A College Application Year Like No Other

by Seth Kauffman ‘21

For high school seniors applying to college, the application process has looked a little different this year. Universities across the country have adjusted their policies to account for the academic challenges posed by the pandemic, but many students are still quite unsure about how their applications are being assessed.

Often thought to be the quintessential piece of a well-rounded application is a solid SAT score. However, when the pandemic hit, widespread SAT/ACT exam cancellations left thousands of students without a score they could submit to colleges. In response, many schools adopted test-optional policies, but the question remains about which parts of the application will be given more weight in the absence of these scores. 

Schools like the University of Virginia that review applications holistically take several factors into account when considering someone for admission. Even if a student was unable to take the SAT, they can demonstrate their worth through other areas, like courseload and extracurricular activities. The university always looks for “how applicants choose to engage with their school and their greater community outside the classroom,” according to Kristen Greer, an associate dean of admissions at UVA in an interview with The Warrior. Other schools have gone a step further and given students an opportunity to select which supplemental material they would like to put on their application.

For the University of South Carolina’s application, students are required to submit either an SAT/ACT score, three alternative exam scores (AP, IB), or a graded writing assignment. “We in admissions do not assign any greater value to one supplemental material versus another – they are all reviewed from the same starting point,” said Michael A. Burgos, a regional admissions representative for the university in an interview with The Warrior.

The University of Southern California is also experimenting with new approaches towards what students can submit. “We’ve asked students to give us what they might have available to them,” said Kedra Ishop, vice president for enrollment management at the university in an NPR article. Ultimately, students have the freedom to submit the material they feel best represents them.

The premature end to the 2020 school year caused students to miss out on sports seasons, club activities, and community service work, but this hiccup in extracurricular participation will not reflect badly on one’s application. “During our review process, no student will be penalized for a decrease in involvement during this past year,” said Burgos.

Furthermore, to account for the abrupt shift to online learning, some school systems opted to give students pass/fail grades for the semester instead of the usual letter grades. However, both UVA and South Carolina asserted that applicants will not be negatively impacted by this change. At UVA, “students will not be penalized for their school system’s decision, and we always review applicants within the context of their own school,” said Greer. But, the university does encourage students to submit their first quarter grades of their senior year so that admissions officers can get a glimpse of their performance in 12th grade.

In spite of truncated 2020 AP exams, the minimum score required for college credit has not been lowered. At UVA, a score of a 4 or higher on any exam is awarded credit, while at South Carolina it is a 3 or higher.

This year, the Common App added a new section to its application where students could share a little bit about the new challenges they faced because of the pandemic, whether it be losing a job, taking care of a sick relative, or having increased family responsibilities. At both UVA and South Carolina, students are encouraged to provide context for any circumstances that may have affected their academic performance, well-being, or their family’s financial situation.

Both admissions officers stressed the importance of taking care of oneself during these difficult times, and their beliefs reflect the collective opinion of college deans nationwide. Greer pointed to a letter signed by over 300 college admissions deans across the country, including UVA’s Dean of Admission, Greg Roberts—”the number one priority on that list? Self-care.”