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Do College Rankings Really Matter?

In September, U.S. News & World Report, the leading authority in college rankings, announced the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges list. For the 10th straight year, Princeton University has earned the #1 spot, followed by Harvard University and Columbia University. Likewise, on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College has maintained its #1 position, with Amherst College and Swarthmore College coming in at #2 and #3, respectively. Now that prospective students are unable to attend traditional on-campus info sessions and campus tours, rankings carry extra weight as students turn to “expert data” to create their college lists.


This year more than ever, we have been asked how much college rankings really matter. And if, in the past, these rankings have been directly correlated with standardized test scores of accepted students, what are the new metrics that have been used to determine this year’s list as colleges go test-optional? How reliable are these methodologies?

In response to the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions and ripple effect on college admissions, this year’s US News rankings include three new topics: student debt, social mobility, and test-blind admissions policies. For the first time, they have also ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT for the purpose of admissions.

U.S. News has published the updated breakdown of key data used to determine overall rank. The six factors are weighted as follows:

Outcomes (40%, previously 35%)

Its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% of normal time (six years). We approach outcomes from angles of graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%), social mobility (5%) and, new this year, graduate indebtedness (5%).

Faculty Resources (20%)

U.S. News uses five factors from the 2019-2020 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction: class size (8%), faculty salary (7%), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. The 2021 Best Colleges ranking factors in scores from both 2020 and 2019.

Financial resources (10%)

This is determined based on average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Student Excellence (7%, previously 10%)

The ACT/SAT scores and high school class rank of accepted students.

Alumni giving (3%, previously 5%)

The average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

While this updated breakdown has reduced the weight given to SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni donations in response to the shifting admissions landscape, these factors still matter and are a significant part of the raw material that informs the final list. Furthermore, as noted on their website, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that the “current” policies and procedures collected in spring 2020 may have changed since the rankings were determined.


H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has publicly called for the suspension of college rankings during this time of crisis. In his article, published in May, he makes his case clear:

“A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.”

– H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science

Other college rankings, such as the Washington Monthly’s 2020 rankings, have responded to this social pressure. Although they still published their rankings in August, they have made an effort to emphasize diversity and social consciousness in their calculations and approach. As they explain, “It’s our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” To calculate a college’s commitment to diversity, for example, they use IPEDS data “to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school.” For the first time, they have also listed the schools that make sure majors popular with Black students (social work, criminal justice, and sociology) lead to well-paying jobs. See that list here.

Money’s annual Best Colleges for Your Money ranking, published in August, used a methodology based on 27 factors in three categories: Quality of education (30% of weighting), Affordability (40% of weighting), and Outcomes (30% of weighting). In response to the economic outlook this year, they increased the emphasis on affordability. They also added two new net price figures to “capture affordability for students from middle-income backgrounds alongside our existing measure of net price for low-income students.”

Finally, this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2021 rankings consider similar metrics to assess colleges in four areas: Outcomes (salary graduates earn, debt burden they accrue), Resources (the spending schools put into instruction and student services), Engagement (student survey), and Environment (diversity of the community). It is critical to note, however, that, due to the pandemic and shutdown of college campuses, the student survey (20% of the ranking) was canceled for this year. As such, the WSJ/THE rankings use the scores obtained by institutions last year.


In many ways, these rankings will only continue to exasperate the inequities in higher education, made more acute by the ongoing pandemic. While the ranking organizations have made some efforts to add transparency to their process, the data is simply not consistent or dependable at this stage, and a considerable amount of data this year was re-used from the 2019 lists, which did not take into account new admissions procedures or the reality of campus life during COVID-19. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the rankings are largely the same as years past. While some of the metrics offered by these publications can be useful, they should be consulted with care and some degree of skepticism. For personalized guidance and a winning application strategy that takes into account the ever-shifting landscape in real time, contact us today about our Private Counseling Program or Application Boot Camp.

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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Three

PART 3: Building the Class

The final installment in our three-part series that looks at how the admissions process will need to adapt this year due to COVID-19.

Part one of our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series looked at how COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional markers of achievement that admissions officers have historically relied upon to make admissions decisions: testing and transcripts. 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 quite.

