“Embrace uncertainty.” This just might be the official slogan for the spring of 2020, and it has been the unofficial theme for college admission for decades. While the current state of applying to college seems unprecedented—and it is—there has always been one constant, and that is change. And, it is important to recognize that ever-evolving college admission process is a human experience. It sometimes feels like admission leaders are anonymous machines “behind the curtain,” conducting ambiguous evaluations of applicants, but the truth is that they are living, breathing people who understand what students are experiencing. They are in this work because they want to admit students and create opportunities. Many have children of their own and they are mothers, brothers, sons, and aunts. At this challenging time, they too are wearing masks to the grocery store, commuting to their kitchen table to work, and are worried about the health and safety of their loved ones. There is humanity in the uncertainty of the college admission experience.
As an admission professional with over twenty years of experience, it is hard enough for me to follow all of the messages around what is to be expected for the coming admission cycle. Every day my email is full of notices from various colleges and universities outlining pandemic-related changes, and it is a lot to process. So, I asked admission leaders to focus on what they wanted students and families to know about applying to college next year. The common theme in their responses was, “WE GET IT!” They know that there has been major disruption and that everyone is learning virtually. They know that sports competitions, musical productions, and internships have been canceled. They are aware that many students will not take standardized tests and that grading policies in high schools are in flux. This is the first piece in a three-part series where admission leaders share their advice on a range of aspects of applying to college. Here is what they want applicants to know about grades and testing:
Many students—especially high school juniors—are concerned about the impact that changes in school schedules and grading this spring will have on their college applications. Some high schools have adopted pass/fail policies, others are ending their year early or changing assessments. Kelly Walter, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Boston University says, “my colleagues and I understand that high schools will be adopting a wide variety of policies around academic assessment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” adding, “We plan to be as flexible as possible and to honor whatever decisions a school makes regarding grading and course requirements.” Walter explains that they also understand that each student’s situation is unique and that they plan to take into consideration a student’s circumstances in the evaluation of their application. She says, “please rest assured that students will not be disadvantaged during the admissions process for circumstances that are clearly beyond their control.”
Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College agrees, saying, “there will be a big asterisk on spring 2020 transcripts for all students and colleges and universities are aware and understanding of that fact.” He adds, “we will work with college counselors to understand and accept the choices individual schools and districts make during these challenging times.” Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Union College points out that colleges are going through similar challenges as high schools, with either all or much of their spring terms having moved online, and so they understand there will be a variety of approaches to spring courses and credit. He says, “in some ways, this is an exciting opportunity for students, since many top students achieve at a high level term after term, year after year.” Malatesta suggests that “this can help turn attention to some of the other things that you have done during high school, of which you are particularly proud.”
Gil Villanueva, associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond says, “keep strong and focus on the tasks at hand.” He adds, “as the father of a college junior and a high school junior, I tell both to not worry about what they can't control. Understand that you can only do so much given all of the disruptions. Colleges and universities know that you didn't sign up for any of these changes, including interim grading policies. College admission counselors will be very flexible when they read your applications and transcripts.” Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of South Carolina, says, “you may assume that everyone is ‘ahead’ of you or that somehow you are ‘behind.’” But she reassures students that they should assume that everyone is in the “same distance-learning, quarantine boat.” She advises, “stay focused on the work at hand. Do your best to walk into next year as prepared as you can be.” Julie Kerich, assistant vice president of enrollment at Franklin & Marshall College adds, “if you are unable to complete assignments because of internet issues, let us know. We understand the inequities of remote learning.”
Some students who might have been counting on the spring term to show academic improvement and are now faced with pass/fail grades are frustrated by the lost opportunity to prove themselves. Jim Rawlins, assistant vice president and director of admissions at the University of Oregon has advice for the student trying to show an upward trend as they improve their abilities as a student. He suggests, “you might be able to take an online college course in a subject that represents you forging ahead and challenging yourself (within reason), and get some letter grades there.”
Another moving target this spring, summer, and maybe even fall, will be standardized testing. Canceled SAT and ACT dates, potential new test administrations, the possibility of online testing, and concerns about a limited number of test centers—it is all enough to make one’s head spin. Every day new institutions announce changes to their testing policies, from small colleges like Amherst and Haverford to large universities such as The University of California and Cornell. Students wonder what role testing will play in the evaluation of their application. Does test-optional really mean optional? If opportunities to test exist, should they take them? When should they report scores that they have?
Wagner at the University of South Carolina says, “some institutions have dropped the requirement, permanently or for the short term. Some will keep their testing for the foreseeable future, but for those that are accepting or requiring scores, colleges know the testing environment has been unusual, to say the least.” She suggests, “when comparing yourself to institutional profiles, it's best not to assume that you won't be considered just because you didn't earn the average score for that school,” adding, “this is an unusual year for colleges, too, and most are seeking ways to expand how they consider students' educational environments, whether or not they require scores.”
