College Admissions During COVID-19

By Christine Thomas

The pandemic has upended every part of life, and college admissions has not been spared. Still, the shifts in post-secondary entrance have yet to be fully realized, with the Class of 2021 immersed in unknown territory as they await the outcome of their college quests. “This is a different type of year, and there are so many unknowns,” said Terri Devine, Punahou’s director of college counseling.

The fluctuating landscape has been marked by standardized testing cancellations and test-optional admissions, as well as virtual-only college visits. Some believe the significant changes taking place with college admissions this school year may be permanent.

With SAT and ACT tests canceled across the country, it’s been difficult for students to take the exams, especially a multiple of times, to submit their best scores. Colleges have responded with announcements that applicants won’t be required to submit standardized test results, unless they choose to.

There already was a growing list of U.S. colleges that had made the SAT optional prior to the pandemic. But now, there are now hundreds of test-optional universities, including all Ivy League schools, every University of California (UC) institution, University of Southern California and the University of Washington – all popular destinations for Punahou grads. Some colleges, like California Institute of Technology, enacted a two-year moratorium on both the requirement and consideration of SAT and ACT test scores as part of the undergraduate admissions process. UC schools went even further, saying the SAT and ACT will remain optional for the Class of 2022, and that scores will be omitted when reviewing in-state applicants in 2023 and 2024. In 2025, tests will not be part of the review of any applicants, which some believe is a marker of the demise of testing.

“Over the last 10 to 20 years, many colleges have adopted test-optional policies because many studies have shown that standardized testing doesn’t predict success in college,” Devine said. “Students with high test scores are often those who have more access to the rigorous curriculum available at private and high performing public schools, and can afford test preparation. As colleges seek to diversify their student body and attract applicants from a wider economic pool, test-optional policies can be helpful. The pandemic has provided colleges with an opportunity to implement policies they’ve long considered.”

Admissions testing has been “knocked off the pedestal permanently,” declared Jeff Selingo, author of the recently published book, “Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.” For his research, Selingo had been granted rare access to the admissions process at Emory University, Davidson College and the University of Washington.

His conclusion: SAT and ACT scores are not essential for admittance. “Colleges don’t differentiate students by test scores,” he said. “They really differentiate students by all the other parts of the application. I think you will see some colleges do away with test requirements permanently. SAT was never a terrific signal.”

He believes colleges will continue to consider the quality of courses students take in high school, as well as their grades. “How schools will evaluate applicants will switch a little, but it will be the same for the most part, especially at selective colleges,” he said. “Grades and high school curriculum are going to be paramount in their decision process.”

But the coronavirus has radically disrupted the country’s educational system, and many schools have had to change their course offerings or adopt “pass or fail” grading. As a result, Selingo believes it’s actually current high school juniors who will be most affected by pandemic shifts. “Everyone is so worried about the Class of 2021, but the Class of 2022 had their sophomore year impacted, just as they were really starting to get into their high school years,” he said. “They will be almost totally impacted by the virus. You hope they have a normal senior year, but by then, they’ve lost a big chunk of their high school years.”

Athletics and other activities also have been canceled, and this too could impact applications. High school students have long been known to take part in all kinds of clubs and activities, sometimes just to list them on their applications. But with many extracurricular options now unavailable, students have to find other ways to reveal themselves beyond academics.

Colleges have always been most interested in students’ transcript and curriculum, Devine said. “Seeing academic progress over four years provides good insight into how students will perform in college. But colleges do want to see how students spend time outside the classroom. What do they pursue for fun? What are they curious about? It isn’t about the length of the resume. Colleges are more interested in knowing why a student pursues certain things.”

During the pandemic, students have had more time on their hands. While some are taking care of family members, others are reading books that have stacked up on their shelves. Such activities should be revealed in applications, Devine said. “Colleges are interested in seeing how students are faring during the challenges we currently face.”

To help Punahou students traverse this ever-changing terrain, the School’s college counselors will continue to work with students individually. “We listen to their goals and dreams, and help them see the pathway in front of them and navigate it in the best way possible,” Devine
said. “Our primary role continues to be supporting and guiding our students toward their next steps after Punahou, whatever that looks like, while trying to make sure they are up to speed with what colleges need now.”

Devine says she and others on the college counseling team are constantly talking to college admissions officers to stay informed about the latest developments. “We make a lot of connections to know what’s happening,” she said. “We are trying to make this as seamless as possible for kids.”

Right now, she said, colleges are not putting a lot of pressure on high school seniors to turn in applications with all the traditional criteria fulfilled. Yet, high school students still should present their best selves in their applications. They should also take advantage of new ways to learn about schools.­

Because of campus closures and other travel restrictions, prospective students and their families are now “visiting” potential schools online, taking virtual campus tours. Many see this development as a positive change that has allowed more students to get a better look at schools without being restricted by finances. For Hawai‘i students, who often must travel long distances to visit colleges, the online offering has been particularly beneficial.

Overall, Devine encourages students to make informed, thoughtful decisions about how to proceed – not just with college applications, but with their overall future choices.

Melia Wade ’21 took the SAT in December 2019, when she was a junior, but she decided not to send her scores as part of her college applications. “I was really concerned that schools would prioritize those who have that extra information, but the colleges made it clear that if you don’t submit your test scores, you will still be considered the same as an applicant who did,” she said.

While Wade had been previously set to leave the Islands for college, she now has the University of Hawai‘i in her top-three list of schools. “Once the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown after spring break, it shifted my perspective,” she said. “The biggest shift has been becoming more accepting of staying home and going to UH.”

In his book preface, Selingo says students shouldn’t worry that COVID-19 has ruined their college prospects.

“Colleges know that applicants’ high school careers and college searches were interrupted, and, as a result, admission offers will be flexible in how they weigh various factors in the application,” he wrote. “… The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is a universally shared experience. While it won’t reshape the entire admissions process, for years to come it will color the lens through which admissions officers view applicants.”

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