College Outlook in a Pandemic

An interview with Katie Ryan, CWA Director of College Counseling

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives during this past year. For high school seniors across the country, this has meant remote learning, limited opportunities for activities, and the loss of all the rites of passage and traditions that are part of senior year. Of course, their college admission processes were also impacted as the pandemic sparked changes to the college admissions landscape and notable trends in application numbers. CWA Director of College Counseling Katie Ryan has some insights to share about what she has observed this year and what changes for college admissions will carry into the future. 

We’ve heard a lot about new options and requirements regarding standardized tests. What can you share about how colleges are considering these traditional assessments this year? 

In general, there was a decreased emphasis on standardized tests in the college admission process this year. Because many students were unable to sit for standardized tests last year, virtually all colleges and universities made SAT and ACT scores optional for the Class of 2021.  

Do you see this as a trend going into the future?

Yes, I do. For the Class of 2022, virtually all higher education institutions have already announced that testing will not be required. For some institutions, this was a change already on the horizon that will now be permanent.  Others announced 2 or 3-year trials of test-optional admissions to study the issue before settling on a final policy.  Although it’s likely that some colleges will return to requiring SAT or ACT scores after access to testing resumes for all students, what I’ve heard from colleges is that they felt able to make good decisions without the use of scores this year.  Therefore, I see standardized testing continuing to diminish in importance in the future.    

What will replace testing in the college admissions process?

In place of scores, factors such as grades and curriculum, letters of recommendation, and student essays will take on greater importance. A small number of institutions, including the University of California system, have implemented what is known as “test-blind” admissions, meaning that they will not be considering test scores for any applicants. This year, the University of Washington did not include test scores in their evaluation process except for a small number of applicants, and they will continue to be test-optional in the future. Selective colleges have always evaluated students’ academic performance in the context of their high schools and backgrounds. What we heard from our admissions colleagues was that they dug even deeper into that context this year without test scores to use as a benchmark, using information gleaned from school profiles, recommendations, and essays to understand each student’s story.   

How has the removal of standardized test scores impacted applications to the most selective colleges? 

The Ivy League and other most selective colleges reported staggering increases in application numbers and extraordinarily low admit rates this year. Harvard’s applications increased by 43%, bringing their already low admit rate down to 3.5%; MIT had a 66% increase in applications and a 4% admit rate, and UCLA’s applications were up by 23% for a record high of over 140,000 students applying. These increases in applications were attributed to the removal of SAT/ACT scores as a requirement.  

Many of these same colleges also saw an increase in applications from students of color and low-income students. Therefore, many of the most selective colleges have proudly announced that they admitted more heterogeneous classes than in past years. 

In contrast to these application increases, many less prestigious institutions experienced downturns in application numbers and are having difficulty filling their incoming classes. Occurring along with other financial strains caused by the pandemic, this is a worrisome trend for many institutions of higher education in the U.S.

Finally, given the limitations on in-person visits by prospective students this year, do you see online programming for admissions information continuing?

Even as campuses reopen, much of the innovations from this year will continue. In place of in-person visits, university and college admission offices will offer robust online programming such as virtual tours, information sessions, student and faculty panels, and ZoomTM meetings with admission officers. 

For more information about changes to college admissions, please take a look at these resources. 

New York Times

Elite Universities Welcome More Diverse Freshman Class

Washington Post

Pandemic scrambles college admissions, with new test-optional rules and surge in applications

Yale University Admissions Office

Dealing with Decisions by YaleUniversity

2021 College Admission Rates bar graph
Learn More About Charles Wright Academy

Charles Wright graduates attend a wide variety of colleges and universities in all parts of the U.S. and abroad. This list includes all of the schools to which our seniors were accepted in 2021. Bolded names indicate matriculation.

Class of 2021 College Map