Swarthmore College’s Bock cautions students that “your health and safety are what is most important. One test will not and does not define who you are as a person. Many schools are moving to test-optional, and the way tests are being administered moving forward will change.” He says, “we will work with the testing agencies to understand validity and security concerns,” and advises, “be in contact with your school counselors, if possible, as the current semester ends and early next fall to understand what options may be best for your personal situation. Keep an eye on college admissions websites as you build your college lists. Colleges are updating policies every day as we all learn how to adapt and lean into the new normal, whatever that may be.”
Meanwhile, Villanueva at the University of Richmond recommends that “just because the tide of test-optional policies is rising doesn't mean you shouldn't take a test or two if you believe you will do well. And if you do elect to take AP exams, SAT, ACT, or TOEFL, you owe it to yourself to prepare and study. When researching colleges with test-optional policies, be sure to read their respective application instructions. Some will afford you the opportunity to opt-out when you apply while some might assume you want your scores to be part of application evaluation if you send it to them directly.”
Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid and enrollment management at Temple University offers that “perhaps the most positive outcome of this pandemic will be that colleges and universities move away from such heavy reliance on standardized testing and place more emphasis on one's high school record of achievement and their extracurricular impact.” He adds, “COVID-19 did one thing for sure: it served as rocket fuel for the test-optional admission movement. Amen.”
Many high schools use the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula. Students who have challenged themselves with these courses are now curious about how colleges will view their progress in these classes and their resulting test scores if they have them. The IB program has canceled this year’s tests
altogether, and the College Board has changed the AP exams
to 45 minute online tests. This is not what students—or their teachers-signed up for, but all is not lost. For college admission, the most important fact is that a student chose a more rigorous course program, whether standardized like the AP/IB or unique advanced classes developed by their high school. A separate issue is whether students can earn college credit for taking these classes, and while many colleges have kept their current policies, others are still under review.
University of South Carolina’s Wagner says, “I have yet to hear of a single college pulling back on their policy to award credit by examination, assuming they award credit for satisfactory AP/IB scores.” She adds, “this pandemic stuff is beyond students' and teachers' control, and colleges know that.” Ken Anselment, the vice president for enrollment & communication at Lawrence University agrees. He explains that “IB has provided pretty clear guidance on how they're assigning substitute test scores for grades earned in classes and we're giving credit in the same way as we would with tests (another win for the value of the regular season of your academic work over the playoff season of testing).” He says that for AP exams at Lawrence, “we'll offer credit for the scores just like we would have in a ‘normal’ year, but we also recognize that there are equity issues with the test, due to differing access to the internet, which may create far less than ideal testing circumstances for students, which is why we will also encourage our students to have conversations with our faculty once they get ready to register, to determine the appropriate level of placement.”
Jim Rawlins, at the University of Oregon, advises that “whatever happens with your ability to take AP exams this spring, know that colleges will often be giving you other ways to test out of classes that an AP exam might have helped you skip.” He points out that “many students are surprised to learn that AP credit earners don’t tend to graduate college more quickly than students without it. It ends up being more associated with letting you move on to the next course in a series, or having different opportunities in other subjects.” As for the IB program, he says “juniors have the potential to have a downright normal outcome to your senior year path, and rest assured that the IB organization will make smart adjustments and communicate them well to your school.” He adds, “the extended essay topics will blow us away next year, I’m sure!”
You see, they do get it. Hopefully, the diverse range of voices here will give applicants comfort that they will not be penalized or disadvantaged by this international crisis. If anything, admission offices will be that much more understanding this year.
Kent Rinehart, dean of admission at Marist College points out that “the world is rapidly changing in the pandemic, however, college and universities are student-centered and we are collectively committed to compassion and empathy during this challenging time.” He says, “At Marist, we have always taken a holistic approach to our recruitment and review of candidates for admission. Our team will commit even more deeply to this mindset as we consider students in the upcoming cycles who have been impacted by this pandemic. We also stand at the ready to assist students, parents, and high school and community-based organization counselors during this tumultuous and uncertain time.” Kirk Brennan, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California agrees, saying, “colleges are nothing without students like you. Your presence will be a valuable contribution to whichever college is fortunate enough to win your enrollment.” Finally, Franklin & Marshall’s Kerich reminds students to “breathe, take care of yourself, find gratitude where you can, and try to be optimistic for your future. Support your family and friends and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
This is good advice for us all as we embrace uncertainty and bet on the best in ourselves and others. In part two of this series, admission leaders will share their thoughts on extracurricular involvement and summer opportunities during unpredictable times, and in part three, students will learn how to communicate their unique circumstances.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post