Impact of COVID-19 on College Admission and Testing
The Pennington School’s College Counseling Office has created this resource for parents and students to address the Impact of COVID-19 on college admission and standardized testing. We will continue to update this information as we learn more.
- How will student applications be evaluated in the wake of COVID-19?
- What is going to happen to the SAT and ACT test dates?
- With more institutions going test-optional in light of COVID-19, how much do test scores still matter?
- What else do I need to know about the college search and application process?
- Where can I learn more about college admission?
- Class of 2020: Deferring enrollment, what should students and parents know?
- How will the spring semester of 2020 be evaluated?
- Will colleges put less weight on grades, academic rigor, and extracurricular activities from the spring semester of 2020?
- Will the letter grades given this spring be considered legitimate and equivalent to letter grades from other terms?
- How will GPAs be considered or calculated? How do test scores factor into this calculation?
- How can students demonstrate leadership skills while all in-person activities are canceled?
- How should students navigate the loss of their extracurricular activities?
- How should student-athletes continue to demonstrate their interest in their sport?
Before COVID-19, the majority of the colleges and universities in the United States relied on a holistic review, with GPA, test scores, and academic rigor making up the sum of a student’s application. When the sum met or exceeded the institution’s benchmarks, admissions officers were trained to dive deeper into the student’s application and consider extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, AP scores, and other traditional “boxes to check.”
COVID-19 has challenged the sum of the traditional application. GPAs may not be simple to calculate, and test dates are being canceled. More colleges are becoming test-optional. Seniors will be applying for admission at a time when colleges will need to be as flexible and open-minded as they have ever been. This theme has been clearly evident in statements received by the College Counseling Office from countless institutions attesting to exactly that: "Given the circumstances, [college/university] will be flexible and understanding in considering your academic record."
Beyond the academics, members of the Class of 2021 are still wondering how they can distinguish themselves. The internships, summer programs or jobs, research, and other opportunities that they might have pursued are mostly curtailed at the moment.
The underlying attributes (passion/expertise in a field, commitment, leadership) that experiences reveal about a candidate are really what admissions officers are looking for anyway, and those attributes are as relevant as ever. The challenge now is how to express them. This adversity presents an opportunity for students to demonstrate creativity, ingenuity, and leadership by finding new ways to express their interests and even by taking time to further explore themselves and their interests.
- Has ACT added additional test dates in the fall?
- Has the College Board added additional test dates in the fall?
- Will additional testing capacity be added to accommodate those with canceled tests?
- Will there be an order of access to test dates?
- Will online testing be enabled?
- When does registration open for existing fall test dates and what is the general perception of how likely it is that those traditional test dates will hold?
- How widely available are these test dates?
- If availability is limited, are steps taken to prioritize access for students with fee waivers and students who have not yet taken the test?
The College Counseling Office recommends that students and parents monitor the College Board and ACT websites for real-time and accurate information. Furthermore, it is the College Counseling Office’s recommendation that students don’t stress over standardized testing. Members of the Class of 2021 should focus on maintaining personal health and academic performance.
Bookmark the following links and check back frequently for updates:
- Without scores, will there be a relative rise in the importance of other parts of an application?
- How are students with strong scores viewed under a new test-optional policy? Are the scores discounted?
- Should students with weaker scores not submit, or will they be penalized for not providing the score?
- Will schools that have implemented a test-optional policy return to requiring the ACT or SAT once COVID-19 is no longer a factor?
Whether students should back away from testing or lean into it is a decision, in consultation with the student’s college counselor, that each family can make for themselves. In recognition of the limited test dates, prep opportunities, and financial burdens the Class of 2021 is experiencing, more institutions than ever have adopted test-optional policies. In order to track which institutions are test-optional for the 2020–21 admission cycle, students and parents can go to Fairtest.org, where they will find an updated and comprehensive list.
Remember, test-optional is not the same as test-blind. Unless a school explicitly says it will not consider tests, then an applicant with strong test scores can still submit them for consideration.
Students who simply cannot gain access to any of these tests right now should do their best not to worry, to focus on what they can work on, and to know that the point for many schools in implementing these test-optional policies was to reduce the burden on students in exactly this position. The College Counseling Office believes colleges are acting in good faith and will not penalize students who do not submit test scores by assuming those scores would not have been competitive.
Students who choose not to submit test scores to a test-optional school should expect that the other aspects of their application will be weighted more heavily. This practice is not a change due to COVID-19, and for some students it might instead be an opportunity to showcase other interests. When considering a test-optional school, the germane question is whether test scores are in line with or enhance grades and academic background. This question was equally true before the COVID-19 crisis. Those students with very strong grades and academics but who struggle with standardized tests can choose not to submit those scores to test-optional schools. For students who do well on standardized tests, a high score on an SAT or ACT at a test-optional school can still strengthen their application.
