Unmasking the impact of COVID-19 on college admissions


Graphics by Baeyoung Yoo

Maya Fridman, Lucy Cho, and Judy Feng

With the repeated cancellations of her ACT test dates, the decision of whether or not to submit test scores and the added competition due to the test-optional policy, senior Amy Cheng found herself becoming frustrated as she tried to navigate the college application process during the pandemic. These factors ended up affecting how Cheng created her college list and approached her application process.

“I definitely over-applied to schools,” said Cheng in a video conference. “I applied to like 27 schools. I’m just indecisive in general, but I feel like the pandemic, in some sense, made me feel like I was able to apply to more schools.”

Dr. David Boyle, coordinator of college counseling at Glenbrook North, said in a video conference that in previous years when schools required ACT and SAT scores, students would “self-deny themselves” and not even apply to highly selective schools if they did not do well on a standardized test.

Because some colleges decided to implement a test-optional policy for this year’s application cycle, allowing students to choose whether to turn in their SAT or ACT scores, many students wanted to take the opportunity to apply solely based on their transcript, Boyle said. As a result, there was a notable increase in students applying to highly selective schools this year. 

Dr. Liz Kinsley, associate dean and director of undergraduate admission at Northwestern University, said in an email correspondence that, compared to previous years, Northwestern had lower acceptance rates this year as a function of a larger applicant pool. Northwestern’s acceptance rates in recent years have ranged from around 8.5 percent to just over 9 percent, whereas this year’s acceptance rate was 6.8 percent. 

Senior Julia Gehrs said in a video conference that knowing the pandemic would affect the number of applications colleges received impacted her decisions when making her college list.

“I had to make sure that I had a good amount of what you would call a ‘safety school,’” said Gehrs. “I was getting a lot of emails from schools saying how many more applicants they had this year, and how they cut their acceptance rates in half. It was crazy. So there were a lot of adjustments to be made. You definitely had to make sure you have safeties on [college lists] this year.”

According to Cheng, she felt that the increased competition this year negatively affected her odds in the admissions process. Another factor she was concerned about was that she did not submit ACT scores to all of the colleges that she applied to. 

Although some colleges on her list implemented a test-optional policy this application cycle, Cheng said she worried that if she did not submit a test score, she might come off as unprepared, or as if she did badly on the test.

“But at the same time, there were so many emails that were like, ‘Schools really understand if you can’t get a test day in,’ and stuff like that,” said Cheng. “So I was like, ‘Maybe for some of these schools where my ACT average doesn’t fall in, I don’t have to submit my score … and maybe I’ll have a better chance.’”

According to Boyle, admissions officers have always looked at the student’s transcript, academic record and course selection thoroughly, but with the test-optional policy, they paid more attention to these factors this year than they have in the past. 

Boyle heard from admissions officers that they had to dig deeper into an application to do a high-quality holistic review and not rely as much on quantitative factors such as the ACT or SAT, he said.

Jeff Schiffman, director of admissions at Tulane University, said in a phone interview that going test optional has permitted him and other admissions officers at Tulane to focus more on other parts of a student’s application. 

“We had to spend a little bit more time on the application because we didn’t have a single number that we could look [at] to kind of compare students to previous years or to each other,” said Schiffman. “So, not having the score there really put more emphasis on the holistic review process, and it allowed us to really spend a lot more time looking at the students’ grades and courses, etc. So I really enjoyed not having the test. It makes my job harder, but in a good way.”

The test-optional policy has also led to a more diverse class of 2025, Schiffman said.

“This incoming freshman class that will be kind of finalized the next coming days will likely be one of our most diverse, and one of our most socioeconomically diverse as well,” said Schiffman. “It’s neat because, I mean, the SAT score is a direct correlation of a family’s socioeconomic background. So, the more money your family makes, the better you do on the SAT. [Going test optional] has kind of eliminated that whole score altogether. So now we get to admit students that might not have made it in the past if they didn’t have scores in our range.”

Jackie Hoefler, associate vice president of admissions at Lake Forest College, said in a video conference that Lake Forest changed to a test-optional policy 12 years ago after deciding there are other indicators of student success and academic preparedness that can be used in the admissions process. However, the pandemic also affected other factors that admissions officers consider in the admissions process, such as grade trends and GPA. As a result, Lake Forest admissions officers have worked closely with high school counselors to understand what institutions have done in terms of grading systems during the pandemic.

“Some high schools went to pass/fail, some high schools said your grade could only improve and could never decline, … so we had to be even more discerning and ask a couple more questions about ‘How did the pandemic first affect the educational grading system at their institution?’” Hoefler said.

According to Boyle, in order to do what is in the best interest of their students, high schools have made various modifications to their curriculums and grading systems during the pandemic. Because of these changes at the high school level, he fears colleges may want to revert back to being interested in ACT or SAT scores as a national standard of measuring students’ knowledge. 

According to Hoefler, the pandemic has brought about some positive changes to the college search in that admissions officers are now able to get to know students virtually, in ways they previously were not able to do. 

“For example, I had a phone call with a student today instead of a Zoom, and that actually felt very weird to me,” said Hoefler. “I was like, ‘What do you mean I don’t get to see you and get your reactions and share my screen?’ So, [these changes] have bridged communication gaps in ways that I find to be really fascinating and really lovely and that I hope continue on past the pandemic.” 

According to Kinsley, because of the pandemic, Northwestern has had the opportunity to “innovate in the digital space” by hosting student panels, live tours, online presentations and live Q&As to open new paths for prospective students to interact with the college.

“Our committee reviewed applicants from over 9,000 secondary schools this year, considerably more than last year,” said Kinsley. “We’re seeing applicants from new places in large part because we can now offer them more meaningful ways to engage with Northwestern.”

According to Cheng, having to go through her college application process during the pandemic forced her to go online in order to find more resources. While she found a free tutoring program on the internet to help her edit some of her essays, she also felt more alone because everything was remote.

“Typically at school, I would feel like I’d have more resources because I’d talk with my peers or even go into the College Resource Center,” said Cheng. “It felt different not being in person and having to reach out more to get those resources.”