An international pandemic affects everything. For high school students and their families who went through the college application process last year, they saw the college application process play out differently than they anticipated. Some of the changes they saw will continue into this year — and they may resonate for years to come. Let’s discuss four specific impacts COVID has had on selective college admission.

You Can’t Get Here From There: Improved Online/Virtual Campus Tours and other Resources

With thousands of colleges and universities shut down to visitors due to the pandemic, college admission offices quickly pivoted to improving the offerings on their websites. Almost overnight, 360-degree campus tours, student panels, faculty lectures, and more began appearing and students and families were encouraged to research colleges using these enhanced resources since they could not visit in person. Over the past year, Drexel University, in Philadelphia, hosted more than 1400 virtual programs for prospective students and families.

Online college fairs (known as 6x6s) popped up like bumper crops. Some online college fairs were themed — with a specific focus on engineering or the arts. Others were general career fairs which provided students the chance to move in and out of rooms, as they would have moved between tables at traditional, in-person career fairs,  to learn about the opportunities and ask questions of the admission representatives.

For many years, colleges have been focused on increasing access, diversity, equity, and inclusion in college admission. Colleges often share the number of first-generation students (these students are among the first in their families to graduate from college), the number of Pell-eligible students (families qualify for Pell Grants with total family income less than $50,000, but the majority of Pell Grants are awarded to students where family income is less than $20,000 as demonstrated through the FAFSA process) and broadening the diversity on their campuses — including geographic/demographic (students from rural and urban areas) as well as racial/ethnic/religious/cultural diversity. The admission focus on access, diversity, equity, and inclusion across the spectrum continued during COVID. Many colleges have increased their outreach to rural and urban areas in order to increase the number of first-generation students applying to and attending their colleges and during COVID, this outreach was done through virtual admission visits. Because in-person travel time (and expense) was sharply reduced, colleges were able to use virtual platforms to reach out to and connect with many more target-high schools during COVID.

Recently, several campuses have re-opened to visitors. Students and families are encouraged to read the visitor policies carefully. In most cases, you must reserve space ahead of time for information sessions and campus tours. Most campuses require visitors to wear masks and, in some cases, to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated in order to participate in information sessions, etc. Check admission websites for specific details since they change frequently.

The enhanced online offerings from college admission offices will be a silver lining that will be with us for a long time. By participating in sessions offered online, students will be able to get a general idea of whether this place is a good match for what they are looking for in their college experience. Even when all/most colleges reopen to visitors, it will be helpful to be able to do substantial research online before committing to plane tickets, hotel rooms, etc. for traditional campus visits.

Test-Optional Admission Review

With COVID, came the closure of hundreds and hundreds of test centers due to health and safety mandates and protocols. Some test centers reduced their capacity and still offered testing. Others closed entirely for specific national test dates. While hundreds of colleges and universities have offered admission under test-optional review for many years (see a full list at www.fairtest.org), a majority of schools still required submission of either ACT or SAT scores until COVID hit. To put this into perspective, in 2019, there were 1050 test optional colleges and universities. For Fall 2021, 1600 colleges and universities are offering test-optional admission review.

When a location is approved as a test center under the guidelines of ACT and College Board/SAT, students from any geographic location can register to test at that center. Before COVID, most students registered to test at their own high school or high schools close to home. Early in COVID, as test centers were beginning to announce closures, students quickly maneuvered to find space in any available test center. Some students made arrangements to travel by plane and stay in hotels far from home to try to test. In many cases, students arrived at test centers only to be faced with signs on the doors saying testing was canceled due to recent COVID conditions, state mandates, etc. The number of students who wanted to test was high – there were over one million registrations for ACT testing and SAT/SAT Subject testing across all national test dates (see below for the update on SAT/SAT Subject Tests).

ACT tests were historically offered in September, October, December, February, April, and June. For many years, the College Board had offered national SAT dates in August, October, November, December, March, May, and June. With the high number of test centers canceled and strong demand from students who still wanted to take college tests, both test agencies reached out to high schools pleading with them to offer themselves as test centers for additional test dates that were being created in the fall, winter, and spring. Most high schools were addressing their own academic needs with the emphasis on strengthening teaching strategies for teachers on distance-learning or hybrid learning platforms for their teachers and most high schools did not have the capacity to consider becoming test centers. Demand remained consistent among high school students and supply was dwindling. A small percentage of high schools shifted to testing only their own students but not all high schools were able to meet the requirements for closed-center testing. This move was seen as increasing the divide between those with access to resources and those without.

Seeing the writing on the wall, college admission officers quickly realized that the vast majority of seniors were not going to be able to take ACT or SAT tests and this motivated many to announce test-optional admission reviews for the 2020-2021 admission cycle.. Some schools announced one- or three-year test-optional pilot programs. Some institutions which had been studying whether to go test-optional announced plans to go, and remain, test-optional in their admission reviews.

