Student News

Q & A: How Has College Admissions Changed in 2020?

Experts weigh in on COVID and the changes to college admissions.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

October 12, 2020

Discover how college admissions will be affected by the COVID pandemic this year.
Q & A: How Has College Admissions Changed in 2020?
Although it may seem as if we’re on the cusp of a major vaccine breakthrough for COVID-19, experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned us that the end to Coronavirus is still a long way off. Just a few weeks ago, Fauci told ABC News that we likely won’t see life return to normal until the end of 2021. That means that high school seniors need to search and apply for colleges with the global pandemic in mind, which looks a little different than the typical college search. Looking for more COVID-19 student-impact information? Find it here. A few weeks ago, U.S. News and World Report and Crimson Education, an admissions consulting firm that specializes in helping their clients get into top colleges and universities around the world, participated in a joint webinar that discussed the constantly evolving admissions landscape in a COVID world. Both sides provided answers to questions that high school juniors and seniors may be asking as they search for the perfect college – and there may be questions that you have, too. The best way you can stay on top of admissions changes and COVID implications is to stay informed. With that, here are some of the top questions and answers from the experts.

1. Which schools are better able to adapt amidst the pandemic?

The answer here was quite blunt: the wealthy schools. Colleges and universities with large endowments have the resources to successfully pivot in times of change and uncertainty. These schools were able to shift quickly to online learning, and fund the platforms and equipment that have been necessary to educate students while they’re at home. Brian Kelly, editorial director and executive vice president of U.S. News & World Report, pointed out that many of these large, wealthy colleges and universities have their own hospitals on campus. With that, they’re able to run campus-wide testing frequently and to quarantine positive cases effectively to help eliminate the spread. However, Kelly admitted that switching to an online format in the spring was a huge change for every school. No one did it perfectly – because none of these colleges and universities had to do it beforehand. As high school seniors search for colleges, take socially distanced campus tours, and engage in conversations with admissions officers over Zoom or email, they need to be asking questions about how the college is handling COVID. How are students quarantining? How are Zoom classes going? Will I be able to have Zoom hours with professors? What is the college’s plan if there is an outbreak? How has the school been adapting to the constant changes?

2. What is the biggest impact to admissions?

Both Kelly and David Freed, chief operating officer of Crimson, agreed that colleges and universities going test optional or test blind was the single biggest impact to admissions of COVID. They stated that this could be the beginning of the end of standardized tests. However, they were also quick to defend standardized testing as a good measure of how students will perform in college. For example, a student that may have a B- or C-average but performs really well on standardized tests can be seen by the admissions committee as a student who had a very rigorous academic load in high school. While their grades are not straight A’s, a high test score proves that they can be successful in college.

3. Should students consider Early Admission or Early Decision over Regular Admission this year?

Freed pointed out that most colleges and universities are desperate to have students commit to attending college next year. He stated that 20% of the incoming class at Harvard chose to defer admissions, and colleges don’t want to see that trend continue next year. As a result, students who apply Early Admission or Early Decision have a greater chance of being admitted than they were if they had applied last year. Admission committees will be admitting students at a higher rate from this pool of applicants.

4. How are admissions officers weighing college applications this year?

Students are especially concerned with how their applications will be viewed in light of Coronavirus impacts to both their education and their extracurricular involvement. The SAT and ACT are going to carry a lot less extra weigh this year – if at all. Many communities around the country haven’t even been able to host testing, meaning thousands of students around the country may not have test scores to showcase. At the same time, many extracurricular activities at schools and in communities have been cancelled. Whatever athletic, academic or philanthropic pursuits that students had outside of the classroom before the pandemic won’t necessarily be reflected on their college application. So what should students focus on instead? One thing that hasn’t changed is that the transcript is the most vital component of the college application. Students should still be putting most of their effort into their class work – whether that’s virtually or in-person. If you need help in a subject or subject area, reach out to teachers about scheduling a Zoom call – or email them to get further instruction. Instead of extracurricular activities, admissions committees will be looking at how students chose to fill their time outside of the classroom. Did you get a part-time job? Did you attend webinars? Did you find virtual volunteer work? Or get online certificates in order to build your skill set? Fortunately, during this time, there is so much at your literal fingertips through online learning. Students can be taking serious advantage of the free offers and free time right now. Finally, admissions committees will very likely be heavily weighing essays. Without standardized test scores and extracurricular activities, it’s more difficult to gauge who a student is and how they perform. At the same time, students have been through so much this year. Admissions officers want to hear about that – and they want to hear about how it affected students, for better or for worse.

5. Will merit scholarships be impacted by COVID?

Right now, experts like Kelly and Freed don’t know how merit scholarships will be impacted. Only time will tell as students get through this cycle of admissions. They assumed, however, that college endowments are rather compressed right now. Additionally, they noted that many colleges and universities will be under social pressure to admit more low-income students. They can’t skimp on financial aid for those students, so middle- and upper-class students may see smaller merit scholarship amounts. However, these were merely assumptions.

6. What is the future of college?

Both Kelly and Freed brought up an interesting point that students and parents should consider as they search and apply for colleges this year: can this particular college or university survive the Coronavirus and all of its implications? There are many colleges and universities struggling without the effects of a global pandemic; they are feeling the strain even more so now. Those schools that are teetering on the brink may sacrifice the quality of the education they provide. They may also even close between a student’s freshmen year and senior year, leaving students to find another college altogether. There is no doubt that COVID will accelerate the end of these schools that are struggling anyway. With that, students and parents need to be researching each school’s viability in addition to their academic offerings and campus amenities.

College Admissions in 2020

There are still so many unknowns during this Coronavirus college admissions cycle; and the only way through it, is through it. Fortunately, students and colleges alike are navigating this ever-changing landscape together. Now is the time to ask critical questions, and to be up front and honest about what you’re looking for in a college. For high school juniors and seniors, their college choice will be so much more than an academic decision. It will impact how they live and how they adapt to change over the next four years.

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