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In a Nutshell: Things to know about College Admissions during the current Global Pandemic

By Aparna Paul

The college search process is both exciting and nerve-wracking. It’s a time when students imagine what the next four years of life could bring. But with the naissance of a global crisis, the college admissions process is now fraught with even more unfamiliar challenges. Whether an underclassman is on the hunt for the perfect college or a senior is taking steps to finalize details before heading to their home away from home, many questions remain unanswered. Will students head to college campuses this fall? What will the next year look like?

During Virtual Regeneron ISEF, Allie Stifel, Director of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, moderated a panel with representatives from four educational institutions, to discuss “how students can present their best selves” in the current climate and talk through what to look out for during the college admissions cycle. Panelists included Chris Peterson, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at MIT; Brenna Heintz (ISEF 2006), Senior Assistant Dean of Admissions at Swarthmore College; Ingrid Schvarczopf, Associate Director of Engineering Student Recruitment & Retention Office at the University of Toronto and Taylor Pondy, Admissions Officer at University of California San Diego. Below are some key learnings from these admissions experts.

College applications will be evaluated within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As high schoolers peruse colleges, panelists advised thinking about safety first. Chris told college prospects, “The most important thing you should be focusing on right now is taking care of yourself, your family and your community. Do not worry too much about the college search.” He added, “I don’t think there’s going to be anybody who is going to evaluate college applications in the next couple of years in a context-free zone.” Ingrid echoed Chris’s perspective.“You will not be penalized because there was a pandemic and there were things you could not accomplish.” She shared that the University of Toronto is pivoting application evaluation and making materials and resources available virtually to assist students. 

Colleges will base entry on “holistic admissions,” not grades alone.

During the panel, Allie posed a question of paramount student concern in the wake of COVID-19: “Many high schools were not able to issue letter grades for the spring semester. Some schools froze the grades at a certain point and students couldn’t raise them. Some students were awarded a pass or incomplete instead of a letter grade—we know this impacts GPA and class rank. How will colleges approach this conundrum?”

Brenna answered this question, using a phrase called “holistic admissions,” where students are evaluated on all parts of their application—it’s not just about grades, but also essays, recommendation letters, standardized test scores or participation in science fairs, like ISEF. Brenna elaborated that, “If your school has decided to go pass/fail, and they have never done that before, we will never penalize you for that. That’s how we will look at grades in particular.” She underscored that applicants have sufficient opportunity to explain exceptional circumstances—including grading during COVID-19— through either their high school’s profile, essays or the common app. Taylor, added that when it comes to grades, students are still encouraged to, “Take rigorous courses and if you feel comfortable taking an AP course, even if you can’t take the exam, that is something that we would still love to see because it shows dedication.”

Boost your application and prepare for college by developing skills online.

Clearly, the world has gone virtual. Ingrid advises students: “If there are ways for you to bridge the gap and develop certain skills, we recommend accessing resources online.” As an example, she shared that her university created a free online academy to meet the needs of incoming engineering students. “It’s self-paced, no credit and focuses on three critical courses that are important for our engineering school—physics, chemistry and calculus.” The program was developed to help accepted students transition from high school to college who might feel they lost an essential portion of their course curriculum due to COVID-19.

Standardized tests may not be available. Many schools are going test-optional.

In order to keep students safe and abide by CDC guidelines, standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are being offered less or being cancelled all together. In response, many universities are going test-optional; students can find out more by reaching out to schools directly. Brenna shared how Swarthmore is changing their requirements. “We used to require the SAT or ACT from all of our applicants, but now we aren’t for the next two years.” When schools go test-optional, students will not be penalized for not including standardized test scores, but not all colleges are adapting in the same way, so students should reach out to the admissions offices. 

Pay attention to how your top-choice colleges are responding to COVID-19.

Chris said MIT has responded as a caretaker in the Boston and Cambridge communities. The University has converted one of its gyms into a hospital while dorms are being used as housing for first responders. “I’m hopeful that institutions, like ours, can continue to find a way to provide public benefit, beyond how are we going to get our tuition.” Brenna agreed that students should turn an eye towards how an academic institution is “taking care of its own community during this time. What resources have universities offered to their students?” Not everyone can adapt to online learning without laptops or Wi-Fi at home. “Did they take care of students who did not have a safe place to go?” Did the university help financially when they were told not to return to campus? The way that a school is responding during COVID-19 will give prospective students insight into how they will be treated when they decide to sign on the dotted line.

“Don’t be shy.” Reach out to a college or university admissions at schools to get specifics.

There is not one answer when it comes to how grades, scores and requirements will be treated during the pandemic. Chris said that many answers to student questions are: it depends. He recommends that students reach out to a school’s regional representative. “Do not pay attention to other stressed out teens,” he added. He explained that students should avoid negative social media chatter and be skeptical of what is posted on third party sites to define their own potential for admission to a certain school. Instead he advised they go directly to the university for accurate answers.

If you want to learn more from the Admissions Panel, register today for Virtual Regeneron ISEF to view the full session on our online platform through June 5.