SAT Scores? Out. Pandemic Essays? In. How To Apply For College In 2020

A sign asks visitors to put their masks back on after taking photos with the trojan statue on the USC campus, Oct. 2, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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College application season is in full swing for the high school class of 2021 and anyone else hoping to start a 4-year college next fall. But instead of SAT cram sessions, road trips to visit campuses and essay-writing workshops at the library, we have ... Zoom.

Zoom campus tours, Zoom college prep workshops, Zoom counseling sessions. Not to mention, if you're trying to beef up your extracurriculars, virtual poetry clubs, virtual student government meetings and virtual workouts with your sports team in lieu of an actual season.

To one who, admittedly, is decades past high school, it all sounds pretty awful. And it is, in some ways. But in others, college counselors and admissions officers say this pandemic moment actually has the potential to make access to higher education fairer and more equitable.

I spoke with close to two dozen high school counselors, principals, college advisors, admissions staff and academics to better understand how the pandemic is forcing change in the admissions process and what students, parents and school leaders should know to give all students the best possible chance at higher education. Here's what I learned.

2019-2020 SAT and ACT deadlines. Many colleges and universities have temporarily suspended the requirement to submit standardized test scores with applications (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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3 BIG WAYS THE PANDEMIC IS CHANGING COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

1. TEST-OPTIONAL, TEST AND TEST?

Standardized tests — ya know, the SAT and ACT — were already at the top of many education reformers' hit list because of growing research showing they don't fairly measure the academic talents of students with widely varying access to resources like private test prep. Some, like Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, think the tests are blatantly racist.

So critics saw a silver lining when the coronavirus hit. Testing centers either limited capacity or closed entirely, and universities followed by allowing students to forego submitting test scores as a requirement for admission. At this point, two-thirds of all U.S. 4-year colleges and universities are either not requiring (test-optional), or not even considering (test-blind) standardized test scores for 2021 applicants.

That includes the entire University of California and California State University systems.

Cal Poly Pomona Interim Admissions Director Brandon Tuck said his office ran some numbers and determined that the change is likely to bring a nearly 8.8% increase in admissions of Latino, Black and Native American students and a 5.6% increase in female students, compared to just a slight increase in admitted students, overall.

Tuck said dropping the standardized test requirement, which could become permanent, will open the gates to students who may have previously been disqualified because of one or two wrong answers on an SAT.

"This allows us to now look at those students that we would have never looked at in the past," Tuck said.

Does Test-Optional Really Mean Optional?

Some admissions professionals worry that not all schools have fully communicated whether and how they'll consider standardized test scores. "I think that the messages that students and parents and counselors are hearing are so muddy with test-optional that it is just causing confusion everywhere," said Marie Bigham, founder of ACCEPT, a group that advocates for racial equity in college admissions.

"There are some who in this moment are saying, 'Testing is really important to us and we understand that you don't have access. But if you have it, you should really send it because it's in your interest. But if you don't, that's cool, because we're test-optional. But if you have it, you really, really, really should send it.' ... Then you have other institutions that in their language say things like, 'We expect students of some areas to have more access than others. And we're paying attention to that.' ... It's really hard to parse what any of that means."

To make things even more unsettling, some institutions are still requiring standardized test scores to apply for merit-based financial aid. (Bigham said these tend to be the same institutions with squishy messaging about their test-optional policy.)

Tim Brunold, dean of admission at USC, which is test-optional for those applying for the 2021-2022 academic year, worries that students won't trust that they're serious about the "optional" part.

"When we say we're test-optional ... we are test-optional. We're not going to secretly judge students who don't submit test scores," he said.

Brunold said he wants students to stay healthy — mentally and physically — and focus on school and their future rather than risk taking a stressful test in a crowded room during a viral pandemic.

Classrooms and lockers at the mostly empty Alhambra High School campus, Oct. 2, 2020. Like all high schools in L.A., Alhambra is teaching students online this semester. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

2. PASS-FAIL GRADES, INTERNET DISRUPTIONS AND OTHER PANDEMIC-TIME ADMISSIONS QUIRKS

When the pandemic annihilated school routines last spring, high schools took a variety of approaches to grading (many still are) — some more generous or forgiving than others. And while almost all students have faced disruptions to their learning and personal lives, some undoubtedly have faced more than others.

But how, for example, would a university admissions officer know by looking at your transcript that you tried to get a good grade in calculus, but failed because you were taking care of three siblings while your essential worker parents were out making rent?

Besides academic disruptions, many of the sports, internships and other extracurricular activities that add shine to a student's college application have been cancelled or radically altered.

Steve Desir, who is finishing his dissertation at USC on diversity and equity in college admissions, said many colleges have posted information on their websites about how they're handling standardized test scores, or lack thereof, during the pandemic. But he said they haven't been as transparent about how students should handle other potential changes to their application, including grades, cancelled internships and truncated sports seasons.

"Context, in this setting, matters probably even more than it did in the past," he said.

Desir thinks colleges should be reaching out to high schools to request that they include information with transcripts about how the school has handled grading during the pandemic. He suggested they also request that writers of recommendation letters provide specific information about the pandemic's effects on the student they're recommending.

Mostly, Desir hopes students won't be expected to muddle through, alone, how to explain pandemic-related quirks in their application.

"[Colleges] need to be transparent with students about what they need to do in this time ... because if students are left on their own to figure it out, the students with resources are going to be the ones to craft the most powerful applications because someone's guiding them through that process. So once again, Covid has the opportunity to expand what was already existing inequities in the system."

Many College Applications Have Covid Questions. Use Them Well.

