college admissions coronavirus COVID-19 Insider Tips

A Sample of Test Optional Schools for Fall 2021 Enrollment




Amherst College Fall 2021 enrollment
Babson University for high school class of 2021, then will review
Boston College Fall 2021 enrollment
Boston University for high school class of 2021, then will review – students will chose in-person or remote classes for fall
Butler University moving to test-optional
Caltech 2-year pilot – SAT Subject Tests no longer required but will be considered
Carnegie Mellon University Fall 2021 enrollment
Case Western University Fall 2021 enrollment
Clarkson University Fall 2021 enrollment
Colgate University Fall 2021 enrollment
Davidson College 3-year pilot
Duke University Fall 2021 enrollment
Elon University 3-year pilot
Emory University Fall 2021 enrollment
Fordham University 2-year pilot
Gonzaga University Fall 2021 enrollment
Hamilton College shift from test-flexible to test-optional for Class of 2021
Harvey Mudd College Fall 2021/2022 enrollment, SAT Subject Tests no longer required
Haverford College 3-year pilot
Johns Hopkins University Fall 2021 enrollment
Kent State University Fall 2021 enrollment
Lehigh University Fall 2021 Not Required (still required for Div I athletes)
Loyola University New Orleans shift to test-blind permanently
Loyola Marymount University Fall 2021 enrollment
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Fall 2021 enrollment, SAT Subject Tests no longer required but will be considered
Middlebury College 3-year pilot, previously test-flexible
Northeastern University Fall 2021 enrollment
Northwestern University Fall 2021 enrollment
Notre Dame University Fall 2021 enrollment, 1-year pilot
Penn State University Fall 2021 enrollment
Pomona College Fall 2021 enrollment test-optional
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for high school class of 2021, then will review
Rhodes College 3-year pilot
Rutgers University Fall 2021 enrollment
Santa Clara University 2-year pilot
Scripps College Fall 2021 enrollment
St. Thomas Aquinas College Fall 2021 enrollment
Stanford University Fall 2021 enrollment
Swarthmore College 2-year pilot
Syracuse University Fall 2021 enrollment
Texas A&M Fall 2021 enrollment
Tufts University 3-year pilot
Tulane University Fall 2021 enrollment
UCalifornia– all campuses Fall 2021/2022 enrollment (CA students) – test blind for 2023/2024 (new test for 2025 and beyond)
UCLA Fall 2021 enrollment
UIllinois Fall 2021 enrollment
UMichigan SAT/ACT required; students can send other exam scores if necessary; that those without ACT or SAT scores must explain why they don’t have them; and that their applications will be reviewed without ACT or SAT scores
University of South Carolina Fall 2021 enrollment
UT Austin Fall 2021 enrollment
UVA Fall 2021 enrollment (new ED date 11/1)
UVM Fall 2021 enrollment
UWashington Fall 2021 enrollment
UWisconsin-Madison Fall 2021 through Summer 2023
Vanderbilt University Fall 2021 enrollment
Vassar College for high school Class of 2021, then will review
Virginia Tech Fall 2021 enrollment
Washington and Lee University Fall 2021 enrollment
William and Mary 3-year pilot
Williams College Fall 2021 enrollment test-optional

NOTE: Even if a top school has suspended standardized test scores, this isn’t a free pass.
We recommend students WHO ARE ABLE sit for fall tests.

Here’s how the Ivies are handling testing for the upcoming semester.

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Ivy League, College Admissions and Grad School: COVID-19 Wrap Up

We’ve been swamped with questions related to the new landscapes of college and graduate school admissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. College admissions has never been transparent and now add to the mix the twists and turns of a global pandemic and you have confused students and their weary parents. Ivy League and other top schools, both undergraduate and graduate, have been issuing press releases to future applicants, holding online/virtual campus tours and continuing their marketing to reach the best and the brightest.  But what’s the truth behind the messages? What about standardized tests and teacher recommendations when high schools have closed early?

