAT and ACT registrations canceled, and many more students than usual had to apply to college without a test score. The College Board has eliminated its Subject Tests and is planning a computerized reboot of its flagship test. The ACT is considering changes to its exam as well.

More broadly, the list of test-optional and test-blind schools has only grown since the start of the pandemic. Some schools have made these changes permanent, including some high-ranked schools like Columbia University, while others have extended them on a year-to-year basis, with no clear ending in sight. Of course, there are schools like MIT and Florida’s state institutions that have reinstated the test requirement, but on the whole, the standardized testing landscape has clearly shifted increasingly in favor of test-optional status.

Essays, Recommendation Letters, and Interviews Matter More

As the usual metrics for evaluating a student’s academic performance became a mess, where did colleges turn to learn more? Well, to start, colleges have always looked at other aspects, so leaned more heavily on those factors this year.

Application essays, including both the personal statement and school-specific supplemental essays, became an increasingly important factor in admissions. With all the disruptions to normal high school life, college admissions officers are likely to care more than ever about how you think about where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Similarly, colleges want to hear from teachers themselves, who can give better context to a students’ grade. Without a clear quantitative measure of academic performance, colleges want to hear how a student conducts him or herself in the classroom.

Lastly, college admissions offices want to learn more about students’ characters through admissions and alumni interviews. While these were temporarily virtual-only, many schools have shifted back to in-person interview opportunities. Regardless of the setting, these conversations are particularly invaluable ways for colleges to get a sense of what a student applicant is really like as a person.

These factors matter every year in college admissions. But with COVID-19 disrupting the normal quantitative measures of student success, they became more important than ever.

Resumes Get A Closer and More Holistic Review

When evaluating an applicant’s resume, there are certain things that admissions officers like to see: leadership, community service, academic research, and other forms of direct involvement in a scholastic or personal community. Because many forms of direct involvement were prohibited during the pandemic, students were temporarily left without these normal markers.

That doesn’t mean that whatever students did then and are continuing to do isn’t worthwhile. It just means that college admissions officers need to review resumes with a more nuanced eye. How did students demonstrate leadership when schools were closed? How did they help their communities during that troubled time?

College admissions officers understand that programs were cancelled and plans put on hold. They understand that students may have needed to take on additional responsibilities at home as a result of health crises or financial distress. The challenge for admissions officers is comparing such disparate experiences across the thousands of applicants they review. These officials, who are accustomed to looking at measurable achievements—number of leadership positions held, number of competitions attended, etc., had to learn to evaluate students’ activities for their potential, not their past.

Colleges May Ask for New Materials

Lastly, some admissions offices began to consider asking for new material to make up for the traditional markers they missed in 2020 and 2021.

The Common Application added a new prompt directly addressing how COVID-19 has affected students’ lives. They also created space in the application for counselors to discuss changes at the school. Individual colleges also added new optional materials, from short videos to graded papers.

Moving forward, applicants may see new forms of evaluation, too. Some admissions officers are discussing an online “character snapshot” of the sort that some private high schools use in their admissions processes. Others have pitched portfolio submissions of schoolwork, local alumni recruitment, and/or new or substantially revised essay prompts.

No matter what colleges may concoct, though, one thing is clear: they can no longer accept or reject applicants on quantitative measures alone. More than ever, they need to understand who students are, where they’ve been, and where they plan to go next.

Final Thoughts

While COVID-19 fundamentally shifted the admissions process, the challenge that selective schools face in evaluating thousands of applications is long-standing. What really matters to colleges is how you think, how you’ll contribute to your community, and where you’re going next. No matter the materials on which they rely during the admissions process, they’ll always be looking to understand who you are and what matters to you.

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