It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... my college application?

June 18, 2020, 12:33 p.m. | By Aviva Bechky | 3 years, 5 months ago

Applying to college during a pandemic

Cancelled SATs. Pass/incomplete grades. Disrupted extracurriculars. Changes in financial aid status. Interviews moving online.

This year’s college admissions have been thrown into uncharted territory because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both students and colleges are navigating a new process, marked by a lack of in-person resources. From testing to financial aid, this year is different, and some students are unsure of how to handle it.

Standardized testing

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT normally take place in school buildings, with many students testing in each room. As a result of building closures and social distancing rules, these tests have been cancelled since March.

For students, that means uncertainty. Some have already taken their tests, but others have had theirs cancelled, rescheduled, and cancelled again. They are unsure whether they’ll be able to take them this fall.

“It's definitely increased my stress levels a little bit,” junior Raquel Sklar says. She intended to take Blair’s free SAT in March but is instead now looking to the August date.

Currently, the College Board plans to offer SAT test dates in August, September, and October. The ACT organization is offering its test in July, September, and October. All of this, however, depends on whether social distancing regulations relax enough that tests are able to take place.

This uncertainty has spurred many colleges to go “test-optional,” meaning students may submit SAT or ACT scores but will not be penalized if they choose not to. While some schools plan to offer test-optional admission only to the high school graduating class of 2021, others plan to continue with test-optional policies for years to come.

The University of California (UC) system has gone so far as to announce plans to permanently phase out the ACT and SAT tests. Smaller schools like the College of William & Mary, a public research university in Virginia, are also beginning similar plans.

“We had been working on a plan to go test optional in the next coming years… and [because of covid-19], we had decided to move that program forward,” JonDavid Nichols, an Assistant Dean of Admissions at William & Mary, says. “Partially because of [COVID-19] and the lack of opportunities for students to be taking the SAT… and because of the movement that just is… viewing standardized tests as not as necessarily important in the college admissions process, this was definitely the right time for us to implement this program.”

Test-optional policies are a relief for some, like junior Reid Duran. She expressed gratitude that the UC system, for one, is going test-optional. “A lot of schools, like California schools, just announced [that] they don't [require] our class to submit our SATs, which is good, because I'm looking at a lot of California schools,” she says.

But not all schools have gone test-optional yet. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for instance, still requires a SAT or ACT score, although it removed the SAT subject test requirement shortly before the spread of the coronavirus in the US. “We really are waiting things out to see what's happening with different schools and different people's ability to take tests before coming to any final decision about what to do next,” Kellen Manning, Assistant Director of Communication at MIT, says. 

Certainly, plenty is up in the air. Besides the cancellation of spring tests and the uncertainty about fall test dates, some tests may be moved online. The College Board, which this spring offered online Advanced Placement tests, floated the idea for online administrations of the SAT, but they ultimately dropped it because of barriers to equitably providing the test to students with different levels of access to technology. The ACT still intends to proceed with a remote-proctoring test.

With all of these changes to standardized testing, however, many schools say that they will maintain their holistic approach to admissions this year, in which they look at each student as a whole. “We've always operated as [if] the tests are just part of your [application]. We look at everything,” Manning says. “Our goal as an admissions office hasn't changed.”


With standardized testing in turmoil, grades are poised to play a bigger role in the process. “[Without test scores], college counselors are just going to have to take a deeper look,” Blair counselor Belvey Russ says—meaning at grades as well as recommendations and essays.

But grades, too, have been disrupted. School districts throughout the country are implementing their own grading systems as a result of COVID-19-related closures. Some are transitioning to a pass/fail or pass/incomplete system; some are modifying letter grade systems; and some, like Montgomery County, have developed a blend of the two.

Colleges generally look at students’ grades in the context of their school or county, and this year is similar. “Students apply from many different grading systems, and we always consider applications based on each high school’s specific grading system,” Bailey Jackelen, an Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Johns Hopkins University, said by email. 

This year’s disruptions to schools are happening universally, and universities know that, according to Jessica Johnston, an Associate Director of Admission at Scripps College in California. “​We understand that high school transcripts are going to look very different than we're used to this year,” she wrote in an email. “We'll be looking at those recommendation letters and the strength of the program to get a sense of academic performance.”

