College Admissions in a COVID World

November 3, 2020


via Kevin Dooley

The coronavirus has completely upended the college admissions process, preventing physical tours and deactivating the standardized testing system. The Cistercian Informer reached out to Mr. Blackwell, Cistercian’s college counselor, to get his advice for how high schoolers should approach college admissions in a COVID world.

How should applicants approach standardized tests when most colleges are test-optional?

Two thoughts here: grades earned in classes have always mattered to colleges because the only way they can predict the type of student you will be when you go to college is to look at the type of student you were in high school. A strong performance in Cistercian’s rigorous coursework will always show well to the college admission counselors evaluating our applicants, so spending extra effort in really learning and understanding the material so that it can be reflected in the grades a student earns in class is my first piece of advice: do your best so you can show the colleges that the grades on your transcript reflect your best efforts. This is as true for the seniors as it is for the freshmen. 

Now, that said, I know Cistercian expects a lot from its students and your best efforts in our classes don’t seem to compare with “what colleges are looking for” in terms of a simple GPA. For that reason, our students often want to submit their standardized test scores to communicate that their high school GPA doesn’t always correlate to their test taking ability. Unfortunately, when COVID hit, testing was cancelled by the test agencies and when it was opened back up, some test sites were cancelling their administration of them. The colleges did not want students to have concerns about taking an exam if they didn’t feel comfortable or were simply unable, so they waived the requirement of standardized test scores to complete their application. Cistercian was able to secure an ACT and [an] SAT on campus this year so that students who wanted to take the tests at least one time would have the opportunity to do so. 

So, my second thought is that if a student receives a score that is at or above the 50% mark for a college’s normal accepted test score, then it would be fine to send that score because it would benefit his application. Many schools are saying that they will only look at the test score if it helps a student’s application and, from the conversations I’ve been having with admissions officers and the webinars I’ve been attending, I think we can take them at their word. They have been consistently communicating that if a student cannot take a test or only has one test on file but they do not feel [they earned] the score they wanted to achieve, they will not disadvantage a student for having a lower score. Some schools have even gone completely test blind this admission cycle, leaving out the test score from the application review even if the college has it on file. In contrast, some schools that say they “don’t require a test to complete an application;” however, they very much want to see a score to help them evaluate a file. For these schools, it would be in the student’s best interest to apply only when he has the highest test score he can obtain. 

Without test scores, what are colleges looking for from applicants?

The same thing that colleges are looking for in a normal application cycle:  strong grades in rigorous coursework, extracurricular activities involvement, the ability to present themselves well through the application essays, and often, a teacher who will recommend their academic abilities. The test score has always only been one part of the evaluation and admissions process, so I think that, without test scores, it just means that more weight will be added to other parts of the application in order to consider them for admission. So, a well-written essay that conveys a student’s thoughts and personality could hold more weight this year, as could letters of recommendation from teachers for whom the student has produced great work and class participation.

How important is it for applicants to physically visit their preferred colleges?

Colleges know and understand that students may not have had the ability to physically visit their campus. COVID was just digging in when spring break visits were about to begin. While some schools will admit that a campus visit demonstrates the applicant’s interest in the school, they also certainly recognize that travel at this time could be compromising to family health and simply inconceivable at this time.  So as far as gaining admission to a college or university, I know that the lack of campus visit will not be a determining factor. From the applicant’s point of view, I know it can be difficult to get a sense of what a university feels like unless you are physically present on campus. Colleges have really stepped up their digital presence by producing online content for families to digest in the form of virtual campus tours, on-demand admission presentations, and information about departments, but it’s hard to understand the makeup of the student body or general vibe of the place without being on campus to look around and see how the students interact with you and each another. When your parents were applying to school 30-40 years ago, many students were attending colleges without ever stepping foot on campus. They read the guidebooks and brochures that communicated what the feel of campus was like and knew they were going for the education that was being provided. Now, with the newness of facilities, amenities, and technology, sometimes being on campus is the only way to experience what [a school] can offer. My advice is for students to do a lot of research of schools as sophomores and juniors to get a sense of what campuses offer and understand where they might learn best, and if they are able to visit at some point during this time, they should take advantage of it. If not, it can be difficult in senior year, amidst the homework and college applications, to take time out to go to a college campus and visit. In this case, I typically advise students to go ahead and apply to the school based on what you know, and visit after that or even waiting until they have been accepted via the early action or regular decision rounds. Because enrollment decisions do not need to be made until the beginning of May, there should be plenty of time to for a campus visit between the time a student hears back from the college and has to make a decision.

Do you foresee any long-term effects from COVID on the college system in general?

I predict that the online classroom is going to shake up the industry. For so long, college has been about the “experience” of being on campus and everything that goes along with that:  football games, social life, dorm rooms, independence, life in the city, etc. There’s always been online colleges, but now that so many students have had a virtual learning environment at highly selective institutions, many people are going to question the cost that they’re paying for the brand name of the education they’re receiving without the added amenities and experience. Some schools who have been entirely dependent on […] tuition dollars to pay bills or fund their campus amenities will really be hurting financially if students choose not to come to campus to take advantage of them. Some colleges can weather the storm, but if this continues into next year, some will have to cease operations all together and the result would be fewer college options for students to attend. The pandemic could drive down costs overall or require financial restructuring of college revenue. It could also increase the number of students choosing not to go to college and instead pursuing vocational careers or start at two-year community colleges. Technology could enter into the market such that instead of a traditional 4-year degree, 18-month credentialing programs could be sufficient enough for employers to hire. I also think that short-term, because there was a repeal of a rule that restricted the recruitment of transfer students from other colleges, that the transfer student recruitment market is going to really ramp up.  Students who are not happy with their first year experience or who wanted to go to another college but chose not to because it was primarily hybrid or online may now be interested in finishing their degree at another school. Because colleges will have those seats available to fill because their own students have transferred out or did not return, I think we’ll start seeing more scholarships being given to transfer students and an increased level of attention paid to them, [more] then there ever has been. 

Is there anything current juniors should already be doing to prepare for the next application cycle, which already seems uncertain?

I think juniors can be thinking outside the box because so many extracurricular activities have been canceled and the opportunities for leadership have as well, so it’s really an opportunity for them to pursue their passions or interests in a way they haven’t been able to before. It also communicates to the colleges what they are able to do “when the going gets tough” and how their mind thinks. It doesn’t have to be creating their own business model or anything super extravagant, but if they can explore the things they think are really cool and might have interest in, potentially coordinate with their peers to organize a discussion or project, something they can tell a college that they did when they couldn’t do anything else, this will communicate their personal initiative and also a great deal of individuality which colleges, especially the highly selective ones, are really looking for from their applicants. And of course, I’m here to help! Once non-stoptober is over with the seniors, I’ll be more available to talk with juniors about their thoughts and plans for the future and am looking forward to navigating this journey with them.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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