The strongest factor in determining admission has long been evident on the high school transcript — the strength of the classes taken during high school and the academic success the student demonstrated while taking those rigorous classes over four years. Test scores have been a factor in admission — and perhaps a stronger factor in the case of specific programs in engineering, nursing, etc., — but there was consensus that test scores weren’t the most important element in a student’s application file. This notion was about to get tested in real-time.

There was some concern about whether colleges would be able to yield strong classes without having test scores as data points in applicant files. Bates College was an early adopter of a test-optional approach – they have been test-optional for 35 years. They didn’t flinch. There are other institutions, such as the University of Chicago which recently adopted a test-optional admission approach four years ago as part of their Empower Initiative, which was intended to increase access to higher education to students from underrepresented backgrounds. The University of Chicago has experienced several very successful admission cycles under test-optional reviews and has announced it is permanently test-optional. Other universities, including Lehigh and Claremont-McKenna, adopted one- or three-year test-optional pilot programs as a direct result of COVID. They will be comparing data of incoming students’ academic performance on their campuses with and without test scores to determine whether to reinstate the requirement for college test scores in future years.

In this test-optional admission environment, it is important to remember that not all schools in all places are test-optional. The legislatures in Florida and Georgia are requiring applicants to submit test scores to attend their public universities. Georgetown University would still like to see test scores — read their admission website for more on their admission policies regarding submitting scores.

Some admission officers have shared that without test scores, students’ college essays and recommendation letters came to the forefront for many admission committees and took on more weight than they had in previous years.

While the phenomenon of test-optional is in very early phases at many colleges — and last year’s experience may not be a predictor of this year or future year’s admission outcomes, it may be interesting to take a snapshot of a few recent examples. Remembering that test scores are just one factor in holistic admission, here are a few examples of overall outcomes based on whether applicants submitted test scores or not.  Lehigh recently shared that 52% of applicants last year submitted ACT/SAT testing, 60% of their admitted students had submitted tests, and 40% of admitted students had not submitted college testing. Emory reported that about half of their applicants chose to submit scores and about 69% of their offers went to students who had submitted test scores. At Vanderbilt about 56% of applicants submitted test scores and just over 60% of those admitted had submitted scores. Case Western reported that 45% of their applicants chose to apply test-optional and 42% of their admitted class had not submitted test scores. At Brandeis 54% of students submitted scores and 64% of their admit offers went to students who had submitted scores.

While some colleges/universities offer test-optional admission — there may be specific programs (e.g. nursing, engineering, etc.) that still require the submission of test scores. While some institutions may offer test-optional admission, they may require the submission of test scores to qualify for specific scholarships. For example, Rollins College, in  Winter Park, Florida, has been test-optional since 2008. Students who choose to apply under a test-optional review are eligible to be considered for partial merit scholarships ranging from $15,000-32,000. It is important to understand the details surrounding test-optional admission and each institution gets to decide how they will apply this to admission, majors, scholarships, etc. Please review admission websites carefully for specific details.

The Elimination of SAT Subject Tests and the SAT Essay

While the writing had been on the wall with fewer and fewer colleges requiring/recommending SAT Subject Tests and the optional writing section of the SAT from students, CB pulled the plug on both SAT Subject Test (spring 2021) and the SAT Essay (summer 2021) during COVID.

Students have been able to include AP scores on college essays for years, which wasn’t the case early on when AP scores would be provided to the registrar at the college a student attended to see what amount of college credit would be applied to the student’s academic record and SAT Subject Tests were the scores included on college admission applications. The optional writing section on the SAT was under scrutiny about what it could reasonably demonstrate to an admission reader and with the prevalence of test prep firms coaching so many students, the essays often had similar approaches and cadences. The SAT has returned to an entirely multiple-choice format at this point.

The Push to Early

For the past decade, we have seen a focus on applying earlier. During COVID, the increase in the number of binding Early Decision applications received was significant. Under an Early Decision (ED) application plan, the student commits to attending that institution if offered admission. This is the strongest demonstration of interest a student can make during this process. ED applicant pools are among the most highly qualified applicants. Colleges set enrollment targets each year, sometimes planning to fill 10-60% of their incoming freshman class from the ED pool.

Most college admission professionals attributed the sharp increase in the number of ED applications last year to a desire for a sense of certainty during a time when many things were unsure in students’ lives. Because colleges were unsure about how COVID would impact their yields and whether they would be able to hit their enrollment targets, as well as the added pressure of higher numbers of students expressing a desire to remain closer to home in case the college needed to shut down due to COVID, etc. Some colleges admitted a bit more in their binding Early Decision and Early Decision II rounds than they have in recent years.

We are still in the throes of COVID-19 and the impact it has on college admission may not be truly known for some time. What difference did the shift to entirely virtual college tours and programs have vs. in-person campus visits have on enrollment and will it have on retention? Did the number of deferral requests received by colleges from students who wanted to wait out COVID and enter college the following year impact the number of admission offers colleges will be able to make this fall? Will COVID extend the number of years current students will spend in their college years? Many aspects will become clearer in the coming years. In the meantime, as always, we encourage students to remain at the heart of their process and to control what they can in this process.

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