Nichols at William & Mary agrees. “We will be accepting pass/fail grades completely,” he says. “This is a unique situation for everyone.”

Disrupted extracurriculars and summer plans

Grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, and extracurriculars—these make up the bulk of a college application. Essays are much the same as they were, though both the Common Application and the Coalition Application are adding an optional question about the effects of the pandemic on students’ lives. Likewise, the recommendations process has not changed much, with the important caveat that students lost a few months to connect with their teachers.

Extracurriculars, on the other hand, have been upended. Junior Sophia Kim, for instance, was planning to travel to Panama this summer with a nonprofit. “I've been preparing for that since November,” she says. “I was going to live with a family in a town in Panama for four weeks and during the day I would run a kind of a day camp for kids, and at the same time I would be helping them complete a community project.”

Kim’s opportunity was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as were the activities of students across the country. Athletics and other competitions have been suspended. Some internships have gone virtual, though many cannot. All of this serves to introduce yet another change to students’ applications.

Ray Anderson, a college counselor with AGM-College Counseling, says, “What we're planning is very much uncertain.” Ordinarily, his clients engage in a variety of extracurriculars, which he often encourages them to write about in college application essays. For instance, one of his clients planned to go to Philmont, a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico, this summer to lead two-week hiking expeditions. Because of the coronavirus, that trip may not be possible.

It is not just summer plans that have changed. The opportunity to do most spring extracurriculars was lost. For Kim, the soccer season was cancelled—and with it, a key chance to be scouted by college coaches.

“I do want to play soccer in college, and this spring was the most important time for me to be able to show coaches what I can do at different showcases and as well as just regular games,” she says. She is sending coaches videos of her playing, but that does not make up for lost showcases and summer soccer camps.

Some have replaced their original plans with makeshift virtual ones. Sklar, for instance, is taking an interior design course at Montgomery College this summer in place of a camp counseling job. “[The job] definitely would have been helpful for my application, but I've done a lot of other volunteer opportunities,” she says. And, of course, colleges understand that opportunities this year have been cut short.

“We're not going to hold it against you that you weren't able to participate in something that wasn't available to you or that you didn't feel comfortable participating in because of the climate,” Manning from MIT explains.

Visiting schools

The coronavirus pandemic is also reinventing how students go about looking at and interacting with colleges. “Kids, typically beginning in the spring, are doing college visits [and] in-person interviews,” Randy McKnight, a college advisor who works at AGM-College Counseling along with Anderson, says. “A lot of those opportunities have been lost.”

Traditionally, campus visits have been an important way for students to get the feel of a school. They help students decide which schools to apply to, and then later which schools to attend. Visits also demonstrate students’ interest in a school, which some schools factor into their admissions decisions.

Those tours are just not possible at the moment. Instead, schools are creating virtual versions with enthusiastic voices and bright campus videos. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college application process is now predominantly online Photo courtesy of Marissa Rhice.

“Hello, and welcome to the University of Maryland,” says a voice in UMD’s cheerful YouVisit tour. “Welcome to Cambridge, Massachusetts,” a miniature person pipes up, superimposed over a picture of Harvard University on the college’s virtual tour, which is also hosted on YouVisit. “We’re starting right here in Marston Quad, the beautiful green space at the heart of campus,” a senior at Pomona College says in a YouTube video.

Universities are using a variety of platforms to connect with potential applicants at a time of social distancing. Some are scheduling online information sessions and making current college students available to answer questions.

For high school students, this situation is not ideal. “I much prefer going to the actual college campus,” says junior Coltin Chao. “[The virtual tours are] not bad. They're definitely trying, and I can appreciate that, but… I'd rather actually see what the campus looks like itself and what the environment is rather than them telling me.”

College advisors agree with that assessment. “If you're doing a virtual tour, you're really looking at what they want you to see,” McKnight says. Through a screen, students miss out on the opportunity to wander around and look at the campus as a whole.

Moreover, some colleges used to do on-campus interviews over the summer. While interviews often come later, the summer conversations gave students an early chance to show their interest. This year, interviews are going virtual, as is the case at both Scripps College and William & Mary, according to Johnston and Nichols respectively. Anderson, one of the college advisors from AGM-College Counseling, has already prepped a client on how to impress colleges during a FaceTime interview.

