The College Admissions Process Needs to Change
By: Andrew Maglio
Last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, it left a wave of uncertainty in its wake. For high school students, this has been no more evident than with the host of changes to the college admissions process. Last March, the annual in-school SAT administration for the current senior class was cancelled. College Board ended up also cancelling testing in May and June. When the SAT became available again in late summer, demand was plenty. Rising high school seniors sought desperately to find an available testing center after months of preparation and disappointing cancellations. Continued limited capacity at testing centers and the ongoing health crisis continue to catalyze changes in students’ ability to complete traditionally critical college entrance requirements and force universities to re-evaluate how they conduct admissions.
Arguably the largest change has been the almost complete conversion of colleges to the test-optional model. With so many students either physically or logistically unable to take the test (or limited by health concerns), most major colleges have begun allowing students to apply without test scores. For the current senior class (class of 2021), all eight Ivy League schools and a number of especially popular schools for Conard applicants (1)—including the University of Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University— joined more than one thousand other colleges in waving this traditionally critical requirement.
The result? Many more students are applying to highly selective colleges. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s early applicant pool rose 62% this year while Harvard’s grew by a similar 57%! (2) For one school, the leap was absolutely astounding. Colgate University, a competitive college in scenic New York State, saw a more than 100% increase (3) in applications. But dorm space and campuses aren’t getting any bigger. Colleges will need to cope with a myriad of challenges presented by exponentially larger applicant pools while students’ decisions may be affected. Already, the Ivy League had decided to push back Ivy Day (the agreed upon day where all eight schools release their regular decisions) due to an inundation of applications. Spring will bring a number of anomalies, some of which we are already seeing. In fact, in December, when Harvard released their early admissions decisions, nearly 80% of applicants were deferred and less than 8% were accepted (4) —completely unprecedented!
More recently, the College Board announced that they would be discontinuing the SAT Subject Tests and SAT essay. (While effective immediately in the United States, international students will still have several more months to take these tests.) This announcement comes after years of declining importance of these two products, but it is nonetheless a pivotal change. Some schools throughout the country encouraged students to take two or more of these subject tests, causing students to spend considerable time preparing for another set of exams. Hopefully, these two reductions will allow students more time to work on other aspects of their application or just have more time to relax; clubs, sports, jobs, and keeping up with classes already require considerable time each week.
Some have speculated that due to the discontinuation of Subject Tests, AP exams may start to play a more active role in the admissions process. Subject Tests had long been a way to compare students’ content knowledge from across the world. An A at one school may not require the same effort as an A at another. Now, without this ability, AP exams could become a tool for comparison, a way for colleges to measure the content knowledge of students in a number of academic disciplines.
Already, changes that will affect the class of 2022 are materializing. In addition to the aforementioned SAT essay and subject test changes, a number of colleges have already announced test optional policies for the current high school junior class. Over the weekend, Harvard College joined the group, announcing that they too would not require the SAT for a second year. Harvard joins a rapidly growing list of colleges including Cornell, Penn State, Rutgers, and Williams. (5)
With many students unable or unwilling to submit standardized test scores and extracurricular activities limited by health restrictions, colleges will need to reconsider how they evaluate applicants. Although only speculation at this point, I believe the essay will begin to bear a greater weight in the admissions process, one factor that has been virtually untouched by the pandemic and recent changes. Perhaps one silver lining of the past year will be the reduction of increasingly demanding requirements and stress felt by students. By trimming what it is not necessary to college applications and emphasizing other more genuine, personal areas, college admissions may become a less stressful process for all students.