Sally Port at Rice university

The college admission questions high school juniors face right now

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|04/05/2021|6 Minutes

As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Covid lockdown, the college admission season of the pandemic draws to its confusing and stressful end. In the last month, a stream of webinars and conference presentations have tried to parse this year’s impact on college admission for the coming year.

Added to the things we know to worry about, there are those remaining in the pipeline – stuttering government efforts to use vaccines to inject normalcy back into our lives; reminders that undergraduate admission is just one small part of the unfolding challenges for colleges to return to a sound economic footing and healthy campus lives for current students and faculty; and whatever we can learn from the admission decisions for the Class of 2025 that are now beginning to roll out.

No wonder then that high school juniors are gearing up to enter the fray feeling ever more fretful and unsure of what they face! The main concerns seem to be these:


Countless cancelations of SAT and ACT testing dates in 2020 forced most selective colleges to become test optional for the 2020-2021 application cycle. This raises many questions for current juniors:

  • Which colleges will remain test optional for another year or two before returning to pre-pandemic practices?
  • Which colleges, well aware that standardized testing amplifies inequity in access to education, will use the moment to ditch it completely (see, for example, the CHE interview with Andrew Palumbo, dean of admission at WPI, or the decision of the UC Regents, to understand why colleges might choose this path)?
  • What do colleges even mean with test optional and test flexible or test blind? Amidst many supportive platitudes, colleges have left families deeply confused about the role of scores in allocating scholarships, for example, or about how submitting high scores might still help in admission (after all, in the US News rankings, scores still count about 7% towards a college’s ranking!)?
  • Will other forms of standardized testing – AP tests in particular – end up playing a bigger role in admission and, if so, will colleges account for the ways in which access to AP testing might reflect school-specific limitations and reservations, or socio-economic bias?

Extra-curricular activities:

By asking for activity lists and essays on leadership, colleges prioritize a student’s potential impact on a future college community in their holistic evaluation of applicants. So,

  • Given that opportunities to do sports and service work disappeared for many young people during the shutdown, how will questions about community impact and leadership change?
  • Will admission officers recognize that while all high school students are in the same boat, some have been drifting along while others have found new ways to paddle?

Letters of recommendation:

Colleges that require one or more such letters set few rules as to who should write them, but recommend letters from junior and senior teachers in core subjects. For most teachers, though, current juniors are little more than small images in a Zoom gallery of faces (assuming cameras are even turned on!). Thus,

  • Is the difference between a good letter (diligence, hard work) and a stellar letter (intellectual depth, the skill to collaborate, a love of learning) more than the moment allows for?
  • How do students weigh getting the best possible letter from teachers who knows them well, against concerns that such a teacher might only have taught them in sophomore year?

Demonstrated interest:

The ability to predict yield has never been harder for colleges, and the ability to demonstrate interest never more so for prospective students. With tours of college campuses and high school visits by admission officers all but curtailed,

  • How will colleges “read” a student’s interest differently, and how much weight will they assign to this in their evaluation?

Academic preparation:

One of the more disquieting consequences of lockdown has been to students’ academic preparation. Rick Clark, director of admission at Georgia Tech, recently noted that some of this was already visible during the 2020 early application season. The degree of impact presumably depends on the quality of any school’s online teaching protocols, from private schools in the Bay area where students remained on the same daily schedule, to public high schools in Iowa where student learning was effectively suspended by a conflict between the governor and local school boards.

  • Will admission officers work to be informed about and account for these inequalities of access within each of their geographic regions?
  • Are colleges setting in place programs to help ameliorate such inequalities once students arrive on campus?

Come the Fall, most high school seniors will apply to colleges without actually knowing a definitive answer to many of these questions. It will be helpful for colleges to acknowledge these questions and, insofar as circumstances allow, give applicants clear answers. That might actually be the most supportive thing they could do help high school students navigate these unprecedented times.