How will admissions officers evaluate applicants this year?

College admissions officers will be facing uncharted territory this coming application cycle as they review students whose junior and senior years of high school have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. In many cases, admissions officers will have to evaluate applications missing SAT/ACT scores, a semester’s worth of grades, and extracurricular activities.

“So many things that were sacred in the college admissions process may not be sacred anymore,” Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), told NPR. “Colleges and universities are reinventing a process that hasn’t changed in over 50 years in the span of a couple of months … and they don’t have another choice.”

Rethinking application components, evaluation criteria

“We’re going to have to hit the reset button hard on this one,” said Jeff Schiffman, director of undergraduate admissions at Tulane University, adding that “It’s going to take a complete retraining of how we review applications and what we’re looking for.” 

Rather than relying on grade point averages, officers may look for transcript patterns indicating academic rigor. They may invite students to submit AP scores and other work products. Recommendation letters, essays, and demonstrations of interest in a particular institution may also take on newfound importance. 

Some universities are exploring new types of inputs. Louisiana-based Tulane, for instance, is interviewing students virtually to make up for the face-to-face talks they’d ordinarily have at college fairs. Bowdoin College, in Maine, is giving its applicants a chance to receive and answer a prompt in two-and-a-half minutes via an app that delivers the questions and videotapes the quick response. Bowdoin’s admissions team says it offers a valuable look at students’ willingness to take the risk and their unvarnished thoughts.

The challenges surfaced by the pandemic also may intensify admissions teams’ focus on students’ personal qualities. “We’re thinking about how we might extract characteristics that we would value at Temple, something perhaps like citizenship, or social justice, or tenacity,” Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management at Temple University, told NPR. “I think probably every college and university in America right now is having that kind of soul-searching conversation.”  

A boon for students and equity? 

This “new” college admissions process could ultimately turn out to be beneficial for all involved, some experts say. Promising students who ordinarily might be overlooked due to lower standardized test scores or GPAs could benefit from an admissions process that increases the value assigned to other factors. 

“We really haven’t historically gone to that level of minutia detail in evaluating one’s candidacy for admission,” Abbott said. “Now, we’re sort of going to have to, and [students are] going to get a closer look and a chance to stand out in [the] admissions process through other attributes.”

Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University, says he sees “a tremendous opportunity here to wed the deep interest in a more diverse, more interesting student body, and the opportunity to reconsider afresh what makes a student outstanding and well-prepared for Cornell.” 

Pérez of NACAC agrees that the disruption to admissions criteria—including reduced reliance on things like standardized test scores and in-person campus visits—could open the door for greater access and diversity in the long term. However, in the short term, he says, it will be crucial to avoid “widen[ing] the gap in higher education for those students that are disadvantaged in our society,” given how many students are separated from their guidance counselors, struggling to obtain the devices and connectivity needed for remote learning, and experiencing financial strain.


Financial Aid and COVID-19

Charlene Brown-McKenzie, director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and Missy Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholars Program, discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students who rely on financial aid.

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