Impact of COVID-19 on College Admission and Testing

Impact of COVID 19 on college admissions

 Verywell / Bailey Mariner

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 an essay or essays.

But the pandemic changed all of that. For instance, some high schools stopped calculating grades and some extracurricular activities were canceled. In the summer of 2020, 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 in the class of 2021 felt like their applications were 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 this class said that COVID-19 has impacted their qualifications or the strength of their applications. For instance, 30% of 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 in the spring and summer of 2020 prevented many students from prepping for or taking the ACT and SAT exams. 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.

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 actively engaged in leveling the playing field as much as they could to accommodate the challenges students are experiencing—especially because some areas of the country have been hit harder by the coronavirus than others.

Test-Optional Schools

A significant number of colleges and universities made the decision to become test-optional, at least for the class of 2021's admission cycle. According to the National Center for Open and Fair Testing (FairTest), more than 1,600 accredited colleges and universities have made tests optional for 2021 admissions.

Before you register your child to take the ACT or SAT, visit the FairTest website to determine if the schools your child is applying to are test-optional. But 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, they should 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 they may want to consider skipping the tests and highlighting 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

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.

Visit the College Board's website to determine if your child's testing location has cancelled a test. The site also indicates whether or not a make-up test will be offered.

The ACT does not have a list of cancellations. But you can research your test center to be sure the test is being offered before scheduling a 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 in fall 2020, admissions officials offered virtual campus tours for prospective students. Many also reached students through virtual question and answer sessions, personalized emails, and social media.

How to Navigate an Unusual Application Process

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 the 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.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Art & Science Group, LLC. The impact of COVID-19 on the college application process for the high school class of 2021.

  2. National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). 1,685+ accredited, 4-year colleges and universities with ACT/SAT-pptional testing policies for fall, 2021 admissions.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.