A Schism in the Traditional Process of College Applications


The sequence has always been as follows: a good start freshman year, academic improvement throughout sophomore year, SATs and ACTs junior year, and college applications senior year. This sequence has institutionalized itself into the high school experience. Over and over again, high schoolers have come to expect a formula. Just as the class of 2021 was reaching the latter end of the sequence, it underwent a schism in its progression. The cause: COVID-19.   

As a member of the high school class of 2021, when sophomore year was coming to an end, it seemed that this sequence wasn’t going to change. Looking ahead, I focused on obtaining strong SAT or ACT scores. About halfway into junior year, I realized college applications were near and saw myself entering the same process as millions of seniors before me. I was scared and excited at the same time.

As COVID-19 forced many high schools and universities to close, it forced me to rethink my approach to my future. No longer could I visit a college campus and attend an information session to learn about an institution’s academics, student life, and admissions. Likewise, with the closure of public high schools, many SAT and ACT testing sites cancelled examinations. As a student, I was uncertain whether colleges were going to require test scores, allow visitors on campus, and maintain the holistic process they used to review applications. Not only did I hold this uncertainty, but it resonated with students across the globe. 

Come senior year, the class of 2021 would experience a unique college application process. The college application consists of what I like to call four elements: GPA, Test Scores, Essays, and Recommendations. For the fall 2021 applications, two of these elements are significantly different.

In response to COVID-19, many institutions around the world adopted a test-optional policy. Vanderbilt University released the statement that follows: “To support prospective students and their families during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—which has impacted the availability and accessibility of the SAT and ACT exams—Vanderbilt University will not require scores from these standardized tests for students applying to enter the university in the fall of 2021.

So, what does test-optional mean? If a student has an ACT or SAT score they would like to report, they could do so but in no way would it place them in a position of advantage over those who do not. Test-optional means test optional. Students are not required to submit standardized tests to be considered for admission. 

At the same time, the phrases “Zoom class” or “Zoom lecture” have become more prevalent throughout the pandemic. As many high schools have switched to using virtual classrooms, some schools have decided to maintain the A-F grading scale and others replaced it with a pass/fail method. Either way, GPA is significantly affected. With pass/fail classes, students hoping to raise their GPAs are unable to do so. For students facing letter grades, some students may find online learning to be more difficult than in-person classes, affecting the grades they receive for the remainder of the school year.

Taking into consideration other factors, such as gap year and international students, colleges could either accept more or fewer students. An article published in August 2020 by Scott Jaschik titled “Nervous Freshman, Nervous Colleges” states the following statistic: “SimpsonScarborough is releasing a survey tomorrow of incoming freshmen who aspired to attend a four-year residential college that finds that 40 percent of them say they are likely or highly likely to not attend any four-year college this fall.”

With students deciding to take gap-years this year, the number of freshmen that colleges accept this year could be slightly smaller. However, the case with international students could prove different. An article published in May 2020 by Elizabeth Redden titled “A Bleak Picture For International Enrollment” quotes Brent White, the University of Arizona’s vice provost for global affairs: “The worst-case scenario is students can’t travel, they can’t get visas, they’re reluctant to come because they want to stay close to home. I think those factors are going to join together to mean that everyone is going to see significant declines in the number of international students.” If there is a significant decline in the number of international students, this may leave room for more freshmen that colleges could accept this year. 

Until 2019, students had a general idea of what they needed going into their senior year: a good GPA, stellar essays, insightful recommendations, and high test scores. However, if the effects of COVID-19 on this traditional process were to be described in one sentence, it’s that the college admissions process will never be the same.