Impact of COVID-19 on College Admission and Testing
The Pennington School’s College Counseling Office has created this resource for parents and students in an attempt to address the Impact of COVID-19 on College Admissions 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 is going to happen with Advanced Placement Exams?
- As more members of the Class of 2020 consider 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 current juniors’ spring term?
- Will the letter grades be 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?
- What should students do with their summers?
- How can students still demonstrate interest if programs they would have attended are canceled?
- What activities could students pursue this summer?
- What about canceled on-campus summer programs?
- 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. Juniors 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, juniors 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 this summer to further explore themselves and their interests.
What creative ways can students pursue to show interest in space exploration without an internship at NASA? How can they show they want to study sports medicine without shadowing their local team, given that all sports are canceled? Students should begin to think about how a planned but canceled program––a culinary class in Paris, for instance––can be used to demonstrate their sincere interest, presenting the anticipated learning experience from their home.
- With the June SAT canceled and the June ACT at risk, what happens next?
- The College Board has committed to adding a September date. Will ACT also schedule makeups?
- 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 Board/SAT: Students will be able to register for the following test dates: August 29, September 26, October 3, November 7, and December 5 SAT administrations during the week of May 26. The College Board has confirmed that Subject Tests will be offered on August 29, October 3, November 7, December 5, and also on test dates into 2021. Subject Tests will not be offered on the new September 26 date, which will be SAT-only. The exact date on which registration will open is still to be determined, but all SAT dates for the next school year will be available for registration. The November 7 administration is currently set only to occur in the U.S.; the College Board is “evaluating if we can add international SAT” offerings as well. Keep in mind that these administrations will only proceed if it’s safe from a public health standpoint.
For the first week, two groups will receive priority for registration for August, September, and October dates:
1. Students who were registered for the June 6 test.
2. All Class of 2021 students who are without an SAT score.
During this first week, everyone will be able to register for November tests and beyond. While it has been made clear that eligible students can register with a fee waiver, it does not seem that these students will have early access to register unless they were also already registered for June 6 and/or current juniors who don’t have SAT scores yet.
The early access registration process should be fairly seamless for students who were registered for June 6 already, as the College Board will contact them directly. It’s less clear how a current junior who hasn’t taken an SAT previously and was not registered for June 6 would gain access to this early registration window. We hope that those with cancelled March 14 and May 2 tests also receive access to the early registration, but it doesn’t look like they will unless they had already changed their cancelled registrations to June 6.
ACT: Due to New Jersey Governor Murphy's announcement that all school campuses will remain closed until at least June 30, for students currently scheduled to take the June ACT in New Jersey, the College Counseling Office recommends that students reschedule their administration for either July or September 2020. A representative from ACT recommended calling ACT to make the change to avoid additional fees. At the moment, if completed online, a change-of-date fee will be incurred. Students and parents can reach ACT directly by phone at 1 (319) 337-1270.
We will continue to monitor the situation as we get closer to the July ACT and will continue to investigate the potential that ACT will develop an online version of their test. We are including a link below to an update from ACT from May 13, 2020.
- 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, we predict that more institutions will adopt test-optional policies.
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 current high school juniors. Tufts will then evaluate whether it wants to go back to requiring an SAT or ACT. Pomona College, on the other hand, announced that it plans to be test-optional only for the Class of 2021 (current high-school juniors).
- How will colleges view and award credit for AP exams?
- How important are AP outcomes in the admissions process?
Many students were forced to switch to remote learning when they were 75% through their AP courses. The College Board decided to continue to offer the 2020 AP Exams in an abridged, virtual, at-home format. The 2020 AP Exams will still be scored on a 1–5 scale, and many colleges have released statements in support of accepting these scores for course credit.
It is important to remember that students’ performance in their AP course(s) has a greater value in the college admissions process than a specific score on the exam(s). According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2019 State of College Admission Report, “academic performance in high school has been the most important consideration in freshman admission decisions for decades. Seventy-five percent of colleges rated grades in all high school courses as considerably important, and 73 percent rated grades in college prep courses as considerably important. Strength of curriculum was rated considerably important by more than 60 percent.” AP test scores were given significantly less weight and fall close to the bottom of the list of factors.
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. In the coming months, many of these programs will be offered only virtually.
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 admissions office at the institution the student is planning to attend and ask the office directly about their deferral policy.