This time last year, many of us were speculating about how the pandemic would affect college admissions. Applications were bound to look different as classes moved online, extracurricular activities were cancelled, and colleges adopted test-optional policies. With an admissions cycle now behind us, we can examine the trends and give you some advice about how to stand out in your applications.
We were especially eager to see how widely adopted test-optional policies would affect admissions decisions. Happily, “optional” seems to really mean optional. When we spoke with admissions deans from Stanford and Barnard, they reported that the lack of test scores didn’t have a significant impact on their admissions process. About half of their applications were submitted without scores, and about half of admitted students did not submit scores.
The test-optional policies did have some interesting effects on the makeup of applicant pools and first-year classes though. Highly selective colleges and universities saw dramatic increases in applications, and in particular, more diverse applicant pools. This increase in diversity is now being reflected in the incoming class.
Strategically though, we do want to urge students to sit for the SAT or ACT if they’re able to. If you have scores that are within or above a school’s range, it adds another encouraging piece of data to an otherwise strong application. You can always choose to send scores to some schools and not others! If you’re thinking now about whether to sit for standardized tests and which might be best for you, check out our recent guide to the SAT and ACT.
Admissions officers understand that a lot of activities were cancelled or altered during the pandemic. Even now, plans for summer programs have changed. Rather than throwing yourself into something new, seek out creative ways to pursue the activities you already care about. Clubs have moved meetings online, theater and music groups have performed on Zoom, and lab projects have turned into curated reading lists. But as long as you find ways to stay engaged, colleges will notice.
And don’t discount the things you do at home! Community service has always been valued by colleges, but a lot of students forget that taking care of family members or working to provide family income are important ways to help others. Family connections are some of the deepest and most meaningful. If you had to take on extra duties at home in light of the pandemic, colleges will commend you for that dedication and responsibility.
We know that the move to online and hybrid learning models was hard on some students (and teachers!). Everyone had to adjust to new expectations and missing the excitement that comes from a lively in-person classroom. Some students were also disproportionately affected by inadequate technology or a home environment that made online learning more difficult.
If your grades suffered during this time, it’s understandable. Colleges have assured students that their grades will be considered in context. This includes looking at academic performance before and after the shift to distance learning. Of course, colleges still want to see that you’re taking a rigorous course load, and ideally, doing well. But the past year was highly unusual, and admissions officers know that your performance may not be representative of your abilities.
Essays and Letters of Recommendation
These opportunities to demonstrate your character will matter more than ever. Your personal statement and supplemental essays show colleges who you are beyond GPA and test scores. And letters of recommendation can tell colleges a lot about how you’ve grown, adapted, and sought out challenges or opportunities. These are the materials that will say the most about the kind of person who will be walking onto a college campus in the fall. Be thoughtful about what you include and take a look at our guides to brainstorming the college essay and how to get great letters of recommendation.