Many colleges and universities are inviting students to tell them how the pandemic has affected them specifically. Both the Common Application and the Coalition for College application, which students can use to apply to more than 1,000 colleges and universities, now have sections where applicants can share their experiences. (If you were impacted by wildfires, hurricanes or other natural disasters, you can also say so in this section.)

Screenshot of the Coalition for College application's optional COVID-19 question.

On other applications, like for University of California schools, you could use one of the essay prompts to talk about how the pandemic affected you.

"If your answer is I took care of my parents and I still got As, that's hugely important to us," said Dale Leaman, UC Irvine's executive director of undergraduate admission.

But also, you don't have to write about the pandemic.

If your pandemic-era record looks ... messy, college admissions officers say don't stress, they'll give extra care and consideration to evaluating prospective students' bona fides during the pandemic.

"We're going to be intentional in how thoughtful we can be in understanding students when they are applying for schools," said Jarrid Whitney, Caltech's assistant vice president for student affairs, enrollment and career services.

In an effort to ease college-bound students' stress during this beyond-stressful-enough time, some 300 deans and directors of admission at top universities and colleges signed onto a list of priorities they commit to sticking to when reviewing applications during the pandemic. Top of the list: Student self-care. The document reads:

"We recognize that many students, economically struggling and facing losses and hardships of countless kinds, are simply seeking to get by. We also recognize that this time is stressful and demanding for a wide range of students for many different reasons. We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time."

The other priorities are academic work, and service and contributions to others, including one's family. The admissions leaders said students would not be disadvantaged because of cancelled internships and extracurricular activities.

Read the full document:

Remember, You Had A Pre-Pandemic Life

Though it's sometimes hard to remember what life was like before the pandemic, most students had one. And colleges want to know about that, too.

"No one who wants to make themselves competitive [for college] is going to make themselves competitive in their senior year," said Janicia Centeno-Castillo, who coordinates the GEAR UP 4 LA college readiness program at Los Angeles Unified School District.

3. NO IRL COLLEGE VISITS = GREATER ACCESS FOR MORE STUDENTS?

College tours, at least in Southern California, are on an indefinite hiatus. So unless you're already familiar with the campus, you'll probably have to settle for virtual tours on college websites and yet more Zoom information sessions.

Desir worries that some students, especially those who would be the first in their families to go to college, won't be able to imagine themselves walking across a campus's quad and entering its stately buildings. "Just being present on the campus made something that was unfamiliar more accessible and a viable option for students," he said.

But on the flip side, he said, campuses forced to do all their outreach online "could potentially broaden access for folks because there are some students who don't have the ability to travel all over the country and all over the state to visit campuses where they might apply."

Though USC Admission Dean Brunold is sad that prospective students can't visit campus, he also sees some benefit in the school's ability to include more current students in their outreach.

"It's very difficult when we're out traveling the entire world in the months of September, October, November talking to prospective students because all our college students are on campus taking courses, they can't go out with us. One of the things these virtual visits are allowing for us to do is get the student voice, the current student voice, more front and center."

Lupita Martinez, with the USC College Advising Corps, helps Alhambra High School students with their college applications. All of her work has been virtual since the start of the pandemic. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The New Reality Of College Advising

On a typical pre-Covid school day, Lupita Martinez might have lurked outside an Alhambra High School classroom just before the bell and then pounced on a student who had been ignoring her emails about setting up a time to chat about post-graduation plans.

Now she tries every virtual way possible — email, Schoology, Google Classroom, text, Instagram, TikTok — to meet at least once with the more than 500 Alhambra students she and a colleague with the USC College Advising Corps are charged with advising.

Mostly, it seems, students like to ask her questions in the middle of the night. "They're up at like 1, 2 in the morning. Sometimes I forget to turn off my notifications and I'm getting emails at 2 a.m.," Martinez said, laughing.

Centeno-Castillo, the LAUSD Gear Up 4 LA coordinator, said trying to reach students virtually can be disheartening. "Sometimes it may take 20 or 30 or 40 times to connect," she said. It's doable, but it takes more people and more time.

The amount of college advising that high school students get already varied widely, pre-pandemic, depending on whether it's a public or private school and how well-resourced that school is, according to a recent report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Some student advocates worry that students — especially those from under-resourced schools and those who would be first generation college students — won't get the help they need in applying to college. "Students need to be handheld," said Brandi Odom Lucas, principal of Verbum Dei, a Jesuit college prep school in Watts. "There's so many ins and outs, there's so many changes in this pandemic year ... [students] really, really need someone that they can trust that can help guide them to where they need to be."

Here again, though, Odom Lucas said the pandemic has forced her school to make some positive changes in the way they help students through application season. Busy parents, she said, have been grateful to be able to Zoom in to things like financial aid workshops rather than have to travel to campus in person.

"We have a love-hate relationship with the pandemic. Because on one hand, of course it has completely disrupted so much of our school community. But on the other hand, it has required us to do things differently, and we have found that in certain situations those differences have actually benefited our community."

What worries Odom Lucas is not helping Verbum Dei seniors get accepted to college — the school's graduates have a near 100% college acceptance rate — it's whether those students will show up to campus on the first day next fall.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on many Americans' household incomes and on college and university finances. That means schools may have less financial aid to offer at a time when more students need more of it. "That will absolutely hit poorer students and students of color," she said. "It's that piece that keeps me up at night."

Reminder: forms for the 2021-22 school year for the Free Application For Student Financial Aid (FAFSA), became available on October 1. FAFSA makes $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and other aid available to students — but you have to apply.