You have questions.  We’ve got you covered. It’s always been our goal here at Top Tier to make admissions more transparent to ease the stress for families by sharing our “behind the scenes” insight.  So, here you go:


never stop learning - grad school admissions



Considering graduate school? Stay up to date on how COVID-19 is affecting grad school admissions.

stress and COVID-19


coronavirus COVID-19 grad school Graduate Admissions

Grad School in the Midst of COVID-19

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

To say that the 2020 academic year has been interesting would be an understatement. We’ve been swamped with inquiries from parents and students trying to understand the changing college and graduate school admissions landscape.


Do you fall into any of these categories?

  • A current college student who was ushered off your college campus quicker than you could really even pack your bags,
  • On the job market or about to be,
  • A working professional whose hours have been cut and you’re now working from home, OR
  • A working professional who just got furloughed, laid off, or you’re worried you will be.

It’s new territory for sure.


  1. It might be a terrific time for you to apply to graduate school this May, summer or fall. Remember, just because you apply and get in doesn’t mean you have to accept. Many programs have extended their application deadlines so what was ordinarily a Feb. or March deadline has bumped out to May or June.
  1. Universities are actively brainstorming new ways to recover lost income. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, the Penn State System of Higher Ed is expecting over a $52 million loss due to COVID-19 and that’s after the federal stimulus money they’re banking on is applied. Recovering part of that loss will be key and many schools are trying to assess if they want to admit students to study online only (meaning they could take more students, possibly even at a lower tuition rate than the on-campus offerings). Many more online-only degree programs from top graduate schools will emerge in the coming months, we believe.
  2. VISA and travel issues are at play for many international students and the programs they’re attending or want to. That impacts those seeking to start in August as well as those applying this fall who will now be applying to programs where the yields are low and they’re looking to accept more students than years past.
  3. Graduate schools are looking for new ways to snag students. For example, Loyola University reported that “graduating seniors with a 3.0 GPA and above will be offered “easy or automatic admission” into many of the university’s graduate programs, WITH a portion of merit aid. Students with a GPA between 3.0 and 3.49 will qualify for a merit scholarship totaling 25% of the cost of the chosen program. Students with a GPA between 3.5 and 4.0 will qualify for 35%.” At first glance, that might sound like a great way to pursue graduate school. But really, what they are aiming to do is keep their students on (who they know can secure a 3.0 min.), AND lock in a committed 65% of the tuition and fees from students, as the merit aid is capped at 35%, they state). Grad-School-Standardized-Tests
  4. Standardized testing for grad school has entered ‘the new abnormal’ across the board:
    • The GRE, LSAT, GMAT, TOEFL and MCAT are not currently offered in person.
    • You can now take the GRE from home with a human proctor assigned to observe your screen.
    • Students in mainland China and Iran do not have a way, as of now, to take the TOEFL or GRE.
    • An online GMAT is now an option as well and the analytical writing section is removed.
    • Students who were registered for the April LSAT have been pushed to the LSAT Flex instead, which is remote.
    • MCAT exams have been canceled until May 21 but new dates have been opened up and registration for those starts May 7.

Try to take advantage of any benefits available to you when it comes to graduate school applications and admissions. Grab it while you can!


That might include deadline extensions, merit aid offers, prerequisites being waived, programs now accepting pass/fail in core courses pre-application, online options to take standardized tests from home, etc. If you’re prepping for the GRE or the GMAT right now, consider taking it this summer for SURE. It’s not going to hurt you. (EX: The GMAT online exam scores are valid for 5 years and will not count towards your 12-month and lifetime GMAT limits). If anything, it’s great practice and you might be surprised at the score you can obtain in your pajamas on your laptop in your bedroom. That’s a level of comfort with graduate school standardized testing that no one before you could snap up!

We are here to help you with your graduate school admissions questions. Space is limited so contact us ASAP. And, read more graduate admissions posts here and here.

Best Books coronavirus COVID-19

10 Books to Make You Smarter During Quarantine

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”                                                                                     ― W. Somerset Maugham

In these unprecedented weeks and months of Coronavirus quarantine, there is perhaps no better escape from COVID-19 anxieties than a reading list of good books. We may not be able to linger in our favorite libraries or bookstores, but we can still access new literary worlds, eras, and characters in hardcopy or on our eReaders. While it may be tempting to use your free time at home to binge the latest Netflix series or master a video game, choosing to dive into one these books instead will enrich your vocabulary and expand your worldview. Reading classic works of literature or well-written bestsellers will also make you more familiar with the types of passages that appear on the SAT and ACT. As an added bonus, you will be prepared to answer a popular admissions interview question: “What are some books you have recently read for pleasure?” While you’re reading, don’t forget to keep a running list of any unfamiliar words to look up later!

