How Applying for College Has Changed Because of COVID

Richard Lawrence
Richard Lawrence
Elementary school principal; M.A. in School Administration
A college application sitting on top of a laptop next to a cup of coffee.

I was somewhat familiar with the changes that have occurred for students applying to college due to Covid-19. News reports regularly covered the dilemmas that many students faced as a result of the virus. However, as an elementary school principal, it was not something I was personally dealing with, so for this article I sought out a couple of expert opinions as well as read various articles that dealt directly with the subject.

The research was eye opening. I had not fully considered the level of impact Covid had on students and their prospects for their next level of education. The two individuals I interviewed work in the same district as I do and I have worked with both at times during my career in the Buena Regional School District in southern New Jersey. Mrs. Gerri Turner is the Supervisor of Pupil Personnel Services/Guidance Department and Mrs. Deanna Higgins is a veteran school counselor at Buena Regional High School. Both have closely worked with students applying for universities and colleges over the course of their career and are very familiar with the differences pre and post-Covid for the college/university application process. I am very grateful to them for the time and effort they took to give me valuable feedback regarding their own experiences assisting students to get admitted to schools at the university level.

Mrs. Turner gave a succinct description of what the pre-Covid application process consisted of. “Prior to the pandemic, applying meant submitting the essay, transcript, test scores, and letters of recommendation along with an application fee.” According to Mrs. Turner, “SAT/ACT Centers closed or canceled tests, students struggled to maintain their grade point averages as some schools changed their grading scale to Pass/Fail.”  She added that for students who were sophomores and juniors during the initial year Covid hit will now have to register and take the SAT test, and many are feeling less than prepared given the limited instruction they received during the pandemic with virtual or hybrid instruction. Moreover, student athletes who wanted to compete for athletic scholarships lost all or most of their seasons and representatives from colleges and universities no longer visited schools to recruit as is their custom.

For Mrs. Higgins, the Covid pandemic affected the college application process in three core ways:

College Visits

“A big part of my “college shopping” talk involves encouraging the students to visit campuses when building their college application list – and even more important, do not commit to attending a college until you have set foot on campus. Every campus has a personality, just like people do, and the only real way to get a feel for the personality of a college, and whether it gels with your personality – to be present on campus and feel the vibe. Covid closed campuses, cancelled campus tours, and hid the campus’s personality. During Covid, campus lists were built on word-of-mouth (listening to friends and family who may not fully appreciate what the student is really seeking when choosing a college), email marketing by the colleges (swarms of it), many with free application codes, and the website pictures and virtual tours – the method college counselors always used with caution – of course the colleges are putting forward the most picturesque shots of campus on sunny days, full of students with happy smiles on their faces. They have nice marketing budgets for this. Don’t judge the campus by the marketing materials! Sadly, during Covid, this became a valuable resource. It’s all we had. The visits didn’t happen. And applications were filed and decisions were made. I’m curious to know the freshman retention rates after the first round of freshmen who applied during Covid start their sophomore years.”

Test Optional

“Test optional means the student gets to decide whether he/she wants to submit test scores with his/her application. Because of Covid, SAT and ACT administrations were cancelled, making it difficult and/or impossible to earn a test score, and if a student did manage to sit for an SAT or ACT and wanted to improve their score, cancelled administrations made it impossible. Test optional definitely took the edge off of college applications for the student who felt, pre-Covid, that standardized test scores did not show the type of student he/she really was, or that they were a “bad test-taker”.

Many students and their families were happy to read the growing list of test optional schools as Covid days were going by. Many stressed over the question – “should I send test scores or not? “Generally speaking, the SAT/ACT average score of admitted students from past years (or average SAT/ACT score for the current freshman class – found on the school’s website usually under Freshman Class Profile) was the primary factor that would prevent a student from applying. “My score isn’t good enough.” However, the Covid test optional application season brought record numbers of applications into admissions offices across the country.” The same can be said for graduate admissions tests like the Praxis and GRE.

During Covid, students were choosing to apply to colleges and not be concerned about the average SAT/ACT score for the previous freshman class. Students could submit their transcript, essay, resume, and recommendation letters and not worry about a test score weakening their application package.

Admissions officers were tasked with evaluating their application pool differently, without a standardized test score, and managing the overwhelming number of applications that were reaching their desks. Admissions officers were working harder than ever, and that could mean their decisions may be more random than usual, or they may rely more heavily on the university’s priorities (first gen., in-state, etc.). Many students who would likely have been admitted pre-covid now found themselves with a rejection or a spot on the waitlist.”

The Gap Year

“Early in Covid, graduating seniors who had secured college seats before schools shut down were faced with the gap year decision. If they wanted a “normal” first-year college experience, especially those leaving home and moving into a dorm, lots chose to take the gap year and enter in Fall, 2021. Pre-Covid, students still took gap years, but the gap year request had to be submitted to the admissions office with a clear explanation of the student’s plan for their gap year (how it would enrich their educational experience), and the request had to be approved. The admissions office had a clear number of gap year students and could easily plan for their arrival on campus the following fall with little to no disruption to the current freshman class’s experience.

A request for a Covid gap year was granted – no need for an explanation. It’s Covid. And now, while analyzing the overwhelmingly large numbers of applications for Fall 2021 admission, the admissions officers had to be aware of the number of students who were coming to campus from the previous application cycle. This absolutely affected college acceptances. And the applicants had no idea what the gap year numbers were and how it could affect their chances of getting in.

The impact of test optional applications along with the gap year made it difficult for college counselors and students to use the published information we rely on when helping students make decisions on where to send applications. There is always a degree of unknown when applying to college. Just because you fit the published profile for a college, it does not guarantee acceptance. (The Ivy’s have a 7% acceptance rate – and many, many more than 7% fit their published profiles). Covid added another huge layer of uncertainty – one that none of us planned for. So we had to help students rethink their plans.”

Once again, I’d like to thank Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Higgins for their insightful feedback. It will be interesting to see the true long-term effect Covid had on students of this era once the impact studies have been completed.

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