College Admissions in the Time of Pandemic

April 16, 2020

By: Kelly Alblinger

Staff Writer

college planning covid, covid-19 college, college planning covid-19, college planning pandemic

At this point in the academic year, IECs typically have their hands full – reviewing mid-year transcripts, awaiting SAT scores, sometimes visiting schools where they hope to place a student – but not in 2020. With the shadow of COVID-19 hovering over the nation, K-12 schools are closed, and only “essential” staff is on the job at most higher learning institutions. As a result, preparations for the 2021 college admission cycle have ground to a halt virtually overnight. 


Stumbling Blocks 

In this time of the pandemic, both students and admissions officers are facing some monumental hurdles. A significant majority of institutions rely upon standardized testing scores, but the College Board has canceled all exams through the month of May. Juniors scheduled to take the exam in April have been left high and dry, while seniors who have previously taken the exam and had hoped to better their score the second time around won’t be given that opportunity anytime soon. Most students are finishing the academic year via distance learning and will be receiving pass/fail or credit/no credit marks in lieu of traditional letter grades. Seniors especially rely on those letter grades to turn an acceptance into an actual admission at the school of their choice. 

On the other side of the fence, colleges are scrambling to decide how to admit new students. Without SAT results, letter grades, or even verified transcripts due to school closures, admissions officers are having to rely on mid-year grades, “whole person” reviews, and delayed enrollment deadlines to keep the process moving. 

Easing Requirements 

University of California schools have taken the lead on easing admissions for incoming students by temporarily relaxing its core admissions requirements: 

  • Suspending letter grade requirements for A-G courses completed in winter/spring/summer 2020 for all students 
  • Suspending standardized testing for students applying for 2021 freshman admission 
  • No rescission of admission offers as a result of missing official transcript deadlines 


Other institutions, such as Harvard University, have declared that students “will not be disadvantaged” by the lack of test scores or pass/fail grades. According to the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling, many institutions, both public and private, have waived the standard testing requirement for all students and moved the enrollment decision day back one month, to June 1. This allows students to retain their placement even if they aren’t prepared to commit during this period of uncertainty. 

Speculation Abounds 

With the volatility of the global situation, there is much speculation about the future of college admissions. Given the current and impending travel and immigration restrictions, it is likely that foreign students will have difficulty coming to the US to attend school. Fewer foreign enrollments allow a greater opportunity for domestic student admissions, especially those in the “borderline” category for acceptance to the school of their choice. However, with the situation so fluid, schools have yet to issue definitive statements regarding this possibility. 

Another speculation is that a significant number of higher learning institutions will discontinue dependence on standardized test scores. Civil rights advocates cite that the testing is discriminatory toward students who can’t afford extensive test prep courses, or who aren’t in a financial position to take the tests multiple times in order to improve their scores. 

Interestingly, a national survey of prospective college students conducted by the Art & Science Group (a consulting firm) found that one in six high school seniors who had planned to attend a four-year college are rethinking their intentions in light of world events. Approximately 35% of those surveyed said that they now plan to take a “gap year” before committing to an education plan, while an additional 35% said they plan to enroll in a part-time bachelor’s degree program. 

It appears that most colleges and prospective students remain hopeful that the return to normal will happen sooner rather than later, and that the fall 2020 semester will proceed as planned. Adaptability has become the watchword for the next generation of students, and it will be interesting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve the world of education in the coming months.  


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