Not sure where to begin? We suggest selecting one of these classic novels or more recent bestsellers. Happy reading!


  1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

As Steinbeck’s “most ambitious project,” East of Eden is a captivating epic that follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, across generations. Set in California, Steinbeck explores themes of love, guilt, and freedom as he tells a story with parallels to the biblical Book of Genesis, particularly the story of Cain and Abel. If you enjoy multi-generational dramas or descriptions of the California landscape, this book is for you! Once you finish East of Eden, we recommend watching the 1955 film adaptation, starring James Dean.

  1. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You’ve probably already encountered the F. Scott Fitzgerald in English class by way of The Great Gatsby, his vivid account of decadence in the roaring 20s. Like Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s debut novel, includes a compelling protagonist (Amory Blaine) based on Fitzgerald’s own biography. As we follow his early adulthood from boarding school to Princeton to New York, we learn about Armory’s romantic encounters and career aspirations. The novel includes a blend of styles, including stream-of-consciousness passages, letters, and poems.

  1. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This novel follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society woman in post-WWI England, as she roams the streets of London and prepares for a dinner party. Stylistically, the novel serves as an example of high modernism as it includes stream of consciousness storytelling, flashbacks, and blended modes of narration. The famous first line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” reflects Woolf’s commitment to the feminist movement. In 2002, the film The Hours, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman (as Woolf), told the story of three women whose lives were affected by Mrs. Dalloway across time.

  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This 19th-century coming of age novel surged in popularity last year due to Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated film adaptation. Alcott’s novel follows the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—and their mother, Marmee, through their childhood and young adulthood. Loosely based on Alcott’s own life, Little Women is one of America’s most widely read novels since its publication in 1868. In Gerwig’s words, “I think Louisa May Alcott, whether she knew it or not, made the ordinary lives of girls and women extraordinary by turning her pen to them.” Curious to learn more about Louisa May Alcott? Take advantage of this virtual tour of Alcott’s childhood home in Concord, MA!

  1. Dubliners by James Joyce

If you prefer short stories to longer novels, Dubliners is a great choice. Joyce’s compelling collection of fifteen short stories was first published in 1914 and focuses on life in Dublin for the middle class. While Joyce examines big themes such as the search for national identity, his primary goal is to capture ordinary scenes of daily life through vignettes featuring priests, laundresses, scriveners, minor politicians, and authors.


  1. The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom

Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Yellow House tells the deeply moving story of a shotgun home in New Orleans East, the people who inhabited it, and the city that surrounded it. Part family history, part sociological study, this book brings to life different eras of New Orleans’ history from a personal perspective. From the 1960s, when the author’s mother purchased the house, to Hurricane Katrina, when it was demolished, this book highlights the economic and racial inequality that served as the backdrop to the author’s childhood and continues to haunt the city today.

  1. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City comes the story of Winston Churchill. Larson’s conversational narrative voice makes this dense history come alive and sheds light on Churchill’s domestic dramas in addition to his political achievements and darkest years. If you loved Season 2 of The Crown, this book is for you!

  1. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

This novel brings to a close Manel’s critically acclaimed Tudor trilogy. The first two books in this series—Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize—traced Thomas Cromwell’s rise from working class origins to the highest ranks of King Henry VIII’s court. This book follows Cromwell’s equally dramatic fall from power. Rich in historical detail and full of vivid characters, Mantel’s sweeping novel brings Renaissance England to life.

  1. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney, a 30-year-old Irish author, was last summer’s literary “it-girl,” and for good reason. With her sharp, accessible prose, Rooney writes about young love, financial instability, and collegiate anxieties. As The New York Times wrote, “Sally Rooney’s sentences are droll, nimble and matter-of-fact. There’s nothing particularly special about them, except for the way she throws them. She’s like one of those elite magicians who can make a playing card pierce the rind of a watermelon.” Normal People was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

  1. The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has won wide acclaim for his essays, novels and works on nonfiction. His latest book, The Man in the Red Coat, tells the story of Dr. Pozzi, a Gilded Age gynecologist famously painted by John Singer Sargent. With witty, vibrant prose, Barnes takes you on a tour of Paris in the 1880s with a focus on Pozzi and his friends, the Prince de Polignac and Count de Montesquiou. Filled with fascinating accounts of Parisian scandals, larger-than-life characters, and social adventures, this book breathes new life into a forgotten figure.

