Over two years after the beginning of the pandemic, members of the class of 2023 are left with uncertainty as they apply to college. COVID-19 interrupted the activities they would typically list on their college applications: from leading the high school band or basketball team, to participating in student government. After school activities were suspended, community service opportunities ran scarce, and standardized testing sessions disappeared.
Now, students are left to wonder how the admissions process has changed, and whether colleges still understand how the past two years disrupted their grades and extracurriculars.
The implementation of test-optional and test-blind policies at a number of colleges across the country is perhaps the most notable impact that COVID-19 has had on admissions.
Typically, colleges require prospective students to submit standardized test scores alongside their applications to gauge their academic strength and college readiness. However, recognizing that many students were unable to take these tests amid school closures, most colleges waived the requirement for class of 2021 applicants. Some colleges even opted to go test-blind, meaning that test scores were not considered in the evaluation process.
Although standardized testing sessions returned when schools began to reopen, many colleges remained test-optional for those applying to college after graduating in spring 2022.
In fact, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, over 1,850 accredited, four-year colleges and universities upheld optional ACT/SAT testing policies for fall 2022 applicants.
Many colleges, including highly selective universities like Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, Dartmouth, and Stanford, have chosen to remain test-optional for the upcoming round of admissions. Some have even decided to uphold this policy for years to come, with others becoming test-optional permanently.
According to Elizabeth Levine, founder of Signature College Counseling, these policies have led to an intriguing new phenomenon in college admissions – rapidly decreasing acceptance rates.
She explained that, as schools relax their testing requirements, many students have decided to “throw their hat in the ring” and apply to colleges that they would normally not try for based on the average SAT and ACT scores of previously admitted students.
This change in applicant behavior provides schools, especially more selective colleges like those in the Ivy League, with a larger pool of applicants than that of previous years.
“The schools, still, were accepting a certain amount of kids, right? But they had a much larger group of students to get them from. And so, the acceptance rates the first year, in 2021, went down significantly,” Levine said.
In 2022, the downward trend in acceptance rates continued exponentially – an occurrence Levine calls “insanity.”
Levine explained that another factor – yield rates – are driving colleges to lower their acceptance rates as well.
Within college admissions, a college’s yield rate refers to the percentage of students that choose to attend that college after being offered admission. Schools prefer to keep this percentage high, as it indicates that their school is desirable.
However, many colleges had trouble determining how many students would accept admission to their school amid the pandemic. To protect their yield rate and prevent problems like housing shortages, which occurred at the University of Tampa, colleges accepted fewer applicants and placed more on the waitlist.
In addition to altering the testing component of college admissions, COVID-19 impacted the community engagement aspect of the process as well.
When viewing prospective students’ applications, college admissions officers use a holistic approach – evaluating the student as a whole, rather than reducing them to a test score or grade point average. Thus, community engagement and extracurricular activities are vital components of a student’s application.
However, community-wide closures, restrictions on gatherings, and alternative teaching methods halted the normal operations of these activities. Most opportunities were held virtually, but some disbanded completely.
Recognizing this detrimental effect of COVID-19, many colleges vowed to evaluate the class of 2021’s applications with an awareness of the uncertainty and challenges of the time. In June 2020, over 300 college admissions deans, including those at local schools such as Mount Saint Mary College and Rutgers University, signed a statement promising that no student would be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurriculars during the pandemic.
But, will colleges still uphold this policy for the members of the class of 2023?
Lynn Lillian and Sharon Davis of College Mode Consulting said they will.
“The lucky thing about college admissions is that, in terms of that global experience – the pandemic — kids are getting compared to one another on the same playing field,” said Lillian. “It’s not as if colleges are looking at kids that didn’t have those more traditional kind of markers of community engagement and saying, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
Alternatively, the pair said that colleges are searching for students who made the most of their time during the pandemic, even if the activities were “non-typical.”
“We’ve had students that did independent projects that ranged from tapping out all of Duolingo in Mandarin Chinese over a summer, to designing and building a deck with their dad,” said Lillian. “Colleges look at those types of activities because they know clubs aren’t happening in school.”
For many students, the quarantine period of the pandemic opened up time to explore individual endeavors outside of academics.
“That was one of the silver linings of COVID and being home; you could really focus on the things that matched your values and interests,” Davis said.
They found that kids who focused on their interests during the pandemic were able to learn more about themselves, leading them to find better aligned college matches.
“Colleges are interested in how you grew in high school. How do you want to grow in college? Are we a good fit for you? Are you a good fit for us?” Lillian said. “The more awareness kids have about those things – who they are, what their values are, what their priorities are – the better they are able to answer that question.”
In all, colleges and universities seem to be understanding of the hardships caused by the pandemic. If applicants in the class of 2023 are still uncertain, Levine encourages students to write about their COVID-19 experience in the “Additional Information” section of their college application.
“Colleges are interested in how you grew in high school. How do you want to grow in college? Are we a good fit for you? Are you a good fit for us? The more awareness kids have about those things – who they are, what their values are, what their priorities are – the better they are able to answer that question.” - Lynn Lillian, College Mode Consulting.