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Sponsored | How COVID-19 Changed College Admissions

What Every High School Parent and Student Should Know

By University Prep October 6, 2021


This post is sponsored.

After last year’s unusual college admission season, parents of high school juniors and seniors have more questions than ever about applying to college during COVID-19. The global pandemic has created a new landscape for students currently applying for college, says college counselor Kelly Herrington. 

“When people ask me how COVID-19 has changed college admissions, I reply, ‘How has it not?’” says Herrington, the director of college counseling at University Prep, a 6–12 private school in northeast Seattle where students graduate prepared for college and life. “Despite the new landscape, some variables remain the same and these variables are very much within a student’s control.”

He tells the students he works with to remain focused on their high school coursework, to generate a balanced college list, and that success in college is contingent upon their own active engagement in their educational experience. Other parts of the college application process, though, have been significantly impacted by the global pandemic. Herrington, a college counselor with more than 20 years of experience, shares five ways COVID-19 has changed college admissions. 

Less Emphasis on Standardized Testing 
For students applying to college for the fall of 2022, more than 1,700 four-year colleges and universities are test optional, which means almost every college and university in America is test optional. This flexible approach to reviewing test scores means that if a student cannot sit for the SAT or ACT due to concerns over COVID-19 or test center closures, they are not penalized. In short, testing is not required for admission. At colleges that are test optional, if a student has taken the SAT or ACT and they feel their scores accurately reflect who they are as a student, they can send those scores in for review. For the foreseeable future, most colleges will remain test optional. And some colleges, most notably the University of California system, have gone test blind, which means that even if a student wants to submit their test scores, the university will not look at them. Apart from highly selective colleges, which still tend to admit students who submit test scores at a higher rate than those who do not, most colleges in America really do not care if a student submits the SAT or ACT.

Students Need to Write More Essays  
Less emphasis on test scores means that students need to place a much greater emphasis on crafting their application essays. Many colleges that previously didn’t require students to write essays have added essay questions to their applications. Many colleges that used to only ask students to write a 650-word personal statement have now asked applicants to also write a short essay. The Common Application, a universal application accepted by more than 900 colleges, added an optional essay where students are asked to explain how COVID-19 impacted their lives. As college admission officers read these essays, they are trying to answer what has shaped a student, why it has impacted them, and where the lessons learned from this experience might take the student in the future. 

A Traffic Jam of Applicants at Highly Selective Colleges
Due to the media’s focus on selectivity in higher education, many Americans believe that college admissions are far more selective than statistics reveal. On average, America’s colleges accept two thirds of their first-time freshman applicants, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. However, a very small subset of colleges generates a significant volume of applicants. These colleges saw a flood of applicants last year, largely due to test optional policies, and, as a result, they admitted a record low number of students. Our country’s most selective four-year public and private colleges and universities experienced a 17 percent increase in applications during last year’s admission season, according to the Common App. At MIT and Princeton, the admit rate was 4 percent and Stanford’s admit rate was 3 percent. Thanks to test optional policies and name recognition, it is predicted that this application surge at colleges who never struggled to attract students will continue well into the future. As a result, students should fall in love with some of the colleges that will love them back. These are colleges like the ones profiled on the website Colleges That Change Lives, a group of institutions known for their high-quality undergraduate experiences that launch their alumni off to wonderful careers and graduate programs. Decades of research reveals that it is not where you go to college that matters most, but rather how you go to college, says Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University. Every college counselor in America has stories about students attending hundreds of different colleges where they have thrived. As you explore colleges, please avoid the narrative that a small group of brand-name colleges are the only pathway to a successful career and a fulfilling life. It is simply not true.

Increased Online Avenues to Connect with Colleges
With many colleges forced to send students home in a matter of hours when the pandemic hit, they essentially had to migrate to online overnight. Likewise, admissions offices had to quickly generate or retool their online avenues to connect with prospective students. What transpired was an increase in the use of chatbots, live virtual tours, and a wonderful new open-sourced spreadsheet that summarizes all the ways families can connect with a college from the comfort of their living rooms. 

Improved Transparency Around College Costs 
Many Americans are dealing with the financial fallout of the global pandemic. Colleges had to improve their online financial tools, like their federally mandated net price calculators, to help families better understand college costs. Net price calculators, which take less than twenty minutes to complete, provide an estimate of what a family will be expected to pay for college. Students should also inquire about the financial fitness of the colleges they are exploring. The financial impact of COVID-19 has had a deleterious effect on many college’s budgets, and experts predict that up to 1,000 colleges that survived the world wars and the Spanish Flu will close. This online Financial Fitness Tracker scores institutions based on publicly available data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (a part of the federal Department of Education), as well as projections based on that data. Students should fully understand both their out-of-pocket costs as well as the financial fitness of colleges they are exploring.

Despite these changes, Herrington believes that applying to college is a manageable process. “Over the years, it has been gratifying to see students accomplish the tasks associated with applying to college,” he says. “With guidance and support, each student (and family) can work through the inevitable but very predictable and reasonable sequence of tasks associated with the college process.” If families have questions about this unusual application year, he points them to a College Counseling and COVID-19 FAQ’s on the University Prep College Counseling website. 

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