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Covid's Impact on College Applications

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

As college application season heats up heading toward the inevitable application deadlines starting in October students are worried about the impact that Covid has had on their education, grades, test scores, activities, sports, and extracurricular exploits.

In response, between 400 and 544 colleges have signed on to statements reassuring students that the Covid pandemic will not affect their college applications. The statements are: "Test Optional Means Test Optional" from the National Association for College Admission Counseling ("NACAC") and "Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to Covid-19," from the Harvard-led Making Caring Common Project. How does this impact students? Let's look at the factors one by one. Grades: The 360 colleges who signed the "Care Counts in Crisis" statement clearly explain that the colleges recognize that the pandemic circumstances have created significant obstacles to academic work. The colleges will assess a student's academic record in the context of these obstacles. They state:

"No student will be disadvantaged because of a change in commitments or a change in plans because of the outbreak, their schools decisions about transcripts, the absence of AP or IB tests, their lack of access to standardized tests...or their inability to visit campus. We will also view students in the context of the curriculum, academic resources, and supports available to them. " Harvard-led Making Caring Common Project.

Students are worried that the spring pivot to online learning, schools adopting pass/fail, and problems adapting or accessing online learning had a detrimental impact on their grades when they are constantly told that junior year grades "really matter." Whitney Soule, Dean of Admissions at Bowdoin College says that "Admissions officers will understand if grades are incomplete," in her article "5 Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic could affect your college application." She points out that colleges are used to dealing with unusual situations including schools that don't assign grades to students who transferred to high schools with different grading scales. Because of this, they will adapt how their review grades and transcripts.

Grades are NOT the only factor that admissions officers look at. They look at the courses offered at each student's high school, and assess the level to which the student has challenged themselves academically. They understand that in some cases education came to a screeching halt, that students either didn't have access to or had unreliable internet, that family circumstances whether dealing with no quiet place to study to job loss or illness, to students who struggle with dyslexia or attention issues all combined to impact spring semester grades.

The University of California ("UC") system suspended the "letter grade requirement for A-G courses completed in winter/spring/summer 2020 for all students, including UC’s most recently admitted freshmen." UC Statement April 1, 2020.

What should a student do to explain unexpected changes in grades: college applications including the UC, Common, and Coalition applications all have a space to explain impacts on academic performance. Students should be brief and factual. For Common App schools that allow a school counselor letter, the counselor will be expected to explain their school-specific circumstances. However, students need to communicate any factors specific to their situation that affected their academic performance.



Test scores should have less of an impact this year. The International Baccalaureate ("IB") tests were cancelled, numerous students either didn't have access to computers or suffered technical problems with the Advanced Placement ("AP") tests. The AP tests were quickly changed to a short online format. Students who signed up for SAT/ACT tests or want to take the test again to improve scores face cancellations and the inability to register.

At present 1,570 colleges have announced that they are test-optional or test-blind for at least the 2020-21 application period. This represents two-thirds of the US 4-year colleges. The UC and CSU systems originally decided that they would only look at standardized tests for scholarships or class placement, but a recent court injunction, which is being contested, ordered the UC to stop using the scores for any reason this year. UC Now Test Blind.

The 544 colleges that signed the NACAC statement "Test-Optional Means Test-Optional" stated that they "are making a definitive statement that they will not need test scores to make admissions decisions this year...(they) affirm that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score. Together, we strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score." This list of colleges includes Amherst to Arizona State, Yale to Western Washington University, UC Santa Barbara to Cal Tech, Beloit College to Union College. List

Historically the service academies are the strictest adherents to requirements. However, the US Naval Academy announced a test-flexible policy with a catch. Applicants must provide information about lack of test availability, cancellation etc. Students should check with the other academies to see where they stand on demanding test scores.


Disruption to extracurricular activities, internships, jobs, summer courses:

On many applications colleges ask about extracurricular activities, or what students do when they aren't in school. Again, students should realize that the admissions officers know that many opportunities evaporated into the virus-saturated air. They understand that students and their families isolated themselves (or should have), that circumstances conspired to halt jobs, valuable internships, sports competitions, academic courses, robotic competitions and so much more.

The Making Caring Common Project says: "No student will be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurricular activities. We also understand that many plans for summer have been impacted by this pandemic, and students will not be disadvantaged for lost possibilities for involvement."

Students are often enticed to participate in "high-profile, brief forms of service," like a trip to Africa to build a well, a journey to Puerto Rico to assist with hurricane recovery, a summer academic program at a prestigious university. The Harvard signers made a point of saying that family contributions like supervising younger siblings, caring for sick relatives, working to provide income, making masks or care packages, or checking in on or shopping for older neighbors are important and should be included in the application. They will assess all participation in the context of the obstacles the students are facing. Soule from Bowdoin points out that personality may count more than in other application seasons. More and more colleges are looking for empathy and persistence. Students should briefly describe their circumstances such as length of school commute, necessity of working after school, lack of economic support, or family responsibilities among others. In other words, the colleges value each student's unique qualities beyond their academic and extracurricular performance. Students should use their essays to describe what they have learned about themselves and how they are developing into young adults.


Letters of Recommendation:

Students are concerned that they may be getting letters of recommendation from teachers who know them only from the online context.

Again, the college admissions officers understand that it is harder to personally interact over a computer screen, however teachers should still be able to provide insight into the student's learning style and strengths.

Remember, neither the UC nor CSU ask for letters of recommendation. Other colleges generally ask for one, sometimes two letters. Students should pick teachers who they think understand who they are and how they approach learning and interacting with other students.


Impact of students returning from a gap year:

Some students have postponed starting college until next year. This year's students are worried that these returning students will cause fewer spaces to be available. There are estimates that between 4% to 20% of students chose a gap year. What schools will do about this influx of previously accepted students will be decided by each school. Some schools, such as Yale, Williams, and Union College (NY) are planning for larger freshman classes.


What Now?

Take a breath.

Students put your time and energy into the parts of the application that you can complete. Work on your essays if applicable. Make sure you enter your courses correctly. Get a copy of your community college transcript if that applies. You can't do anything about the parts of your life and education that were disrupted. Look forward. If a college will not evaluate you within the context that you are living in, is it a college that you want to apply to? College admissions officers are human, their lives have been tossed around same as yours.

Put your best foot forward, choose your colleges carefully focusing on the ones where you will thrive and grow. Write your essays. List your activities. Get your applications done well before the deadlines. When you are ready, hit "Submit" then get back to being a senior in high school.

Keep your fingers crossed that the pandemic effects will become less disruptive and an effective vaccine is developed. In the meantime, wear your mask, and behave as a socially conscious person.

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