Part two of our series focused on key personal factors that admissions officers will seek as they review applications: curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. This cycle, in the absence of traditional, quantitative measures, these qualitative factors will play a key role.


In the final segment of our three-part series, let’s look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions leaders need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class? Read on to learn more.

  1. Will there be enough seats in the first-year class?

An unprecedented number of Class of 2024 students admitted to top colleges last year have deferred their enrollment for a year. A recent report in the Boston Globe, noted that 20 percent of Harvard first-year students opted to defer their admission, nearly three times the normal rate. At MIT, 8 percent of first-year students deferred, up from normally around 1 percent, according to the university. At Williams College in Western Massachusetts, 90 students took a gap year instead of the usual 25. And at Bates College in Maine, 10 percent of students have requested deferral, up from 4 percent.

Managing enrollment for the fall of 2021 is a key question that university leaders are grappling with as the new admissions cycle begins. At Harvard, for instance, the threefold requests for a gap year, translates into 340 students enrolling now with the Class of 2025. How will the university accommodate these extra students, and will it have any negative consequences for students applying in 2020/2021?

Harvard has indicated that it hopes to secure additional, overflow housing in Cambridge next year to accommodate the extra students and look for other ways to manage enrollment, rather than admitting fewer students in this admissions cycle. Anecdotally, we’re hearing similar messages from other top institutions. Some schools, such as Connecticut College, have changed their policy on students living off campus and selected seniors are now allowed to find local rental options. Plenty of schools have turned dorms into quarantine facilities, losing more beds for students, so this will be an interesting factor to watch.

Increasing an incoming class by 8, 10 or 20 percent creates pressures throughout the university beyond just housing – first year advising, first year seminars, demand for prerequisite courses in popular majors, etc. – and all require additional financial resources. It’s still too soon to tell what measures schools will take to adjust to all of these changes, but the challenges resulting from a super-sized Class of 2025 will likely impact universities for four years.

  1. How competitive will the process be?

In a normal year, the admissions process at top schools is very competitive. The extremely high entrance criteria at top tier colleges have produced a ripple effect, and now all of the top 50-100 schools have tougher admissions standards. Schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, and Hopkins have single digit admit rates. UC Berkeley and UCLA admitted 15 percent and 14 percent of their applicants last year, respectively. Even schools like Northwestern (9 percent acceptance rate), Georgetown (15 percent acceptance rate) and Colby (9 percent acceptance rate) are becoming extraordinarily competitive in their admissions processes. A school like Vanderbilt University had a 40 percent acceptance rate in 2005 and a 9 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2024.

Will we see similar admit rates this 2020/2021 cycle?

Although some repercussions from the pandemic may depress the number of students from around the world who apply to top colleges because of visa issues, fear of being unwelcome in the U.S., and fear of illness, other factors—namely the move to make the SAT/ACT optional for students applying to college this fall—will likely mean more students will throw in applications to the top colleges. This will be especially evident at the universities that offer generous, need-based financial aid awards.

Schools with non-binding early action programs are very likely to see an increase in applications this fall, especially since many of these schools are test-optional for the Class of 2025. Schools that are likely to see surges in early applications include Harvard, Yale, MIT, CalTech, and Stanford. Georgetown, too, newly flexible with testing requirements, could also see an uptick, although that might be counterbalanced by a decrease in applications from international students, likely a big source of applications for the university.

The situation will likely be very different for schools that offer binding early decision programs for two reasons. First, without the opportunity to visit schools in person, many students and parents are hesitant to lock into a school now. Instead, they’re hoping to visit colleges in the spring before making a final decision. Second is the question of affordability, always a consideration for many families and because of the economic fallout from the pandemic, even more so this year. Outside of the Ivies, few colleges and universities offer significant need-based aid. Families will want to see a broader range of financial aid offers and work to get the best possible financial aid package for their students. Schools that may see downturns this early cycle include places like Dartmouth and UPenn (who had decreases in ED application volume last year), Emory, Vanderbilt, Tufts, NYU, and many of the small  liberal arts colleges.