How different schools have implemented test-optional policies varies. Tufts University announced that it will introduce a test-optional policy for the next three years, beginning with the Class of 2021. Tufts will then evaluate whether it wants to go back to requiring an SAT or ACT score. Pomona College, on the other hand, announced that it plans to be test-optional only for the Class of 2021 (current high school seniors).
This pandemic has touched every part of our lives. For high school students, the traditional ways to approach the college search and application process are now met with some uncertainty—from cancelled on-campus tours to the challenge of finding an open standardized testing center. However, there are still some ways you can engage in and get ahead of the college application process while demonstrating interest.
With most campuses still closed and/or students just unable to visit, there are additional ways to learn more about the schools to which you may apply. If an institution is within driving distance, it is still beneficial to see the campus and surrounding areas. If possible, take a ride to the school to see whether you can visualize yourself on campus. Some questions you may consider: Is the campus a good size for me? Does there seem like there is enough to do or visit in the local area? If you do not have access to a car, can you walk or bike off-campus? If there are students or faculty available, it may be possible to ask them questions, too!
Admission offices will be stepping up their virtual visits and information sessions, so please continue to check admission websites for these opportunities. Use social media, watch videos, read student blogs, and check out Instagram and Facebook postings for any particular college organizations that you are interested in. Rest assured that colleges need students and will find ways to recruit and enroll them. You can also reach out to admission offices to inquire about interview opportunities.
It is our profession’s hope that you will see a lot of grace, flexibility, and understanding from colleges through the application process in the fall. The pandemic has affected college admission professionals, too, so they will be sensitive to the disruptions you have faced and will continue to experience. All seniors are in the same position, and some will not have grades or testing to submit for consideration. In this case, many colleges will need to take a more holistic approach to evaluating applications.
One of the biggest upsides to campuses being closed is that admission professionals are almost always available by phone or email. You should be reaching out to the counselors who represent The Pennington School. If you do not know how to do this, please contact your college counselor!
There is a lot of information about college admissions—some good and…some not as good. Our suggestions may be subjective, but we put together some of our favorites. Here are a few thoughts on additional reading and listening material.
The Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward Fiske
Paying for College by Kalman Chany
Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope
Where You Go is Not Who You Will Be by Frank Bruni
The College Essay Guy Podcast. The College Counseling Office respects college essay expert Ethan Sawyer and considers him a superhero in our profession. His insights and advice on how to tackle the college essay are outstanding.
Get Schooled by Reeves and Ford. Chris Reeves and Joel Ford are high school counselors who spend a lot of time on college admission. They have both served as presidents of the Kentucky Association for College Admission Counseling. Chris is currently a board director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Get Wise: College Admissions Explained. Admission expert Arun Ponnusamy explores the "universal truths" of college admissions, demolishing the most stubborn myths, lies, and misconceptions along the way. Arun is a former admissions officer at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and is currently the chief academic officer at Collegewise.
College and University Blogs
Georgia Tech Admission Blog. Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission, maintains an active blog where he pulls back the curtain and allows readers to have an insider's perspective into college and university admission.
Princeton University’s Undergraduate Student Blog. Just up the road from Pennington, Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Blog allows students to tackle an assortment of topics and issues.
Tulane University Admission Blog. Jeff Schiffman, director of admission, posts regularly, covering topics relevant to college and university admissions.
Colleges and universities vary in their deferral policies: some have a policy of granting a year-long deferral of admission upon request almost automatically, while others review requests individually and approve them based on a consideration of their merit. Some institutions are more or less accommodating about the reasons students defer as long as they do not enroll as a degree-seeking student elsewhere, while more selective institutions only grant deferrals if students can demonstrate a plan for a meaningful alternative work, travel, or volunteer experience. Moreover, some colleges will only grant approval if a student has reasons related to a military service commitment or illness.
Students also need to consider what they will be doing while deferring enrollment. Remember, employment might be difficult to find. Gap year travel options most likely will be curtailed. The same may be true for internships and research opportunities.
Parents have expressed an interest in having their students take classes online at their state university of local community college. Caution: Enrolling full-time, or even part-time for a semester or a year, at a state university or local community college is not compatible with deferral policies at many institutions that bar students from enrolling as degree-seeking students at other institutions during their deferral year. Others may cap the number of credits a deferred student can earn elsewhere. For example, some institutions cap that number at six, others at eight or even twelve. Taking more credits than allowed by the original institution could mean having to reapply as a transfer student, which can have implications for eligibility for institutional aid. At this time, students and parents should discuss classes and transfer credit with the admission office at the institution where the student is planning to enroll prior to making any arrangements at local colleges and universities or gap year decisions.
The College Counseling Office recommends that students and parents contact the admission office at the institution the student is planning to attend and ask the office directly about their deferral policy.