How Will Colleges Evaluate Applications This Year? And How Many Will They Admit?

Morning Edition on NPR aired a terrific piece this morning – How The Coronavirus Has Upended College Admissions – that covers how COVID-19 and its impacts on SAT and ACT availability, pass/fail grading systems, and the ability for students to be active in their schools and communities will require universities to adjust their application review processes. It’s worth a listen.

Along similar lines, a frequent topic on college admission message boards and email listservs is how COVID and its effects might impact the number of SPOTS available in the 2021 first year class. There are many variables to consider. It seems clear that many schools will face unwanted enrollment declines as families decide against sending their students far from home, against paying high tuition rates for online classes, choose to defer enrollment for the year altogether, etc. What will this mean for next year? Will this year’s non-matriculated or deferred student take a spot from a 2021 applicant?

I lean in the no category here – the vast majority of schools, including many perceived as “prestigious,” are going to want to enroll all of those students PLUS a robust first year and transfer population that returns their overall full time enrolled undergraduate population to pre-COVID levels as quickly as possible. The reason? Most schools (not all, but most) can’t afford not to. They’ve lost too much money this past spring and are facing more losses this upcoming school year.

There’s a catch, however. One – can schools enroll more students without an increase in their financial aid budgets? I assume financial aid budgets will be fairly stagnant for a few years because of COVID-related losses, so likely not (or at the very least, it’s going to require some creative financial aid packaging to do so). Two – it’s not like there are more high school graduates out there. See this great NPR piece for evidence as to why. Where will these extra enrollments come from if they come from anywhere at all? Wanting to enroll more doesn’t mean a school will be able to.

And then there’s the population that stands to be advantaged. Who are they? Those who are always advantaged, for one – students and families capable of paying the full cost of attendance. Disadvantaged? As is the case at almost every college in America, those who can’t (so very, very few are need-blind and almost all have defined financial aid budgets).

So where will additional students come from? From each other, of course, keeping enrollment numbers where they need to be at some while further lowering them at others. What about adult learners – can they fill the gaps? At some places, sure, but much will hinge on the economy and, again, financial aid opportunities.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. And yet, as I always say, all students can do is control what they can control. None of us has the power to have an impact on anything that I’ve laid out here. Fortunately, there are thousands of great colleges in the United States, public and private. Students who stay open-minded and see the tremendous opportunities that exist at all types of schools, regardless of perceived national prestige and national ranking, will have a bright college future ahead of them.

An Unprecedented Year in College Admissions

I’ve noted this before but it is worth repeating – today’s high school seniors are facing a college admissions landscape never faced by any other class before. They spent the final months of their junior year learning remotely and most are facing, at a minimum, weeks of online learning this fall. Last May, many took AP exams online in a new format created by the College Board but two months earlier. They’ve faced cancelled ACT and SAT administrations throughout the spring and summer. They are trying to figure out what exactly being test-optional means at schools that have embraced standardized test results in their admission review processes for decades. They are rarely able to visit college campuses and are left wondering where they might even apply and how colleges will know of their interest. And now, with test organizations hyping the fact that they are offering multiple opportunities to test this fall, they are faced with tweets like this the last two days:

The issues these students are facing are not over-hyped – they are real. Parents, teachers, counselors, friends – each of these are outside of our control. We can’t fix them. However, we can support these students. Their worries should not be dismissed. A patient ear here, a thoughtful word there, each goes a long way.

Here’s to hoping for better news soon.

On COVID and College Applicants – Admissions Deans Speak Out

Yesterday, a statement composed and endorsed by over 300 college admissions deans and enrollment managers that expresses what they “value in applicants during this time of COVID-19” was released by the Make Caring Common Project, an initiative hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Collectively, the group of admissions leaders is signaling to prospective college students that they understand.

They understand that students may be struggling in innumerable ways. They understand that these struggles may have had a negative impact on student academic work the final months of the school year. They understand that opportunities to do good in communities, to attend enrichment programs, and to work this summer may have been postponed or canceled due to public health concerns. They emphasize the importance of “self-care” when stating that they “encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time.” And importantly to applicants, they encourage the sharing of stories with colleges when preparing applications and interviewing with admissions officials.

A summary of the statement can be found in piece written by Scott Jaschik in today’s Inside Higher Ed. The full statement can be found on the Make Caring Common Project website. It’s worth a read and will hopefully reduce some of the anxiety prospective college applicants may be experiencing as application season approaches.