For additional reading suggestions check out our previous reading list blog posts:

When All Else Fails, Read a Book

Best Books of 2019

Best Books for Summer Reading

Best Books of 2018

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Teacher Recommendation Letters: How They Impact College Admissions

At various points throughout your high school tenure, you will be asking teachers for letters of recommendation. Academic summer programs, internship opportunities, part-time jobs, scholarship applications, and your eventual college applications will typically ask for letters of support from those that can speak to your work in the classroom and in the broader school community.

Especially with teachers, it’s never too early in high school to build these relationships in ways that are meaningful for you and your teachers.


Juniors applying to college this fall have a special challenge. In light of school closures and virtual learning, how do you stay engaged and connected to teachers who will write your college recommendations? This is not the time to check out for the rest of the school year. We are all stressed and anxious about the uncertainty in the world around us, but you can control the time and energy you devote to your virtual classrooms. Staying connected helps you lay the groundwork for strong and enthusiastic letters of recommendation.


Before diving into how to build connections with your teachers, it’s helpful to understand the role their recommendations play in the selection process, particularly at the highly selective colleges and universities that practice holistic review.

The vast majority of students applying to top colleges will have strong records of academic success in their schools’ most challenging programs. Rigor of courseload combined with class rank is the number one factor in the admissions process cited by admissions officers. Because of their academic success in the classroom – whether through innate ability, a strong work ethic, or both – their transcripts will look remarkably similar, especially after an admissions reader boils down their work in a handful of short phrases: “straight As in school’s top load,” “more As than Bs as program get harder,” “slight downward trend as program gets tougher,” “BC Calc is Achilles heel; rest of grades are tops.”

That’s it. Your three plus years of high school boiled down by an admissions reader to its essence.


Thankfully, admissions readers know that to make the nuanced and complex decisions, they need to look further, to understand who you are as a student in a classroom and the broader school community. That’s where your letters of recommendation come into the picture. Narratives from teachers (most top colleges require two letters from two different teachers) give admissions readers greater insight into you the student and school citizen than your grades ever could. Are you the person in class who sparks class discussion with provocative questions? Do you write papers that your teachers hold up as models of creative flair or critical analysis? Are you the lab or project partner who always goes the extra mile to ensure your team’s success? Do you read beyond the class syllabus in search of greater understanding and context for the class assignment? Do you make the classroom, and by extension, the school community, a better place? These are the kinds of things admissions officers are looking for as they read your letters of recommendation.

Juniors, you can be certain that teachers will include reflections on how you stayed academically engaged as your school moved all its learning online. In spite of the challenges we all faced in adapting to our new reality, they will likely share anecdotes about how you found ways through Zoom, Google Classroom, email, texts, etc., to show how you connected with them and continued to grow as a scholar.  They’ll likely talk about your resilience, tenacity, and creativity—how you went above and beyond in your assignments and independent work. What can you do now to show your teachers these very qualities?


In a survey conducted by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, a group comprised of both admissions officers and high school counselors, here’s a snapshot of the importance of teacher recommendations relative to other parts of an application:


54 percent of admissions offices surveyed responded that teacher recommendations are considerably or moderately important. In terms of considerable importance, recommendations rank above class rank, extracurricular activities, and AP, IB, and subject test scores. Your teacher recommendations are right up there with your own essays.

Keep in mind that the survey reflects a broad range of colleges—from the most selective to those with more generous admissions policies. From our experience in admissions, you can be certain the relative importance of recommendations would undoubtedly be higher.

It’s very likely that letters of recommendation will play an even bigger role in the next admissions cycle, especially when grades are pass/fail and test scores have been waived. The specific anecdotes teachers share about your love of learning, resilience, willingness to stretch yourself, and your role in making the classroom a shared learning environment will set you apart.


