How coronavirus has changed the college admissions process

Rebecca Hill is the executive director of the Better Future Foundation, which is currently providing college counseling to a group of low-income students at Charlottesville High School. PC: John Robinson Rebecca Hill is the executive director of the Better Future Foundation, which is currently providing college counseling to a group of low-income students at Charlottesville High School. PC: John Robinson

While schools are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, districts across the country have adopted alternative grading policies for the remainder of the academic year. Charlottesville City Schools’ middle and high schoolers who had a passing grade when schools closed on March 13 will automatically receive an A for each course, while those who weren’t on track to pass have been given online learning modules. Albemarle County has taken a different route, allowing high schoolers to choose between receiving a pass/fail/ incomplete or a letter grade.

For rising seniors applying to college this fall, these changes could make an already stressful process more challenging. How will colleges judge their academic performance during this unprecedented time? Will grades from this school year even matter?

According to college counselor Rebecca Hill, the answer is yes and no. It’s “still going to be necessary” for rising seniors applying to college to pass this school year. However, “because a lot of the school systems…have agreed to give students passes or A’s just for being able to complete work through March 13, final grades [won’t] have as much weight.”

While colleges will still take a critical look at students’ grades from before the pandemic, as well as the ones they receive in the fall (assuming schools are back in session then), they may place a heavier weight on other parts of their applications—including personal essays, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation—that demonstrate not just their work ethic, but their character as well.

Essay prompts, for instance, may ask students to describe what challenges they faced during the pandemic, and how they worked to address them, explains Hill. And students who found ways to help their community, such as grocery shopping for immunocompromised neighbors, might stand out among other applicants.

Colleges may also look for more ways students challenged themselves academically, both during the pandemic and throughout their high school careers,“whether that’s taking an online community college class [or] doing research for their own personal project,” says Hill.

But Hill acknowledges these changes may create more barriers for low-income students, who may not have the time or resources to be involved in their community or take on additional academic work.

Instead, they may have to work a part-time job, in addition to other responsibilities, in order to support their families.

“The jobs that work for them…don’t typically lend towards a lot of professional growth,” she adds. “But that doesn’t mean that…their essays won’t compel colleges to really think critically about what the particular circumstances were that they had to live through.”

Longtime counselor Parke Muth worries that college budget cuts could also put low-income applicants at a greater disadvantage. With universities currently “losing millions or, in some cases, billions from their endowment,” they may reduce their admissions staff, as well as offer less financial aid.

“If you say you’re going to look at [applications] holistically, but you have a smaller staff and resources, how do you do that?” says Muth, who worked in the UVA admissions office for over 30 years.

And at the many colleges that have gone test-optional for the next academic year (due to the ACTs and SATs being pushed back to June and August, respectively), it’s also unclear how schools will compare applicants with test scores to those without them, Muth points out. He encourages rising seniors to still take one, or both, of the tests—if they don’t get a good score, they can choose not to include it with their applications.

According to Adam Southall, a college counselor at Monticello High School, colleges have said that they aren’t going to hold students’ circumstances against them. While he is hopeful that admissions offices “will continue to do the same holistic practices they always have,” he remains concerned for marginalized kids.

“I have a feeling that it won’t be for another year that we see the educational fallout,” he adds. “Who got left behind?”

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