Impact of COVID-19 on College Admission and Testing

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Before COVID-19, most colleges and universities had elaborate admissions guidelines that were designed to present holistic pictures of their applicants. Some of the criteria they used to form these snapshots included a student's GPA, test scores, their school's academic rigor, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, volunteer and work experience, as well as their essay.

But, the pandemic has changed all of that. For instance, some high schools are no longer calculating grades and some extracurricular activities are canceled. Plus over the summer, students were unable to get internships, participate in summer programs, prep for or take standardized tests, volunteer, and sometimes even work. Consequently, a number of students feel like their applications are not as strong as they could be.

Consequences of COVID-19

In fact, according to a survey by Art & Science Group in collaboration with the College Board, nearly 45% of rising seniors said that COVID-19 has impacted their qualifications or the strength of their applications.

For instance, 30% of white and Asian students, said they were unable to participate in extracurricular activities, while nearly 25% of Black and Hispanic students were unable to participate in summer educational programs.

Additionally, 21% of Black students and 13% of white students said their grades had been "compromised" by the pandemic. Meanwhile, 23% of students from the lowest-income group in the survey said they hadn't been able to work to save money for college.

What's more, widespread cancellations this past spring and summer have prevented many students from prepping for or taking the ACT and SAT exams. In fact, at the time of the survey, two-thirds of the respondents had not yet taken the SAT and nearly three-quarters had not yet taken the ACT.

And, as many as 51% of underrepresented minority students, 51% of low income students, and 51% of first generation college students were less likely than others to have taken the exams. For this reason, the class of 2021 is likely to submit vastly different college applications than those who graduated in 2019 and 2020.

What to Expect

Colleges and universities have had to adapt to meet this ever-changing landscape of student applicants. Some have made their application requirements test-optional, created virtual campus tours, and are actively engaged in leveling the playing field as much as they can to accommodate the challenges students are experiencing—especially because some areas of the country have been hit harder by the coronavirus than others.

Here is a closer look at what your student can expect when applying to college this fall and winter.

Test-Optional Schools

Some colleges are waiting to see how the pandemic impacts high schools this year before making a final decision about whether or not to implement a test-optional policy.

That said, there are a significant number of colleges and universities that have made the decision to become test-optional already. According to National Center for Open and Fair Testing (NCOFT), more than 1,600 accredited colleges and universities have made tests optional for 2021 admissions.

Consequently, before you shell out money for your child to take the ACT or the SAT, visit the the NCOFT website to determine if the schools your child is applying to are test-optional this year. Also, keep in mind just because a school is test-optional, this does not mean they are test-blind.

In other words, if your child does well on standardized tests, be sure that they include their test scores with their application. Doing so will strengthen their application and make them a stronger candidate.

If, however, your student struggles with standardized testing or has test anxiety, then you may want to consider skipping the tests and highlight their other qualifications.

If your student is considering not submitting standardized test scores, they need to make sure the rest of their application is pretty solid. While not submitting scores is a nice option for students who don't do well with standardized tests, it also means that the rest of their application will be more heavily weighted.

So, if you and your student think their application would be improved by including standardized test scores—and your student is able to take a test before the application deadline—then by all means, take the test and submit the scores.

Canceled or Postponed Tests

When it comes to taking standardized tests, some students will find it easier to schedule and take tests than others. Both the ACT and the SAT have scheduled exam dates, but are leaving it up to each test site to determine whether or not they are going to offer the test. Both organizations are suggesting that students monitor their testing locations to be sure the tests are still being offered as planned.

If you are planning to take the SAT or an SAT subject test, you can visit the College Board's website to determine if your testing location has cancelled a test. The site also indicates whether or not a make-up test will be offered.

As for the ACT, they do not have a list of cancellations. But you can research your test center to be sure the test is being offered before scheduling your test.

Both organizations also encourage students who plan to take the tests to register as soon as possible for the exams they want to take. With limited test dates and locations—plus a backlog of students who were unable to take their exams in the spring or summer—the availability is limited. They also both encourage students to wear face masks when taking their exams.

Virtual Campus Tours

In the past, students showed interest in a college or university by visiting the campus. But, with many campuses closed to students this fall, admissions officials have started offering virtual campus tours for prospective students. Many are also reaching students through virtual question and answer sessions, personalized emails, and social media.

Here are some ways your child can make the most of this situation:

  • Ask them to develop a list of the schools they're interested in.
  • Encourage your child to reach out to their admissions counselor at their top schools and begin developing a relationship—even if it is only through email and virtual calls.
  • Reach out to a professor or two within their desired major to introduce themselves and ask about the courses offered.
  • Follow their top picks on social media to gather information and show interest in the school—especially if your student likes or re-shares the information they post. (Just be sure your teen cleans up their social media account before following their top colleges.)

A Word From Verywell

While COVID-19 has completely changed the college admissions process this year, there are some unintended positives to all these changes. First, the pandemic has leveled the playing field when it comes to making college visits and doing lots of extras to enhance the college application that low income students cannot always afford. No one is doing these things so it's forcing students to get creative in order to make their application stand out.

Second, because many campuses are closed, it's much easier for students to get in touch with admissions professionals because they aren't traveling much. As a result, be sure your student reaches out to them and builds a relationship. Plus, they are likely to be very empathetic to the things students are experiencing because their lives have been upended by COVID-19 as well.

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Article Sources
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  1. Art & Science Group. The impact of COVID-19 on the college application process for the high school class of 2021.

  2. National Center for Open and Fair Testing. 1,600+ accredited, 4-year colleges & universities with ACT/SAT-optional testing policies for fall, 2021 admissions.