So, knowing how recommendations are used in the selection process, how do you build relationships with teachers so that they can write letters replete with meaningful, personal, and distinctive praise for your work and contributions? It’s actually easier than you think.

  1. It’s a good idea to get to know your teachers and build relationships with them before you need to ask them for letters of recommendation. Even as a high school freshman, you should be an active student in the classroom. This doesn’t mean you have to be the most talkative. Instead, you should always work to excel in class, seek help and guidance when you have questions, be a regular participant in discussion, and stretch your learning beyond the end of the class period. You want to show your teacher that you truly care about learning – not just as a means to an end (a grade or college).
  2. Now that you’re home and school will likely not reopen this academic year doesn’t mean you can’t continue to build these relationships. If your teachers use Zoom or Google meetups, be an active participant in the virtual class discussions. Do your teachers hold virtual office hours? Sign up for a slot, whether you have a question or not. Talk about something interesting you’ve read related to the class assignment, share an anecdote from life at home, and ask teachers how they are doing at this challenging time.
  3. You should also find ways to cultivate relationships with teachers outside of class. Many of your teachers will lead extracurricular activities, coach teams, direct plays and musicals, and mentor students in all kinds of ways.

Remember that teachers have busy lives outside of school as well—families of their own, stacks of homework to grade—and often put in long hours. An engaged student, who’s eager and prepared to participate in class, and makes a point of thanking teachers and asking how they are doing, will always brighten their day. Most of them probably became teachers because they remember that one teacher who instilled in them a passion for learning—and they want to share that passion with you.


Juniors, listen up! The time to approach teachers for college recommendation letters is essentially now. This spring, you will want to have identified two teachers of academic subjects (ideally from junior year) to showcase your wonderful qualities as a student and school citizen.

Teachers will be asked to write 5-50 recommendations each year. This is not an easy task, especially for those teachers who invest significant time and energy into mentoring students and want their letters to reflect more than just your grades in their classes.

Andrew Simmons, a teacher in California, writing in an article titled “The Art of the College Recommendation Letter” for The Atlantic in 2014, nails it:

“Writing a meaningful letter of recommendation takes time, a luxury that teachers don’t have . . . My job is not to draw big neon circles around a student’s achievements so that an admissions officer will pay more attention to them. Instead of bragging on behalf of the student, I want to render human the person admissions officers may view as a collection of letters and numbers, to say what those grades and scores cannot. A recommendation letter can discuss the academic and, when relevant, personal challenges a student has faced. It can clarify a student’s learning style and distill what he or she brings to a conversation about an academic topic. After all, colleges are trying to build classes of students, not simply usher in as many high-scoring kids as fate will permit. A recommendation, when it is done right, highlights, instead of purely the triumphs, the intangibles in a student’s application.”

You can help your teacher write their very best letter on your behalf. Even if they know you well, it’s a good idea to take time to speak with them. Find a moment after class to ask if you could set up a time to meet with them to talk about your college aspirations. Come prepared to that meeting with a list of colleges you’re considering (even if its preliminary), some thoughts on what appeals to you about those schools, and share what you think you’d like to study. By the way, this is a good time to ask them for their perspectives on different fields of study!

Since your teachers may not have a full sense of all you do outside of their classrooms, put together a condensed activity sheet or resume (no more than two pages) that highlights your involvements, awards, and accomplishments. Don’t forget that your lives include things you do beyond the school campus, so include hobbies, service, part time jobs, and family responsibilities, too.


Remember: the best recommendations are engaging because of the personal anecdotes included in them. That’s what admissions officers will be looking for as they read these letters.

After (virtually) meeting with your teachers, send them a thank you note (email is fine). Most colleges these days will have you list the teachers’ names and email addresses in the Common Application or counseling portals like Naviance. Once the college application season begins in earnest (timed with the Common Application’s August 1 opening day), teachers will get emails from the online systems with instructions on how to submit their letters for you. But, since many teachers will use time in the summer to write recommendations, be sure to talk with your teachers before the end of the school year.

By the way, did you catch that your teachers will likely use their summer to write your recommendation letters? If that’s not indicative of how much they care about your future, we don’t know what is.