COVID-19’s Effect on College Admissions

Uso Atuegbu
May 19, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic particularly impacted high schoolers in the Class of 2021, who recently experienced the already-convoluted college application process. The pandemic-induced cancellation of numerous extracurricular activities, along with the adjustment of many high school grading systems, are just two factors that affected students’ college applications. 

Additionally, in this school year, over two-thirds of colleges and universities did not require standardized testing in the form of the SAT or ACT exams as part of their application process. Known as the “test-optional policy,” this practice will likely continue into the foreseeable future. As a result, higher learning institutions saw a general increase in application numbers this year, presumably from students who felt more confident in their admissions chances now that exam scores are no longer obligatory. Colgate University, a liberal arts college in New York, saw the country’s greatest percent increase in applicants, at 106.2 percent. Colleges such as Stanford and members of the Ivy League became so overloaded with applicants that they pushed back their admissions decision release dates.

Forbes magazine reports that the number of applications from international students increased by ten percent this year, compared to the 2019-2020 school year. In addition, applications from first-generation students (the first in their families to attend college) increased by 20% to more selective schools such as the Ivy Leagues. According to preliminary admissions data, this year also saw more minority and low-income students apply to prestigious institutions. Harvard received 57,000 more applications for the Class of 2025 compared to last year. Cornell saw the most applications of the Ivy League, receiving around 67,000 applications, some 17,000 more than last year. 

The test-optional college admissions trend has sparked mixed reactions from parents and students. Some believe standardized testing disadvantages certain groups of students, such as those who cannot pay for tutoring or test prep books. As a result, many, including the Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hoped that eliminating the testing requirement would create a more diverse incoming class. Whether this will be an effective approach going forward remains to be seen. 

With the test optional policy also comes the question of whether or not students still stand to benefit from taking the SAT or ACT. While some test-optional colleges do not look at standardized test scores altogether (these schools are “test-blind”), others will consider scores in the admissions process for those who have submitted them (these schools are “test-aware”). This leads many college counselors to believe that high test scores corroborate students’ academic qualifications in the eyes of college admissions officers and thus provide an advantage in the application process. 

The Wall Street Journal has referred to the test optional policy as “the most chaotic selection experiment in American higher education since the end of World War II.” One example of this chaos includes the phenomenon that while prestigious schools saw a marked increase in application numbers, lesser-known colleges experienced a decline in applicants. As explained by one Massachusetts college counselor, the “disturbingly [large]” increase in applicants to selective colleges led to unprecedented declines in acceptance rates, and larger pools of students relegated to the uncertainty of waitlists and deferrals. Thus, while the test optional policy initially seemed to make it “easier” to earn admission to a top school for those students with weaker standardized testing scores, in reality, the competition only became more challenging.

Evidently, the uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have not left the realm of higher education unscathed. Perhaps, in the near future, the challenges of the test optional policy will motivate the development of a new generation of standardized tests– such a plan seems to be in the works within the University of California system. According to Janet Napolitano, UC President, UC schools are creating their own personalized standardized test, the content of which is currently unknown. Ultimately, only time will tell how standardized testing will impact college-bound students in the future.