Originally published in U.S. News on August 18, 2021.
How Recent Events Reshaped Admissions
Changes driven by COVID-19 include rethinking testing requirements, though such policies may not be as simple as they seem.
Josh Moody | August 18, 2021
Disruptions from the coronavirus have been the norm for more than a year in the U.S., prompting changes across higher education, business and numerous industries and walks of life as society grapples with the fallout of the ongoing pandemic.
Likewise, the U.S. has been shaken by social justice protests in response to the deaths of unarmed Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, which prompted millions of citizens to take to the streets en masse across numerous cities.
These dual challenges have forced those in higher education to reexamine many of their practices, from how they recruit students to how they play a responsible social role in a nation marked by visible inequity.
Changes forced by COVID-19 and a new social justice awakening are playing out on college campuses, especially in the admissions process, which has long been accused of being exclusionary at many schools. Now some see the chance to build a better system.
“Disruption often creates opportunity,” says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of admissions at the University of Houston.
Maxwell adds that COVID-19 and social justice protests “forced us to rethink the admissions process and what it means for college access – how students navigate systems and processes.” Such introspection, he notes, has prompted changes, such as many colleges making standardized testing optional and focusing on students holistically as well as providing more virtual options to connect.
Given the vast number of colleges in the U.S., those changes vary by campus. Here is what prospective students should know about how college admissions is evolving in a world reshaped by a prolonged pandemic and demands for social justice across the U.S.
How and Why Testing Policies Have Changed
Experts flag the shift to test-optional or test-blind policies as the biggest change in college admissions over the last year. There were 1,050 such colleges in fall 2019, according to data from FairTest, an organization that aims to reduce the role of standardized testing in college admissions. Now FairTest counts more than 1,600 test-optional or test-blind institutions for fall 2022.
Difficulty accessing the ACT and SAT were common in the early months of the pandemic, with numerous testing sessions canceled due to safety concerns. Limited access to these exams led colleges to suspend and rethink testing requirements.
“It really was a national movement, where over two-thirds of the public, four-year institutions basically declared themselves either test-optional, test-flexible, sometimes test-blind,” explains Clark Brigger, executive director of admissions at the University of Colorado Boulder, adding that the terms outlining testing policies can often be confusing for prospective students.
Test-optional allows students to decide whether they want to submit test scores as part of an application, Brigger notes. Test-flexible allows students to include results from other exams, such as International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement, or to submit other materials in lieu of a test score. Test-blind means scores are not considered if submitted.
Understanding testing policies can help a student plan his or her college application strategy. For example, a student applying to test-blind schools may wish to devote his or her energy to other parts of the application and skip hours of test prep for the ACT or SAT. Likewise, a student may want to omit a subpar score or flag a standout result when applying to a test-optional school.
Some admissions experts are concerned that test-optional policies don’t actually live up to their name.
“My advice is to assume that the test is preferred,” says Aviva Legatt, an admissions consultant and author of a college admissions book titled “Get Real and Get In.”
Legatt encourages students to take the ACT or SAT and submit those scores when applying to test-optional schools. That’s a perspective echoed by other professionals who feel that the additional data point of strong test scores offers an admissions boost.
“If two students from the same school are applying and they have similar extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, GPA, and one student submits a test score that’s perfect or near-perfect and one doesn’t, who is the college going to accept? Most likely the student with the test score,” says Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, an admissions consulting firm.
He adds that colleges, especially highly selective ones, want to see students taking the initiative to tackle the ACT and SAT.
“Otherwise, you’ll be at a disadvantage,” Rim says.
Beyond the possible admissions advantage that testing offers, there is also the matter of scholarships, which may be tied to ACT and SAT scores. Though the University of Colorado Boulder is test-blind for scholarships, Brigger encourages students to be aware of how testing factors into scholarships when applying to certain colleges and how not providing scores may pose a disadvantage.
“You can apply without test scores, but you’re not going to get their best scholarships unless you provide them,” Brigger says.
While views about test-optional policies differ, experts encourage students to recognize that each college is unique. With thousands of colleges in the U.S. higher education system, there are many different policies governing testing on each campus.
“I think we have to understand that one size doesn’t fit all,” Maxwell says.
Maxwell and Brigger stress that, at their respective institutions, test-optional lives up to its name. There have been actions across higher education to affirm that colleges honor their commitment and aren’t test-optional in name only, such as a statement issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling last fall that sought to ensure that students wouldn’t be penalized for applying to test-optional colleges without a test score.
“Standardized test scores are definitely not going away tomorrow, but they are starting to get minimized, especially at some institutions,” Legatt says. “That requires applicants to step forward more authentically than they ever have.”
That means a focus on other parts of the application is important. Experts encourage prospective students to showcase their personality and their passions, especially how they pursued the latter amid a world upended by COVID-19.
“A big part of what we’re going to see this upcoming round is how students explain how they’ve taken advantage of the past year and a half,” Rim says. “And if they’re rising seniors, they’re going to be explaining what they’ve done a little bit differently, a little bit out of the ordinary, in order to really explain to us both how they spent that time and also this current summer.”
How Colleges Are Rethinking Legacy Admissions
Some colleges have also reconsidered legacy admissions, a practice that gives an admissions advantage to family members of alumni. A common criticism of legacy admissions – although the practice is not as widespread or consequential as recent changes to testing policies – is that it offers a leg up to applicants from well-off families to the detriment of more qualified candidates.
One such example emerged from an admissions lawsuit against Harvard University in Massachusetts, when it was revealed that nearly 34% of legacy applicants were admitted from 2009 to 2015 compared with a roughly 6% acceptance rate for nonlegacy students during the same period.
Amid increasing scrutiny, some colleges and state legislatures have reexamined legacy admissions. Public colleges in California bar legacy admissions preferences, and Colorado recently became the first state to put a blanket ban on it. Brigger notes that the University of Colorado Boulder ended legacy preferences in summer 2020, a year before the state law was passed.
Overall, the issue is more pronounced at private colleges than their public counterparts. According to responses to a 2018 survey from Inside Higher Ed, admissions directors at 42% of private colleges said legacy was a factor, compared with 6% for public colleges.
Dropping legacy admissions, Brigger says, removes another barrier to college for some students.
Such a move may also prove popular with most prospective students. A student survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and released in July 2021 found that 79% of respondents favored ending legacy preferences in college admissions.
How to Approach the Admissions Process Now
With the full fallout of COVID-19 yet to be realized writ large in higher education and U.S. society, admissions experts encourage students to use their time wisely, present an authentic image of themselves on college applications and try to understand recent events. For example, news of record low acceptance rates at highly selective colleges is best interpreted in the proper context.
“Right now a lot of students and families are scared,” Rim notes, cautioning students to look beyond raw numbers for acceptance rates and understand that applications spiked at elite schools when testing requirements were eased.
Additionally, some students deferred admission due to COVID-19. “These data points are not necessarily telling the full truth, because there’s a lot of added info you need to understand because it was just really the most difficult year of admissions,” Rim says.
Like Rim, Legatt stresses authenticity. She devoted her recent book on admissions to the topic and urges prospective students to “have a clear, articulate, cohesive narrative” in their application that is backed up by letters of recommendation. Legatt also encourages students to think and work ahead if they want to get into a school with a notoriously low acceptance rate.
“Your best shot, if you want to attend a highly selective school, would be to put in an early decision application.”