What began as a frustrating disruption to the normal college admissions process has metastasized into something much more problematic. 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 are in complete disarray.
In short, the normal metrics by which college admissions officers evaluate applicants are simply not the same this year. Right now, the million-dollar question is: what will replace them?
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 have seen their SAT and ACT registrations canceled, and while the companies that run these tests have continually promised additional testing opportunities, so far few have materialized. Right now, it seems likely that many students will have to apply to college without a test score.
Some college admissions offices seem to have predicted this situation early on; a handful of schools temporarily suspended their standardized testing requirement back in March. Since then, every new setback the SAT and ACT have faced—cancelled June test date, problems with the AP exams, the SAT’s confession that they will not be able to offer an at-home test after all—has led the list of temporarily (or permanently) test-optional schools to grow.
At this rate, it seems likely that no schools will be able to keep their traditional Early Decision deadline and demand applicants submit an SAT or ACT score. Yes, they could push back those dates, but it’s a smart bet to suggest that they will suspend the standardized testing requirement instead.
Meanwhile, GPAs, arguably the most important factor admissions officers use to assess applicants’ college readiness, have been nearly as disrupted as test scores. When high schools had to abruptly close up shop and move online, many switched their grading over to pass/fail. That meant that students’ junior year grades, the most important numerical factor for college admissions, were fundamentally and irrevocably altered.
Unlike test scores, college admissions offices will still look at students’ transcripts, but they won’t be able to put the same weight on the GPA as in the past.
If the usual metrics for evaluating a student’s academic performance are a mess, where will colleges turn to learn more? Well, to start, colleges have always looked at other aspects, so they’ll almost certainly lean more heavily on these factors this year.
Application essays, including both the personal statement and school-specific supplemental essays, are likely to be the single most important factor in admissions in 2020-2021. 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, given that students’ grades have been made less useful by school closures and distance learning, colleges will want to hear from teachers themselves, who can give better context to a students’ grade. Without a clear quantitative measure of academic performance, colleges will want to hear how a student conducts him or herself in the classroom.
Lastly, college admissions offices will want to learn more about students’ characters through admissions and alumni interviews. While these are unlikely to take place in person any time soon, these conversations will be 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 will likely become more important than ever.
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. Now, of course, many forms of direct involvement have been prohibited, leaving students without these normal markers.
That doesn’t mean that whatever students have done and are continuing to do isn’t worthwhile. It just means that college admissions officers will need to review resumes with a more nuanced eye. How have students demonstrated leadership when schools are closed? How are they helping their communities in this troubled time?
College admissions officers understand that programs have been cancelled and plans put on hold. They understand that students may need to take on additional responsibilities at home as a result of health crises or financial distress. The challenge for admissions officers will be 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., will have to learn to evaluate students’ activities for their potential, not their past.
Lastly, some admissions offices are beginning to consider asking for new material to make up for the traditional markers they’ll be missing this year. It’s presently unclear what those new requests might look like in practice, but admissions officers are discussing several ideas.
To some degree, this process has already started. 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 are also adding new optional materials, from short videos to graded papers.
As the application cycle progresses, 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 are pitching 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 will not be able to accept or reject applicants on quantitative measures alone. More than ever, they’ll need to understand who students are, where they’ve been, and where they plan to go next.
While COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted the admissions process for next year, the challenge that selective schools face in evaluating thousands of applications is long-standing, and it will be around longer than this current moment. 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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