Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How The Coronavirus Has Upended College Admissions


The decision by the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences to postpone fall sports affected thousands of students. Even more students are affected by decisions about college admissions. In many cases, students have had to apply without standardized test scores and other metrics. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As one college expert put it, so many things that have been sacred in the admissions process aren't anymore. Students' applications may be missing not only SAT and ACT scores but also a semester or two of grades since schools closed or switched to pass-fail online, and sports, band, theater, volunteering and anything else that would help distinguish kids. It's all creating a seismic shift in college admissions.

KEDRA ISHOP: You know, we're careening down a very different path of the mountain that (laughter) we're not used to at the same time that the ground is still shifting underneath us.

SMITH: Kedra Ishop, who just left the University of Michigan to head admissions at the University of Southern California, is among those suddenly retooling systems that have looked basically the same for decades. It's especially complicated, she says, since different students might have different holes in their applications.

ISHOP: We've asked students to give us what they might have available to them. So you know, we may not normally use AP scores or, you know, writing samples. But we've told the students, give us what you think best represents you in an academic space. And let us see what we can do with that.

SMITH: By most accounts, students' recommendations and their essays will get a closer read this year. Though - pro tip - schools say do think twice before submitting 650 words on how you spent your COVID staycation. As Tulane University's admissions director Jeff Schiffman cautions, COVID fatigue is real.

JEFF SCHIFFMAN: I'll use myself as an example. I've had to cancel my wedding four times. So you know, everyone's going through something. And I don't think folks are going to want to have to relive it over and over and over again with 45,000 applications.

SMITH: But understanding that the pandemic has been a truly extenuating circumstance for many students, Schiffman and others will be paying close attention to a new short question added this year to the Common Application on how the pandemic has impacted each student. Some, like Tulane, are also adding a new interview option - by Zoom, of course - hoping to fill in for the face-to-face encounters that used to happen at college fairs and recruiting trips to schools. Others are leaning on more innovative options.


KHALIL JACKSON: To answer your question, I would have fun, go to the park...

SMITH: Bowdoin College recently rolled out an app that spits out random questions like, what would you do if you had no internet or phone for the afternoon? Applicants get 30 seconds to think and two minutes to answer as the app records, like it did for Kahlil Jackson (ph).


JACKSON: So without the Internet, I would be forced to make those connections with other people. And I'd, honestly, be happy to do that.

SMITH: Bowdoin's dean of admissions Whitney Soule says the unpracticed, unpolished view of students says a lot.

WHITNEY SOULE: Just the mere fact that a student's willing to do it is impressive, right? I mean, that in itself says something important about the student.

SMITH: As one school that was already test optional, Bowdoin is among those ahead of school's going cold turkey this year.

JONATHAN BURDICK: I just got off a Zoom with most of my admission directors. And they're all looking a little green at the prospect of what's before them.

SMITH: Cornell's admissions dean Jonathan Burdick says the admissions team will undergo months of retraining. One change this year may be to put more focus on students' character. The so-called character movement has been growing for a while. But the pandemic is fueling interest among many, including Temple University's admissions head Shawn Abbott.

SHAWN ABBOTT: We're thinking about how we might extract characteristics that we would value at Temple, something, perhaps, like citizenship or social justice or tenacity. But I think probably every college university in America right now is having that kind of soul-searching conversation.


JENNY RICKARD: So welcome to this important conversation related to how do we evaluate personal qualities as we move forward into this uncharted territory.

SMITH: This spring at the annual conference of the Common Application, CEO Jenny Rickard scrapped the planned agenda and, instead, invited Angela Duckworth, famous for her work on grit and other so-called character or non-cognitive skills.


ANGELA DUCKWORTH: Whatever you call them, the take-home message is that these things matter. And they, in some cases, matter as much as IQ.

SMITH: Duckworth advised schools how to mine students' applications for hints, but also warned them not to count on any convenient character yardstick.


DUCKWORTH: I think the challenges are enormous. And we're really in the kind of early, early stages of the measurement of personal qualities. And there is no kind of panacea. There is no...

SMITH: As chaotic as things may well be this year for colleges forced to find new ways forward, Angel Perez, who heads the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is hoping it will ultimately hasten a reinvention of the admissions process and expand college access. Though, he says, he's concerned about short-term ramifications.

ANGEL PEREZ: Are we going to widen the gap in higher education for those students that are disadvantaged in our society? And I think the answer is yes.

SMITH: It is possible that some of this year's changes may actually make the playing field a bit more level - for example, less reliance on standardized tests, which many see as biased. But Perez worries that wide discrepancies in access to the Internet and to college guidance counselors will exacerbate inequities. Already, it seems to have driven a drop in students filing for federal student aid. USC's Kedra Ishop says schools need to work out new ways to make sure those students are engaged and supported.

ISHOP: It'd be easy to take the easy way out, you know, which is that that doesn't work in this kind of environment, and so we're not going to do it. Instead, we really do have to double down on those efforts even though they may be a bit more difficult.

SMITH: But for all the challenges for colleges this year, Temple University's Shawn Abbott says the net-net for students may be a unique opportunity.

ABBOTT: We really haven't historically gone to that level of minutia detail in evaluating one's candidacy for admission. Now we're sort of going to have to. You're going to get a closer look and a chance to stand out in the admission process through other attributes.

SMITH: And here's one more pro tip for this crazy COVID year - because of all the uncertainty, schools say they may lean more heavily on early decision applicants this year. But there may also be more students in that pool. And here comes more uncertainty - given what's already missing from students' transcripts, more early applicants may end up deferred as schools want to wait to see one more semester of grades.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.


Corrected: August 16, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In a previous version of this story, we misspelled Mike Reilly's last name as Riley.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.