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How The Coronavirus Has Upended College Admissions

As stressful as it always is for students applying to college, this year it's all that — and then some — for the admissions officials trying to decide whether to admit them. Because of the pandemic, many students will be applying without standardized test scores and several other metrics admissions officers at selective schools have long relied on, leaving colleges scrambling to figure out what else they might consider instead.

"So many things that were sacred in the college admissions process may not be sacred anymore," said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, and former head of admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut. "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."

Indeed, students' applications may be missing not only SAT and ACT scores, but also a semester or two of grades, since schools switched to pass/fail grading when they went online, or closed altogether. Schools will also have to make do without a semester's worth or more of extracurricular activities — sports, band, theater, volunteering and anything else that would help distinguish applicants from one another.

The near-panic is reverberating on campuses around the nation, where deans are used to taking much more staid and studied steps.

"This definitely is a little bit of a revolution," said Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid and enrollment management at Temple University.

"We're careening down a very different path of the mountain, that we're not used to, at the same time that the ground is still shifting underneath us," said Kedra Ishop, who just left her post heading up admissions for the University of Michigan to become vice president for enrollment management at the University of Southern California.

"I don't even know where to begin," Jeff Schiffman, director of undergraduate admissions at Tulane University, said with a sigh. "We're going to have to hit the reset button hard on this one. It's going to take a compete retraining of how we review applications and what we're looking for. We're kind of figuring it out as we go."

Further complicating the question, students will be missing different pieces of applications, so the review won't be the same for everyone. And while not having test scores won't hurt a student, schools said, having good scores could certainly help.

"We've asked students to give us what they might have available to them," Ishop said. "So we may not normally use [Advanced Placement] scores, or writing samples, but we've told the students give us what you think best represents you in an academic space and let us see what we can do with that."

By most accounts, students' recommendations and their essays will get a closer read. And admissions officers will pore over transcripts looking for academic rigor and any patterns that help bear out a student's academic profile. They'll be working overtime trying to triangulate each piece of the application they have, to make up for what they don't.

"The time and intensity that will be involved in the upcoming year is terrifying," Abbott said. With some 35,000 applications expected to come in without standardized test scores or "a nice, easy, clean grade-point average that we can hang our hat on," admissions officers will have to "take a deeper dive into each file and dig deeper into each candidate."

But here's a tip for students thinking about their essays this year: Schools said they should think twice before submitting 650 words on "How I Spent My COVID-19 Staycation." As Tulane's Schiffman cautioned, COVID fatigue is real.

"I'll use myself as example. I've had to cancel my wedding four times," he said, with a laugh. "Everyone is going through something, so I don't think [admissions] folks are going to want to relive it over and over and over again with 45,000 applications."

Schiffman is quick to add, however, that admissions officers understand the pandemic has created truly extenuating circumstances for many students, and they will be paying close attention to a new short question about how it's affected students that has been added to this year's Common Application.

"We're real people who are also experiencing COVID," said Whitney Soule, senior vice president, dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College in Maine. "We're also worried about people we love who are sick. We're also not able to see people that we need to see or go places we really need to go. We're living with a lot of the same stresses. So we understand what [students] will be telling us, and we're sensitive to it, and we care about it."

Some schools, such as Tulane, are adding a new interview option, hoping to fill in for the face-to-face encounters that used to happen at college fairs and recruiting trips to schools.

Other colleges, such as Bowdoin, are leaning on more innovative options. Fortuitously, it recently launched a new element to its application, offering students the chance to give an impromptu answer to a short question, such as "When is the last time you felt inspired and how did you proceed?" or "If you had no Internet or phone for the afternoon, what would you do?"

When the app flashes the question, students have 30 seconds to think, and two minutes to answer, as the app video records the whole thing. As intimidating as it sounds, students generally take a laid-back approach, videotaping in their kitchen as their mom walks by, outside sporting a Bowdoin sweatshirt, or even kicking back in bed.

"They're 17-year-olds who are answering a question on the fly," Soule said. "They can't prepare for it. They can't get advice. They can't polish it."

Her team loves having such an authentic glimpse into how students think, what motivates them or their sense of humor. "It's really hard to bomb," Soule said, and every video tells the team a lot about an applicant.

"Just the mere fact that a student's willing to do it is impressive," she said. "That in itself says something important about the student."

With that kind of extra tool, and as one of those colleges that had already made SAT and ACT test scores optional, Bowdoin is a step ahead of many other schools forced to go cold turkey this year.