  1. Greater reliance on early decision

As we’ve discussed before, applying to a school Early Decision can double or even triple your odds of admission in some cases. The Early Decision applicant pool is usually much smaller than the applicant pool in the regular round, which allows admissions officers to spend more time reviewing each application. What’s more, schools that offer Early Decision generally fill about half of the incoming class in the early round. As a result, your odds of admission are always higher in Early Decision than they would be in the regular round. For example, last year Columbia had an early admit rate of 14.57 percent and a Regular Decision admit rate of 5.10 percent. (For more on the early admit rates for some of the very top schools, take a look at the data we’ve collected here.)

For those schools that have binding early decision programs, it’s likely that we’ll see more students admitted through this option. Driving the greater use of early decision by colleges will be the desire to have more certainty in a time of great uncertainty. Having a larger cohort of students admitted early decision means greater control of yield, a better sense of how many students to admit in the regular process, and more control over financial aid expenditures.

  1. Demonstrated interest and yield predictions

Just as greater numbers of students and parents are expressing hesitation about commitment, admissions leaders will be looking at their yield projection models, trying to figure out who will come if offered admission. For all but the most highly-sought after schools, predictive modeling around yield goes hand in hand with the selection process.

Without traditional campus visits—or admissions officers’ annual spring and fall recruitment travels to communities around the country and around the world—demonstrated interest will be gauged through digital interactions this year.  What this means is that the vast majority of private colleges and universities (and top public universities with significant numbers of out-of-state applicants) will likely place weight on points of digital contact when evaluating your application: a virtual visit to campus; registration on their admissions pages and social media platforms; the regularity with which you open the college’s emails and take action based on those emails; an online interview (if offered – either before or after filing your application); and the depth of your contact with the admission representative who covers your area.

Demonstrated interest is going to be more important than ever this year. Colleges want to know that if they admit a student, that student will attend.


Applying to college is stressful even under the best of circumstances. For students applying to college this fall, anxiety levels are soaring. Despite that, you can take control of this process and ensure that YOU put your best foot forward.

Admissions officers will understand that these have been extraordinarily difficult times for high school students and they will keep that context squarely in mind as they read your application. They know that testing centers have closed without warning, leaving thousands and thousands of students in the lurch. They know that grades, classes and activities have been disrupted, that connections with peers and teachers aren’t the same virtually as they are in person.


That’s not to say that this year’s senior class has a free pass when it comes to admissions. Now more than ever, you need to show your curiosity and intellectual engagement, your resilience and maturity, your contributions to family and community, your engagement with critical issues of our time, and your actions—large or small, global or local—to make our world a better place.

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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Two

PART 2:  Qualitative over Quantitative

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

Part one of our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series looked at how COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional markers of achievement that admissions officers have historically relied upon to make admissions decisions: testing and transcripts. 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 quite.

Part two of our series focuses on curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Read on to learn where these intangible qualities are highlighted in an application and how admissions officers use them in their assessments.


Schools that practice holistic admissions want to get to know you and look for clues into who you are: your hopes and dreams, interests, activities, accomplishments, quirks, experiences, perspectives, contributions, and impact. Each of the more qualitative aspects of the admissions application is designed to get at WHO YOU ARE BEYOND JUST YOUR SCORES AND GRADES. Typically, those more qualitative aspects include personal essays (and school-specific supplements), descriptions of your principal activities, letters of recommendation (college counselor and at least one classroom teacher), and, in some cases an admissions interview.

Today, more than ever, factors like curiosity and intellectual engagement, character and personal experiences, contribution and impact, and resilience will factor more prominently in the selective college admissions process. Admissions officers reading your file will likely “rank” or “rate” your essays, recommendations, and interviews on these key qualities and offer short summaries of highlights in their file notes.


A quick perusal of the Common Application essay prompts and a college’s supplemental essay questions makes it easy to see what they value and what matters to their selection process. Just for fun, we assigned a theme to each supplemental essay prompt from 30 top private and public colleges and universities and put all that into a word cloud generator.

common app essay prompts & your voice

The results are clear! Colleges want to know about your academic interests and what sparks your intellectual curiosity. Admissions officers care deeply about creating a diverse community of bright and talented students from across the globe (even if you’re learning via Zoom right now) and want to know what you’ll add to the mix. They look for students who have positively impacted their schools and communities through their activities, leadership, and contributions.

