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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.

coronavirus COVID-19 grad school

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.

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College Sports and COVID-19

As the financial pressures mount on colleges from multiple fronts, the fate of college sports hangs in the balance and many teams are being eliminated. All totaled, as of July 8, 51 Division I teams, 56 Division II teams, and 52 Division III teams have been dropped by four-year colleges for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the top academic schools making announcements (thus far):

  • Stanford made the decision to cut 11 varsity programs at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, in its effort to create fiscal stability and gender parity. Men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball, and wrestling will play their last season this year (should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 allow it). The change will impact 240 student athletes, 22 coaches, and 20 support staff positions. Stanford’s official announcement pointed to the escalating costs of operating its large athletics department, including a structural deficit projected to exceed $12 million in this fiscal year and grow steadily in the years ahead. “The COVID-10 pandemic and associated recession have only exacerbated the gap; before these sports reductions, our revised forecasts indicated a best-case scenario of a $25 million deficit in FY21, factoring in the effects of COVID-19, and a cumulative shortfall of nearly $70 million over the next three years.”
  • Facing a $150 million deficit because of the pandemic, Dartmouth eliminated five teams last week: men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, and men’s lightweight rowing. With these changes, Dartmouth reduces the overall number of varsity sports teams to 30. The loss of these programs—and the eight coaching positions and seven staff positions affiliated with the programs—plus additional administrative restructuring in athletics and the closing of the golf course just north of campus is projected to save $2 million. The changes take effect immediately and impact 110 current students-athletes. Dartmouth’s decision also decreases the number of recruited athletes admitted by 10 percent.
  • UConn athletics announced in June that four teams will be eliminated at the end of the 2020-21 season: men’s cross country, women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving and men’s tennis. This action was taken as part of the university’s overall budget reduction effort and allows athletics to meet a university directive calling for a 25 percent reduction (approximately $10 million) in institutional support by 2023. The move affects 124 student-athletes and at least four coaches. Additionally, the university will reduce the cost of scholarships for several internal units across campus, including athletics, beginning in the 2020-21 academic year. Also, the number of scholarships offered in the sports of men’s golf and men’s track and field will be decreased.

Although not related to the pandemic, Brown announced in the late spring a new initiative to reshape and improve the competitiveness of its varsity athletic program, including the immediate elimination of 11 teams: men’s and women’s fencing; men’s and women’s golf; women’s skiing; men’s and women’s squash; women’s equestrian; men’s indoor track and field, men’s outdoor track and field, and men’s cross country. Two club programs—coed sailing and women’s sailing—will be elevated to varsity status. The university points to an external review process of its athletics programs and the desire to address gender equity and competitiveness, not a measure to address COVID-19 budget related woes. Brown will continue to recruit the same number of athletes, but changes to roster size will lead to different apportionment of those spots.

Just twelve days after announcing cuts to its athletic programs and in response to a tremendous outpouring from current student-athletes and alumni, Brown University reinstated its men’s varsity track and field and cross-country programs.


Current student-athletes impacted by these cuts, who had no advanced notice, may now wonder about transferring to another D1 program to seek opportunities to play. Now would be the time, if you find yourself suddenly without a team, to re-engage with coaches who may have been pursuing you when you were a prospective student to see what your transfer options might be. Prospective students who had been in the recruiting process at Stanford, Brown, and Dartmouth, now most likely find themselves scrambling to convey their interest to coaches at other D1 programs, but may find themselves shut out as coaches in some of these sports may have their recruiting lists fairly well locked down by now.


What about everyone else applying to college this year? Dartmouth and Stanford will transfer those spots from athletic recruiting to the general admissions pool, meaning a few more spaces for prospective students. Dartmouth notes in its release that the elimination of teams will mean 10% fewer recruited athletes in the Class of 2025 which translates to about 20-25 seats in the first-year class. At Stanford, the cuts in the overall number of teams will translate to about 60 freed-up spots in its first-year class.

With universities expected to lose a significant stream of income for its athletics programs, the recent cancellation of fall sports by the Ivy League and the Patriot League, and the pandemic raging in the majority of U.S. states, it’s not unlikely to think that more programs will be eliminated. We’ll update our post as we get more news of changes to athletic programs.

ACT Breaking News College Board COVID-19 Juniors SAT Seniors

Oops!…They Did It Again. More SAT and ACT Issues

You’d think that after a spate of SAT and ACT cancellations because of COVID-19, the College Board and the ACT would pull out all the stops to ensure that high school students – especially current juniors – would face no obstacles in rescheduling their exams for July, August, September, and October.

You’d think leaders of these two mammoth companies, keenly aware of the numbers of colleges and universities waiving testing for students applying to college this fall, would do everything in their power to avoid losing even more market share at a pivotal time.

Instead? Turmoil and greater uncertainty for juniors who did not complete their admissions testing before May (i.e. most of them).


Last week, the College Board attempted to reopen registration for students who registered for spring 2020 testing and who have no SAT scores. A crush of students and families – clearly the result of pent-up demand among anxious juniors and their parents – tried to register but were met with technical failures. We were hearing from our students one after another that they were sitting at their computers for hours and could not log on. This comes on top of the glitches with the online AP exams that resulted in thousands of students not being able to submit their exams and having to take the exams again in June.

Today, the College Board announced that it is canceling plans for an online, in-home SAT. As noted in the Washington Post, an estimated 1 million high school juniors this spring who do not have an SAT score were blocked from taking the test because of testing-center cancellations. They form a large share of college-bound seniors in the Class of 2021. The College Board hopes to expand capacity in the fall, but how much that will offset this spring’s testing turmoil remains unknown.

SAT ACT frustration


Meanwhile, over at the ACT, a change in CEO ensued and the organization sought to cut its costs by having fewer test centers open this June and July. Fewer test centers – and more social distancing in those that do open – means that students will face uneven access to the ACT this summer.

The ACT is prioritizing Class of 2020 seniors who need the ACT for scholarship applications and admissions decisions and juniors in the Class of 2021. According to the head of a test prep service, only 33% of testing centers are scheduled to open in June and July. As Jed Applerouth noted to Inside Higher Ed, “Students will be disproportionately affected across the country. No students in Massachusetts will be able to sit for a June ACT. In Wisconsin, a single test center of the 107 scheduled will be open. In New York, the state hardest hit by the pandemic, a mere 15 of their 203 sites are open,” he wrote. “States with fewer than 10 percent of sites open include New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin.”

UPDATE: June 18ACT is postponing section retests to allow for more students to take the full ACT test.


Have we reached a tipping point? Today, over 1,200 four-year colleges and universities either do not require the SAT/ACT or have waived the requirement for the Class of 2021. We predict that more colleges and universities will move to test optional policies for the Class of 2021 because of the extraordinary stress and uncertainty many now face.

So, should juniors try to take the exams? If you are planning to apply under an early decision or early action program and were able to secure a seat for June, July, August, September or October, then yes. Use time this summer to prepare and do you very best on the exams. You’ll get the results of these exams before the vast majority of early deadlines. Even schools who’ve waived testing for this year will still take note of strong scores on your admissions application and they will strengthen your application.

And do check out schools who have gone test optional for this upcoming round of applications, and those schools who have been test optional including, Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Bucknell, Cornell, and Dickinson.

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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.