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Holistic college admissions during quarantine

June 2020

In the spring, teachers around the world completed the formidable task of moving instruction entirely online. As a result, many high schools instituted some form of a Pass/No Pass grading system. More than nine million students (17% of K-12 students nationwide) lack a reliable computer or internet connection, so this change served to ensure a more equitable grading system. Additionally, most extracurricular activities and events have been cancelled or impacted by the quarantine. This article delves into how these changes will impact college admissions and how you can make the most out of those changes.

What are colleges saying about these changes?

First, I'll start by sharing what some elite colleges are saying:

They will continue reviewing applications holistically.

  • "We are committed to a holistic review, in which we look at your whole application, not just the quantitative pieces." - Princeton University Admissions

They will not disadvantage students who have Pass/No Pass grading or those whose extracurricular activities have been limited.

  • "The Pass or Credit grade in spring and summer 2020 will continue to meet A-G requirements for any student currently enrolled in high school during the 2019-20 academic year." - University of California Admissions
  • "Students who find themselves limited in the activities they can pursue due to the current coronavirus outbreak will not be disadvantaged as a result." - Harvard College Admissions

They encourage students to provide context for how the pandemic has affected their opportunities and their academic performance.

  • "[Our] application platforms provide ample space to provide contextual information that can help the Committee understand the factors that shaped students’ opportunities and commitments." - Yale University Admissions

They do not expect applicants to take the ACT/SAT more than once

  • "While applicants will still be expected to submit standardized test results as part of their application, we know you might not have the opportunity to take these tests multiple times.” - Princeton University Admissions

Regardless of the pandemic, they are still looking for the strongest applicants.

  • "Overall, we expect you to maintain the quality of your character and to finish strong in the grading method your school adopts in light of unfolding events." - Stanford University Admissions

What is holistic admissions?

To understand how the changes in grading, testing, and extracurriculars will affect college admissions, it’s important to have a baseline understanding of holistic admissions. This is a big topic, which I addressed in this article . The short version is this: Your test scores, GPA, and course rigor must be strong enough for you to even be considered. If the college is highly selective, the other components of your applicant must also be exceptional. So, “holistic” doesn’t mean that amazing community service work or an exceptional essay can make up for subpar grades and test scores. It means that your whole application needs to be strong.

How will the pandemic actually affect admissions?

For the most part, colleges are still looking for the same things when comparing applicants. College admissions is ultimately about comparison, as schools want the strongest students whom they think will actually attend. (Yes, some colleges reject or waitlist students who they think are overqualified, because they think those students are unlikely to attend.) Below, I dig into how changes in grading, testing, and extracurriculars will advantage or disadvantage certain students.

Since many students did not receive letter grades for the spring semester, application readers will focus on each student's overall GPA and course rigor. This change is favorable to students who took an exceptionally rigorous course load. These students get the benefit of having strong course rigor on their transcript, without the downside of potentially tanking their GPA. This change negatively impacts students who had lower 9th and 10th grade grades, but who would have seen an upward trend in their GPA if letter grades had remained.

How to take advantage of this change: If your school continues to have a Pass/ No Pass grading policy, take the most challenging classes that you can. If you would have seen an upward trajectory in your grades if not for the grading policy change, then put your efforts into improving other aspects of your application, especially your test scores.

To start, I recommend reading Should I still take the ACT/SAT and 8 things you need to know about the ACT/SAT during the pandemic.

Due to the cancellation of many test dates, fewer students will be able to take the ACT/SAT multiple times. In my experience, students generally improve their score with each subsequent test, as long as they study sufficiently. (See Will studying actually improve my score?) As a result, the average ACT/SAT scores will likely dip a bit from recent averages, and the overall score bell curve will look a little different as well. Colleges are still looking for students with the strongest test scores, but they may update their application evaluation rubrics to slightly lower their score cutoffs for "strong" and "borderline" scores.

How to take advantage of this change: There is no way for a reader to know how well you would have scored on your second or third SAT/ACT. If you have only one shot at the test, study properly, be prepared to deal with test anxiety, and if possible, get help from a tutor.

As I mentioned in the post on holistic admissions, colleges are looking for students who take initiative, show resilience, explore their intellectual curiosities, demonstrate leadership, and achieve impressive accomplishments. While your normal activities and events have been disrupted, you can still find meaningful ways to help out your family and give back to your community.

Changes in your family’s financial situation may mean that you now have to work to help your family financially or provide childcare for siblings or cousins. Some students have the impression that these activities do not "count." But, these responsibilities show an incredible amount of resilience and maturity. I know it feels unfair to shoulder these responsibilities, especially when your friends seem to lead more carefree lives. One small consolation is that colleges want students with these kinds of stories, but well-qualified students who have experienced financial hardship typically do not apply to elite colleges. (At Ivy League schools, almost 4 times as many students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 20 percent.)

How to take advantage of this change: Look for opportunities to help people in your community affected by the pandemic and the economic downturn. Look for opportunities to solve issues affecting your neighborhood. Know that if you have increased financial or family responsibilities because of the pandemic, colleges want to know your story. For ideas on ways to give back during the pandemic and other passion project ideas, check out this post.