When it comes right down to it, admissions officers read your main college essay (650 words) and the school-specific supplements (typically, 100 to 400 words) to figure out what kind of scholar and community member you are now and would be on their campus. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

As you tackle your supplemental essays, share your stories. Reflect on community (however you choose to define it) and how it has informed who you are today. Do your research and answer the “why” question with responses that connect you to the college or university, making it clear that you are the perfect fit.

Colleges understand that COVID-19 has deeply impacted many students and their families. Using a new short response option on the Common Application, students can share the effects of the pandemic and its related disruption to their families’ health and finances, as well as obstacles (think access to the internet, a laptop, a quiet study space) to students’ ability to pursue their education. Think twice about what you put in this space. There will be students who have suffered significantly during this time. Missing the spring track season, junior prom, or a long-awaited summer trip isn’t what they’re looking for here.


For many, the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns have also meant the cancelation of significant aspects of their extracurricular lives—especially those activities that have been more difficult to replicate in the virtual world. Admissions officers will understand that students may not have seamless extracurricular records as a result of the pandemic, but they will clearly favor those students who sprang into action to help their families, schools, or communities.

Despite the challenges of stay-at-home orders, enterprising students launched Zoom tutoring programs and PE classes. They taught senior citizens in their communities the ins and outs of Zoom and created pen pal programs to help those isolated from families. Enterprising students raised funds, bought their own supplies and crafted PPE for local first responders and hospital workers. They taught and cared for younger siblings while parents worked. Youth activism soared, as students responded to pressing health, social justice, and environmental issues by using their voices across all their platforms to push for needed change. Others worked or volunteered—in person or virtually—supporting their families, learning valuable skills. Student musicians, dancers, and actors created virtual Zoom performances featuring friends and classmates, often as a benefit for a community non-profit. Many students took their learning into their own hands and pursued research opportunities and college courses this summer—whether for credit or on platforms like EdX—deepening their academic interests.

Today more than ever, being a participant in a typical set of school activities just won’t cut it. Those students who spent the last five months binge-watching Netflix have missed an important opportunity to show admissions officers their values in action. It’s this evidence of impact, contribution, resilience, selflessness, and empathy that admissions officers will look for as they assess how students have spent their time outside the classroom.


Just as it has with each facet of our lives, COVID-19 has also disrupted students’ relationships with their counselors and teachers and their extracurricular lives. For rising seniors, this disruption, beginning last March, has fundamentally altered their relationships with teachers and college counselors—just at the time that these relationships were most important.

College counselor and teacher recommendations have always been a critical piece of the application review process at top schools. Remember that the majority of students applying to top colleges will typically have strong grades and scores, generally being “in range” based on a school’s published test score and GPA averages. Through careful reading of these letters of recommendation, admissions officers seek qualitative information to help differentiate the truly exceptional students from the typical well-credentialed ones.

The sudden and unprecedented closing of all our nation’s schools in March forced teachers and students into a new teaching and learning paradigm—and one whose success depended on access to resources in both the school and the family. Ninth grade science teacher Liz Russillo, as quoted in Education Week, noted:

The shift to remote learning has [required] me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world. 

Just as in our pre-pandemic world, admissions officers read recommendations looking for tangible evidence of intellectual engagement, curiosity, contribution and impact. Today, admissions officers will first seek to understand just how much access students have had to teachers and counselors. There will be the lucky ones whose teachers and counselors made the shift to online learning and worked to stay connected with their students. Even in our Zoom world, teachers and counselors will know which students were the most engaged and made the classroom interesting and dynamic, even online, and will emphasize that in their letters. Seniors, as you head back to school—even virtually—connect with your teachers!

College counselors play a key role in helping students stand out in the admissions process. Where individual teachers focus on a student’s work in one class, the college counselor uses a wide-angle lens to help admissions officers discern the truly exceptional students from a pool of very high-achieving ones. Strong letters show, through specific anecdotes, a student’s impact and achievement, and are genuinely warm and enthusiastic.


Although interviews are not widely used, those colleges that offer interviews provide applicants with another opportunity to show they’ve done their homework on the college and bring their essays and activities to life. This year, you can expect those interviews to be conducted over Zoom (or similar platform).