Interviewing online is naturally different than in person—one more way in which differing access to technology may affect the application process. Nichols sees advantages to it, though. “It allows us to have more interviews than ever and be able to offer them to different groups of people than ever before,” he says. Even if campuses open back up, William & Mary may still continue to offer these virtual interviews.

Financial and enrollment changes

The economic damage from COVID-19, too, is impacting colleges and students alike. With millions having lost their jobs or been furloughed, financial aid is increasing in importance for students, putting strain on universities.

Colleges are preparing for greater financial need this year. “We've definitely seen an uptick in requests for additional aid, with people specifically referencing [COVID-19] job losses or furloughs,” Joe Dobrota, Director of Financial Aid at William & Mary, says.

“More than anything else, I expect to see a greater volume of applications [for aid] and requests for increased funding,” Patrick Register, Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at UC Santa Cruz, agreed in an email.

Russ, the Blair counselor, likewise believes that demand for financial aid will increase. Her advice to students is to communicate with parents to determine how much aid is needed: “Speak with your parents, and just have a realistic conversation of what can you afford, what happens if a parent loses their job and they're not able to pay tuition,” she says.

At William & Mary, Dobrota is seeing some of the financial effects of the coronavirus. “We've definitely heard from some folks who [say], given everything that's happening, ‘We're not able to come right now,’” he says.

Russ expects to see more students staying in-state or attending community college. Students will “maybe spend… a year at [Montgomery College] taking those core classes and then transferring,” she says.

Indeed, Montgomery College is seeing record enrollment, with an 11% increase in summer enrollment since last year. “Historically, community colleges have seen a rise in enrollment when the economy is down,” says Marcus Rosano, Director of Media and Public Relations at the school. “It's a good thing to see our students understanding that Montgomery College is… an affordable option, but you can get a pretty awesome education [there].”

Similarly, the option to pursue a gap year is attracting new interest. McKnight and Anderson from AGM-College Counseling have both seen some new interest in gap years among their clients, and one of their seniors has already elected to take the opportunity. They recommend having a plan for the gap year, though, and caution that there will be fewer opportunities for gap year activities this year because of high demand.

Universities, too, are dealing with new financial stress. “Having a higher number of needy students is going to just proportionally increase that demand for the aid budget,” says Dobrota.

Moreover, the closures from this semester are costing colleges. “With a greatly reduced number of students physically on campus… there is no revenue to sustain the expenses associated with many of the units in Student Life,” wrote Register. “[COVID-19] will place a financial strain on the institution.”

It is important to note that financial strain varies by institution. While the current situation does come as a universal blow, many colleges have endowments to help them through—such as Harvard University, which as of 2019 had an endowment over 40 billion dollars, per their most recent financial report.

Smaller institutions, however, are facing steeper challenges. For instance, in California, the San Francisco Art Institute recently announced it was no longer admitting new students. The school had struggled financially for years, and its discussions about merging with another school broke down because of COVID-19. Similarly, MacMurray College in Illinois is closing. The pandemic, while not cited as the ultimate cause, was a complicating factor in the school’s economic situation.

Schools like these two fit the profile of those most likely to be hard hit: small private institutions with low endowments or high tuition discount rates. The economic downturn does not discriminate, and colleges’ financial situations have been thrown in limbo nationwide. However, some are better equipped to weather the storm than others.

What should students focus on?

Much is changing, but the best course of action may be to work on what hasn’t. “I would back up and start [in] a slightly different place,” McKnight, one of the college advisors, says. “Talking to kids, we try to stay focused on what we think hasn't changed.”

What exactly does that mean? Do well in school and learn more about yourself, McKnight says. Finish your Trailblazer packet and start your application essays, Russ says. Share your story and your passion, Nichols says.

It is still early in the application cycle, and colleges are not yet sure how all of the changes that COVID-19 has wrought will be dealt with. But people ranging from school counselors to college advisors to admissions officials all agree that students should try to focus on what they can control, not on the turmoil in the world.

“Take a deep breath,” Russ says. “Do what you can from your point of view… but we can't help what's going on in the world. So just do your part, and it'll be what it is.”

Last updated: Nov. 25, 2020, 12:39 p.m.

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