Test-Optional Takes Off

From highly ranked national universities and small liberal arts colleges to regional state schools, more than half of all four-year colleges in the United States will be test-optional for Fall 2021 applicants. Bob Schaeffer, Executive Director (interim) of FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, summarizes the rapid growth in the number of test-optional institutions in a news release today.

A terrific piece on this movement was published last week by NPR reporter Elissa Nadworn’s – Colleges Are Backing Off SAT, ACT Scores — But The Exams Will Be Hard To Shake. In it, she notes that just because more schools are test-optional does not necessarily mean that students will still not feel the pressure to test and score well.

Meanwhile, here in North Carolina our two flagship institutions, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State, still require an ACT or SAT result for the class enrolling next fall. An announcement sometime soon that they will join the ranks of test-optional schools for Fall 2021 applicants would not surprise me – the pressure to do so is surely building on campus.

ACT Cancels June Test, SAT Registration Issues

From the ACT cancelling (predictably) June test administrations at a majority of locations across the country to the College Board’s website crashing due to high volume when it opened up Fall 2020 SAT registration last Friday, it was a rough week for students trying to sign up for and take a test to meet college application requirements across the country.

SAT/ACT Availability Crunch This Fall?

Many current juniors will eye dates in the fall of 2020 as opportunities to take the SAT or ACT either for the first time or to improve upon scores achieved in previous administrations. This is certainly going to be the case here in North Carolina, where our state flagship institutions continue to require submission of test scores with the application.

Be mindful that while opportunities to register for either exam may seem more plentiful than in previous years, this is likely not going to be the case. The College Board announced this spring that the SAT would be offered once per month, August through December. The ACT is being offered in July, September, October, and December. While this suggests that ample opportunities exist for students to sit for either exam, keep in mind that schools (which serve as test centers) are likely going to be forced to reduce capacity to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. I read a report on a relatively large testing center in Connecticut that is reducing its capacity by 66%! The College Board states here that they are asking for additional test center capacity from high schools, colleges, and communities, however they don’t answer to local public health authorities.

The College Board opens registration for the August through October SAT exams tomorrow. The ACT opens registration for its fall exams this July. My guess is that all available seats at many test centers will be accounted for quickly and that long road trips to schools with spots will become more common this fall unless additional test centers are added.

A caveat to all of this could be the anticipated introduction of online SAT and ACT testing later this fall. I think expectations need to be tempered here for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that colleges and universities have yet to announce whether they will accept online test results from Fall 2021 applicants. Stay tuned.

All of this is to say it is to your benefit to be on top of registration dates and to sign up early whenever possible. The COVID pandemic will present both unique challenges and interesting opportunities for students applying to college this fall. Procuring a seat at a test center may prove to be the former.

College Admissions Officers “Get It”

Brennan Barnard, the Director of College Counseling at the Derryfield School in New Hampshire, is a frequent contributor to Forbes Magazine on all topics related to college admission and the well-being of high school students (I was quoted in an article of his back in 2019). Recently published is his three-part series entitled, “We Get It! College Admissions Deans Speak Out.” I think the advice offered by him and the dozens of college admissions officers he interviewed speaks for itself – people on the college side of this process understand well the myriad of difficult questions and circumstances students are facing as a result of this crisis and will take these into account during application review for years to come. I hope their words will offer some comfort as you navigate these final weeks of the school year.

Links to parts two and three can be found in the final paragraph of the initial article.

Staying Focused as School Year End Approaches

Approximately 15 feet from where I currently sit are my two children. One is a high school junior, the other is in the 7th grade. It is May 4 and today marks the start of their eighth week of at-home learning. They continue to sit in front of screens and watch videos and lectures or type out essays and responses to problems, for the most part without complaint. They miss the variety that the school day provided, with every day offering some new experience different than the one before. No different than any other year, the warmer weather has them longing for a break from assigned learning. For students, teachers, administrators, and families alike – this has been a difficult two month stretch, albeit necessarily so. Everyone rightly is looking forward to the traditional summer reprieve.

It is easy for high school students and their families to get caught up in the college admissions focused questions of the day. When, where, and how will the ACT and SAT be offered again? When will colleges be open for information sessions and tours again? How will colleges evaluate my grades? What if I choose a pass/fail option (if available/an option)? All of these and more are worthwhile questions, capable of causing some level of anxiety in even the unshakable among us. But with just weeks to go, students would be far better off focusing on that within their control.