Whether students interview with an admissions officer, alumni volunteer, or student working for admissions, impressions from the interview will be noted in the applicant’s eventual admissions file. For schools that care about demonstrated interest (that’s just about all of them these days), the interview provides perhaps one of the most direct ways for students to show admissions officers why they are the perfect fit.


Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. In this upcoming admissions cycle, you can be sure that these parts of the application will be closely read as admissions officers seek evidence of students whose curiosity, engagement, contribution, impact, and resilience are truly notable.

Having looked at each component of the admissions application, part three of our special series will look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions deans need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class?

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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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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Grad School Admissions Changes due to COVID-19

Post by: Dr. Kristen Willmott

September 23, 2020: UPDATE

As we dive deeper into the month of September, we’re tracking even more info RE the below. Round 1 MBA application deadlines are here, but some schools are working to lighten application requirements and extend deadlines:

  • For example, UC Berkeley Haas still wants the GRE or GMAT from applicants but for those targeting their round 1 deadline this week on 9/24, they now have more time to take the test, given an unprecedented round 1 test extension to Oct. 15.
  • For some schools not offering testing extensions, they’re going one step further –a good amount of MBA programs have gone test optional. Some top MBA programs that are now test optional (not test blind though!) are: Georgia Tech, MIT, Northeastern, Northwestern, Rutgers, Southern Methodist U, UMaryland, URochester, UT Austin and UWisconsin.


It is arguably the best year in history to apply to grad school, and not just grad school but med school, law school, and business school. We’ve posted already about how admissions rates are up, university fears about enrollments are up, international applicant worries are up, university funds are low, application deadlines are later and testing and course expectations within applications have been lessened.


Here’s a sampling of some historical and impactful grade school admissions changes in the midst (and wake) of COVID-19:

  • Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management closed its MBA program for the 2021 year.
  • Many top business schools (University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, for example) have gone score optional as they’re mindful of tough GMAT testing options and want to boost applications. Darden is an interesting one because they moved their round 3 application all the way to July 15th. That worked quite well for all parties because their round 3 applications were up 364% (!) (as Poets & Quants reported) compared to last year. And, yet there are just 338 seats for all of those applicants. So, they took their previous requirement where instead of the GMAT or GRE, they’d take the SAT, ACT, LSAT, MCAT or Executive Assessment scores, and dropped it all and went score optional. I’d say that admissions office was pretty happy with their triple-digit percentage boost in applications in round 3!
  • At home GMAT’s are still possible and offered until August 14th (and all GMAT reschedule fees are waived) and at-home GRE’s will be offered until Sept. 30. It’s a win-win situation to sign up for one of these, and it’s an opportunity that will likely vanish soon, even as testing centers continue to close in the final hour before a test is set to begin.
  • Stanford’s School of Medicine went MCAT optional for 2021. That’s right. STANFORD.
  • Harvard Medical School isn’t being quite so accommodating as they are stating they will accept MCAT scores at a later time.
  • UCLA is similar but they are a bit noncommittal in stating the will hold out for a score before reviewing an applicant’s file. Then again, they also issued a joint statement with Stanford stating applications could be submitted by the October 15 deadline without an MCAT.


We are closely monitoring changes in grad school admissions to ensure we have the most up to date information for our current students and for potential clients that weren’t previously considering grad school but now are.

Similar to our assisting grad school applicants in getting a research foundation in place and finding stellar publishing outlets, we do the same in our own field of higher education. That’s why when the National Council on Measurement in Education’s peer reviewed journal Educational Measurement Issues and Practice published a July 23rd article entitled “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Large Scale Assessment and the Response to Covid-19,” we soaked it in. As the author, Dr. Camera, noted, “The current pandemic has required adaptation and innovations . . . These changes may be viewed positively by test takers and consumers, but we should expect skepticism. The answer will come after COVID‐19 is mitigated and we take a long hard look at how we responded and the impact to students, institutions and learning.”

We completely agree and we’re all over it for you, working to ensure you’re in the know on fall 2020 grad school admissions trends, tips and application strategies. If you’re considering graduate school admissions this fall, “never let a crisis go to waste;” now’s the time  –let us help.