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COVID-19 and College Admissions: Expert Answers to Four Essential Questions

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

By Gabrielle Chishinsky and Jack Zhang

Yale University landscape
Try taking a virtual tour of your dream college. (David Mark via Pixabay)

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed the college admissions landscape, altering daily routines and creating new hurdles for high school students.

Despite these challenging circumstances, students still have access to an array of resources. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that Embolden is here to help you navigate this period of uncertainty and ensure your college admissions story is one of success.

With this in mind, here are our expert answers to some of your frequently asked questions.

How can I learn more about colleges and universities right now?

College tours — and perhaps even college road trips — have long been a key part of the admissions process. But thanks to stay-at-home orders, closed campuses, and COVID-19, this beloved tradition is now all but impossible. To support those in search of other options, team #EmboldenMe has compiled a list of our favorite alternatives.

Virtual tours are a great way to learn more about colleges and universities from the comfort of your own home. Try tours hosted by your dream college or offered by third-party companies. If you don’t know where to start, use a college search questionnaire, which will ask essential questions about what you’re looking for in a college, including whether you want to go to a small-town or big-city school. Once you receive your results, complete virtual tours of colleges that match your criteria.

For the next step, treat universities like a potential friend and explore their social media presence. Sign up for mailing lists, follow Instagram and Twitter accounts, and watch student videos on YouTube. Admissions blogs can be particularly helpful, providing school-specific insights on what colleges are looking for in applicants.

You can also get to know current students and alumni. No, that’s not as scary as it sounds: Admission offices can connect you with current students, faculty, and alumni, or you can do some sleuthing on LinkedIn. Start by searching for people who went to your high school and asking them about their experiences at different universities. This is also a great way to see where a school’s graduates end up after getting their degrees.

COVID-19 may have postponed college fairs, but university representatives are still participating in events like Strive Virtual College Exploration. Though this particular live fair ended May 8, students can access recordings of all presentations online. In the meantime, check out college search websites and forums. These resources include college search tools, review websites, and even forums that allow you to gain unique insight on what it’s like to go to a specific college. Candid reviews can be helpful, but remember that every student’s experience is different.

Lastly, don’t forget about resources offered by your current high school. If your school has a subscription to Naviance, you can look at scattergrams to see how you stack up against previous applicants. But take these results with a grain of salt, especially if the data represents a small sample size: Colleges consider much more than grades and test scores when making decisions. You can also talk to your guidance counselor, who is a great source of information and advice.

How will COVID-19 affect college admissions?

Colleges understand that this is a challenging time for students. Many are waiving SAT and ACT requirements, as well as changing deadlines for deposits and decisions. Here are the top changes you need to know about.

First, keep track of updates. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has an online tool that acts a central source of information, helping students stay in the loop regarding changes made by different colleges. Visit an individual college’s website for the most up-to-date information on how it’s currently handling admissions.

Plan ahead for postponed SAT and ACT tests. Many spring and early summer testing dates have been canceled or postponed. Make sure to follow the testing organizations’ official webpages for SAT, PSAT, and ACT updates, and make sure you’re familiar with new testing policies. Both the SAT and the ACT will have remote testing options in the fall; come September, the ACT will even allow students to retake specific sections of the test. Many colleges are also moving toward superscoring the ACT.

Don’t stress about grades and extracurricular activities (ECs). Colleges have promised to be flexible when reviewing grades you earned while stuck at home. If your school has changed grading policies (such as moving to pass/fail grades), know that this will not negatively impact your chances of earning a spot at your dream school. You will likely have a chance to explain how COVID-19 impacted your academic situation when you fill out the Common Application.

Basketball team
Consider participating in a virtual extracurricular activity this summer. (Photo by NeONBRAND via Unsplash)

Likewise, colleges will not penalize you for missing out on any ECs affected by COVID-19. You can still list them on your application. If you’re worried (or just bored), consider virtually participating in various ECs during summer vacation.

Contact financial aid offices for help. Fee waivers are available for students facing unexpected monetary losses due to the pandemic. Universities are also accepting self-reported test scores, especially from students struggling to afford official score reports. Reaching out to individual offices will give you the most insight into how universities are helping hard-hit families. Note that the NCAA has waived test scores’ use in determining freshman eligibility for athletic programs.

What does test-optional really mean?

Test-optional means students do not have to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. Instead, colleges will rely more on holistic factors, including grades, course rigor, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation. On the other hand, test-flexible means that a college may not require the SAT or the ACT, but still asks applicants to submit the results of Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, or SAT subject tests. Check Fairtest.org for a complete list of colleges with test-optional policies.

Should I submit my test scores? If you did well on your standardized tests, go ahead and submit your scores. But if these kinds of exams aren’t your forte, know that you don’t have to submit them. Universities will simply place more weight on the rest of your application. Among the other situations to consider:

● Test-optional policies can differ for international students. Review a complete list of test-optional colleges and their policies for international students here.

● What if you took subject tests? Many colleges have dropped or reconsidered how they use subject tests. Note distinctions between whether they are required, recommended, optional, or not considered.

● Some colleges have test-optional or test-flexible policies but still require test scores for certain merit scholarships. Many colleges have superscoring or test choice policies that allow you to submit your best set of scores. It may be in your best interest to take the tests at least once. Taking the PSAT, for instance, allows you to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship.

Be sure to know the differences between test-optional and test-flexible policies. (Photo by Robert Bye via Unsplash)

How will COVID-19 affect current high school seniors making their college decisions?

You’ll have more time to make your decision. Many colleges have pushed back housing or deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1. The NACAC reports that approximately 52 percent of colleges have pushed back deadlines, and many have expressed their intended flexibility. Fee waivers are also available if your deposit poses a financial hardship.

You can still submit your financial aid forms. Current seniors can fill out the FAFSA form through June 30. If you’re experiencing hardship, reach out to your college’s financial aid office to appeal or add additional information to your application.

Colleges will be lenient with senior-year grades. Typically, college admissions offers are made with a contingency in place — seniors must continue to earn good grades during their second semester. But due to COVID-19, many colleges will be lenient or flexible when reviewing second-semester grades.

Many colleges will accept adjusted online AP tests. Additionally, some colleges will offer alternate methods of earning credit for college-level courses. Check with the individual college you are considering, and review official updates.

Prepare for virtual admissions events. Many colleges are continuing to host welcome events in an online format. Check with each college and university you have been admitted to in order to catch all offerings.

Contributing writer Jack Zhang is a former assistant dean of undergraduate admissions at the College of William & Mary. Gabrielle Chishinsky is Embolden's blog content manager.

Have feedback or questions you'd like to see answered in future posts? Contact us at blog@emboldenme.org.