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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part One

PART 1:  Testing & Transcripts

Part one in a three-part series that looks at how the admissions process will need to adapt this year due to COVID-19.

The selective college admissions application review process, which is challenging and opaque even in the best of times, will need to undergo significant shifts as COVID-19 continues to impact nearly every aspect of our lives. Admissions deans and their staffs are rethinking each aspect of the review process, now that all the traditional markers of achievement —grades, scores, activities—have been disrupted by the virus. Students have lost close connections with their teachers and college counselors as schools moved to online learning last spring and continue to struggle with how to safely return to in-person learning. The economic strain on most families has been intense; the virus’ toll on our physical and mental health is well-documented. All to say, 2020 hasn’t been ideal… for anyone or any institution.


Grades and test scores are central to the selection process, but as colleges reassure anxious applicants and parents with more flexible requirements for this admissions season, what will actually guide the application review process in this upcoming cycle? How will admissions officers read and make sense of individual applicants and the context of their achievements? How will admission deans and directors shape the overall admitted class to best meet institutional priorities? Our three-part series examines key parts of the college selection process and how we think that process will change in light of the significant disruption we’ve all experienced. Part one looks at testing and transcripts—anchors of any selective college application process. In part two, we’ll discuss the more qualitative aspects of the review process—essays, recommendations, and activities. Finally, part three will look at how a class is put together and what, if anything, might change in the upcoming cycle.


March, May, June, July, August. Thousands and thousands of rising seniors scheduled to take the SAT, ACT, and Subject Tests have been told that their tests are canceled. Some even arrived at testing centers to find the doors bolted with no warning. Students have scrambled to make alternate plans, pushing their testing to September, October, and November. The prospects of September testing are shaky at best, as high schools (the primary testing centers) shift to online learning as the virus continues to spread as schools reopen.

The most proactive students completed most of their testing before the pandemic shut down schools last March. But, the majority of applicants this fall have faced barriers to registering and preparing for testing.

Colleges and universities have all adapted their standardized testing requirements to this new reality with new “optional” testing policies now in place for this admissions season and some even beyond. But these new policies create a problem for admissions leaders as they exacerbate the inequalities already inherent with testing. How do you fairly use testing (or the lack of testing) in the application review process when your optional policies allow for students to submit whatever testing they were able to complete? Is testing truly optional for applicants from low income backgrounds or those who are first in their families but less so for those from better resourced families and schools? What about subject tests? Only a few top schools—Yale, MIT, and Caltech—have said unequivocally that subject tests will not be considered. Lacking clarity from colleges, students with strong scores should absolutely self-report them on their applications to all other schools.

Last May’s AP tests were adapted by the College Board and trimmed to be 45 minutes long. Some students experienced technical errors on the College Board’s side and were rescheduled to take the tests in June. Depending on the time zone, students living outside the U.S. had to take exams in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning. AP exams were definitely administered—and scored–under atypical conditions.

Although not a requirement for admissions, admissions officers, especially at the most competitive schools, will likely weigh AP scores more heavily as they are tangible data points that many students were able to obtain. Even though not all students attend schools that teach the AP curriculum, plenty of students each year self-study and take them regardless.

Admissions officers, particularly at the top colleges, are well aware that they need to take testing with a grain of salt. But nonetheless, it’s historically been an important initial yardstick when reviewing files in an applicant pool of 30,000 or 40,000 applicants since grades alone won’t be enough of a differentiator. And this year, grades and scores combined might not be either.


Absolutely central to the selective admissions process is the assessment of a student’s transcript—a tangible record of success in a program of increasing rigor. Top colleges, in particular, pride themselves on the percentage of admitted and entering students who rank in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. (Remember—even if a high school doesn’t officially rank, there are plenty of clues embedded in transcripts, high school profiles, and counselor recommendations as to who the top students are in any class). Without a hook, it is next to impossible to be admitted with less than stellar grades.

The rapid closure of schools last March left schools scrambling to come up with how to best teach and assess students. For far too many students, the second half of the year was ungraded (students’ grades only noted as pass/fail), essentially frozen in time. Some lucky students had their schools switch to a “pitch ‘til you win” approach, meaning that students could work to raise their grades in the spring, but there was no danger of grades dropping. Some juniors were hoping for all A grades to push up their GPA but frustratingly, their schools switched to pass/fail.  All of these were completely understandable decisions given the enormity of the challenge they faced. Now, as the fall gets underway, the year will be off to a rocky start for everyone as students and schools grapple with the unique stresses of each option before them: online, hybrid, or in-person classes.

In the wake of COVID, the transcript review process is a lot more complicated. The transition to virtual learning was not a seamless one across the board and further exacerbated the equity issues admissions officers grapple with in a large and diverse pool. Schooling is another manifestation of how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities, especially communities of color and low-income ones. Students who are fortunate to be in homes and communities with reliable and fast internet connectivity, their own computer, teachers who could quickly pivot to online teaching, and a quiet place to work, could continue their learning more effectively. That wasn’t the case for students on the other side of the technological divide who will be applying to college this fall. The challenges they faced last spring— and likely this fall—are real and documented.

Put together the lack of testing and the lack of truly defined grades, now the admissions office has lost two significant metrics that have been central to the decision-making process. How will admissions officers make decisions on applicants in the absence of these critical pieces of data that have been so foundational to the selection process?


Now more than ever, the qualitative aspects of a student’s application—curiosity, character, impact, resilience—things that can’t necessarily be quantified in a test score or grade—will take center stage. Does that mean that every bright, kind, high impact applicant has a chance at Harvard this application season? Not so fast.

Stay tuned for part two in our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series where we’ll focus on curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Where are these intangible qualities highlighted in an application and how do admissions officers use them in their assessment?

Share your experiences with COVID-19 related school and testing challenges in the Comments. We’d like to hear what you’re experiencing and how you are adapting. We will continue to post about these issues and look forward to hearing your experiences.

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