Simply stated, students can control the effort they put forth these final weeks of the school year. Take advantage of the opportunity to finish the year strong and with the best outcomes possible. Some school systems are offering students the choice of graded or pass/fail assessments at the end of the year. If it’s an option, do well and choose to be graded. While admission committees will know well the schools and systems for which pass/fail was the only option, they will likely also take note of students who chose it when a graded option was available. Even if pass/fail is the only option, a sincere effort today will provide a stronger academic foundation for classes in the years to come.

AP examinations begin on May 11. The curiosity of this year’s format notwithstanding (online, under an hour, open note, in many cases just a single question), if you are registered to take one or more you may as well put your best foot forward. Credit policies for specific scores earned have not, for the most part, changed at most institutions and thus exists still the possibility of earning meaningful college credit. Further, the resilience displayed by students who perform well on AP exams this year will surely be taken into consideration by admissions committees during review.

The grit and determination we see in the daily acts of millions of people around the world during this pandemic has been inspiring. I believe this is true of so many students as well. The mere act of plowing forward with your education with so much devastation and distraction around us is worth celebrating. Approach these final weeks of the school year with pride. Don’t worry about standardized testing, college visit schedules, application essays, and interviews – there will be time for all of this and more this summer. Focus on what you can control – the quality of your academic work. You will be rewarded not just intellectually but in the college admissions process as well.

COVID-19 and Standardized Testing

COVID-19, and the subsequent closing of schools across the country, has greatly impacted the standardized testing landscape. Depending on where you live, you may or may not have been able to take the March SAT (the test was still proctored in many North Carolina cities, for example). The March ACT was postponed worldwide with students offered the opportunity to take the exam in June. This news was followed quickly by the cancellation of the April ACT and May SAT exams. Then, just this week the College Board announced that the June SAT administration would not take place. Finally, it seems likely that the June ACT exam will also be canceled – I imagine an announcement will be made in the coming days.

What does this mean for current high school juniors? For one, if you were unable to take an exam this spring it is unlikely that you will be able to do so until July at the earliest (the 7/18 ACT is still scheduled). The next SAT administration is scheduled on August 29. The College Board did add an additional examination date in September and thus are now offering tests each month August through December. Second, though rarely required from any one college or university, the ideal months for most juniors to take SAT Subject Tests are May and June. With those tests canceled, the next exam date closest to the end of the junior year is the August 29 administration. With most schools moving to remote learning in March, there will be a five month gap between in-class instruction and the exam date – hardly an ideal situation.

Many colleges and universities reacted swiftly to news of these cancellations, adding their names to the growing list of test-optional schools in the United States. Some did so for this year’s junior class only (see Williams College and the entire University of California system), others for a trial period of 2-3 years (e.g. Davidson College), and still others announced permanent policy changes. That list stands at over 1100 at the time of this post according to, an impressive figure when one considers there are but 3000 four-year institutions total nationwide. That said, our state flagship universities here in North Carolina – UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State – have yet to announce any standardized test policy changes, and this is true for many prominent schools across the country. Visit for a comprehensive list of test-optional schools and then verify that what is indicated there is posted policy on respective college admissions websites.

The College Board administration of AP examinations is yet another puzzle to unravel. Simply put, they will be administered online this May in a truncated format. Is this fair for all? How will the College Board account for gaps in technology access? How will tests be scored? Will credit be offered for specific scores on certain examinations by colleges/universities? Suffice to say, if you are preparing for AP exams this spring, you are doing so with more than just the potential test questions swirling in your head.

Finally, you may have heard that both the ACT and the College Board have introduced the possibility of online exams being offered as early as this fall. So much to unpack here, not the least of which is whether colleges and universities will support such moves. Stay tuned.

All told, keeping track of test policies this year will require careful research. For every school that makes your list as one you may apply to, you need to take the time to determine the following:

  1. Do I have to submit an ACT or SAT result? Do not assume what was a school’s policy in November is still their policy today.
  2. If so, do I need to take the writing section and submit that score?
  3. If the school is test optional, should I take exams and submit my scores anyway? This requires an analysis of your scores and an understanding of how applications have been historically reviewed at that institution.
  4. Will colleges superscore my ACT or SAT results? Do I get to choose the scores I submit or do I need to send them all for them to superscore?
  5. Beginning this fall, I can take a single section of the ACT on a test date. Should I do this? Will schools consider this single section score when superscoring my ACT? This announcement was met with great excitement by many. I encourage tempering that enthusiasm – it may not be shared by college admissions offices.
  6. I want to apply to a school that “strongly recommends” SAT – Subject Test results. Are they going to change their policy now that the May and June examination dates have been canceled?

Don’t wait until September to do this research. Do it now so you will be prepared for changes that will inevitably come in these ever-changing times.