"I just got off a Zoom [call] with most of my admissions directors, and they're all looking a little green at the prospect of what's before them," said Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University. The admissions team will be hunkered down for a couple of months of training, he said. But ultimately, Burdick said he believes the pandemic-forced experiment, along with the current national focus on racial equality and justice, is going to turn out to be "a true blessing" for admissions.

"I think there's actually 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," he said. "That's a good revolution."

One change many colleges are considering is to put more focus on students' character. The "character movement" has been growing for a while, but the pandemic is fueling interest among many, including Abbott.

"We're thinking about how we might extract characteristics that we would value at Temple, something perhaps like citizenship, or social justice, or tenacity," he said. "I think probably every college and university in America right now is having that kind of soul-searching conversation."

Indeed, this past spring, the agenda planned for the annual conference of the Common Application was quickly scrapped and replaced with sessions for admissions officials on how to consider "personal qualities" in the application process. The keynote speaker was Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania professor famous for her work on "grit" and other "character skills," "life skills" or "noncognitive skills."

"Whatever you call them, the take-home message is these things matter, and in some cases, matter as much as IQ," she told the gathering over Zoom. Duckworth urged schools to pinpoint first what character skills they value most and then advised how they might begin to mine students' applications for hints of those, such as through extracurricular activities and teacher recommendations. But she also warned them not to count on any convenient character yardstick anytime soon.

"I think challenges are enormous," Duckworth said. "We're really in the early, early stages of the measurement of personal qualities, and there is no panacea."

That's been frustrating for schools that have been early adherents to the character movement, such as Swarthmore College, which has been trying to suss out students with intellectual curiosity, for example, and creativity, generosity and problem-solving skills. Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions, said so far it's based on more of a "feel" than any real measure. "We've always valued [those characteristics.] But how do you grade it? We struggle with that."

Pérez of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling said he is optimistic better tools will come, and more schools will buy into the idea that students deserve credit for skills such as persistence, willingness to take risks and the ability to overcome adversity. In the long term, it's key to his hopes for a "complete reinvention" of the admissions process that will expand college access and diversity in admissions. He said the pandemic has already proven that schools can pivot faster than many thought, and he hopes that ultimately hastens further changes. For the short term, however, he worries.

"My biggest concern for next year is 'Are we going to widen the gap in higher education for those students that are disadvantaged in our society?' And I think the answer is 'yes,' " Pérez said.

It's true, Pérez noted, that some changes this year may make the playing field a bit more level. Among them are the de-emphasis on standardized tests, which many see as biased, and the move to virtual visits, which erases the edge long enjoyed by students who could afford to travel for campus tours, and those fortunate enough to attend the high schools that college recruiters tend to visit.

But, on the other hand, wide discrepancies in access to the Internet, and to college guidance counselors tend to exacerbate inequities. Already, it seems to have driven a drop in students filing for federal student aid. USC's Ishop said schools need to work out new ways to make sure those students are engaged and supported.

"It'd be easy to take the easy way out, which is [to say], 'That doesn't work in this environment, and so we're not going to do it.' Instead, we really do have to double down on those efforts, even though they may be a bit more difficult," Ishop said.

Another challenge for schools this year may be managing what could be a significant aberration in the number or quality of applications they get. It's unclear if applications will go up or down, Swarthmore's Bock said. "Students [may] submit less because they couldn't actually see campuses [in person]," he said, or because of financial constraints due to the pandemic. Or, they may "hedge their bets and submit more."

Temple's Abbott said he thinks it may be the latter. Without ACTs or SATs as a "reality check," he said he believes more students may have inflated ambitions and may be more tempted to "throw their hat into the ring" at more "reach" schools.

Given all the uncertainty, colleges said they may look more closely for signs that a student is truly interested in their school. And some said they may lean more heavily on early decision applicants this year. But even that is uncertain. The early applicant pool may be more competitive this year, if it swells with students who are also sick of uncertainty.

And some colleges said they may be more skittish about early acceptances this year; given what's already missing from students' transcripts, they may end up deferring more early applicants, and waiting for their fall semester grades, just to be sure.

Still, schools said students may emerge the winners from all this turmoil. While schools are bracing for a rough year, the net-net for students may be a unique opportunity, as those who might have been "prematurely judged" on less-than-stellar SAT or ACT scores may now get a more careful consideration.

"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."

Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, agrees. He said he doesn't expect colleges to "get this right in one admissions cycle." But he said he takes heart in the progress already underway and also hopes this year's forced experiment will bring longer-lasting changes.

"Once campuses find that those students do just fine, and the sky doesn't fall without standardized tests, this could eventually become the norm," Reilly said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 17, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story, we misspelled Mike Reilly's last name as Riley.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.