Did COVID-19 make higher education accessible?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people came to expect substantial changes in the education sphere, particularly in US colleges. It’s true that more institutions than ever are now test-optional, offering students a chance to apply without submitting SAT and ACT test scores. Consequently, the number of colleges and universities that made standardized tests non-obligatory grew from 1000 to 1600 in the US. Moreover, this strategy has increased the number of freshmen applying to the top schools.

So, is a meaningful change in college admissions really happening? In other words, do test-optional colleges enable students to sidestep taking the ACT and SAT? As an addmission coach and the founder of the Odyssey College Prep program, I’d like to share my own perspective on this topic.

Why colleges and universities go test-optional

As in every industry, the pandemic forced competitive colleges to adapt. However, in college admissions, these changes were small, not dramatic overhauls. That’s why most universities and colleges alter their marketing strategies far more than the ways they made their admissions accessible to incoming freshmen. In this context, becoming test-optional is not a tangible practice that students can seriously rely on to help them get into their dream school. Contrastingly, it’s a buzzword meant to ensure more students apply to these colleges despite the pandemic. Although more and more universities are currently going test-optional, it’s more of a trendy advertising strategy than a change intended to support newcomers.

In fact, test-optional admissions allowed colleges to craft marketing campaigns that attract more potential students than before. More applicants means more admission fees, as students submitting applications, on average, pay around $50. The real numbers show that Harvard received 40,248 applications last year as compared to 57,435 this year

This spike in applications provided Harvard University with more than $1,000,000 of potential profit through admission fees alone. Although this policy puts the universities first, the test-optional process began as an experiment to help marginalized and underrepresented students. So, has this phenomenon helped or hindered underrepresented students?

Should students take admission tests?

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Making tests non-obligatory: Pros and cons

If you search the web to understand test-optional, you are likely to encounter an ocean of misinformation. From what I can tell, there’s only one positive asset that has sprung from the test-optional movement. Test-optional colleges make students more likely to apply to college. In other words, a student who didn’t intend to apply to college may make the decision to try. So, this could lead to more students attempting to pursue higher education. However, we’ll need to wait on the data to see if that’s the actual case.

However, Matthew Larriva, a published expert on this topic, distills the data we do have on test-optional colleges down to these basic facts.

Larriva argues that, so far, test-optional policies are not beneficial for underserved students, and peer-reviewed studies confirm it. There’s still not enough data to discard this approach entirely, but the new policies clearly do not help freshmen the way they claim right now.

Additionally, the test-optional approach doesn’t guarantee that getting into competitive colleges will be easier. Thus, a student who submits competitive test scores will have an advantage over students who don’t.

At the core of this issue lies one unspoken question, does a student still have to take the ACT or SAT? Well, for the most part, yes. Yet, there is one exception.

Who must take the SAT and ACT?

First of all, nobody has to take the SAT and ACT unless they want to apply to a school that requires them. So, it comes down to the college a student wants to attend. However, there are some colleges that choose to remove test scores completely from the application process. Incidentally, these schools are called test-blind colleges.

Let’s do a quick comparison between test-optional and test-blind policies.

  • Test-optional institutions: colleges that don’t require ACT or SAT scores.
  • Test-blind institutions: colleges that remove ACT or SAT scores from the admissions equation, and often won’t even let students submit them.

It’s vital to know the difference between these two admissions styles. With test-blind colleges, test scores truly don’t matter. Test-optional colleges are a different story. Does an applicant with no test scores have better chances for acceptance with test-optional? As it turns out, applying test-optional gives the students no tangible benefits compared to students who submit test results. Thus, there’s no evidence whatsoever that test-optional admissions make entering competitive colleges easier.

If students and parents really want to take test scores out of the picture, test-blind colleges are their best bet. Sadly though, there are only a little more than 40 test-blind colleges in the US. What’s more, even if a college is test-blind, few honor colleges will provide a freshman with a scholarship or an academic fellowship without requiring their SAT or ACT score first.

Getting ready for exams

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How will colleges assess the applicants if test scores are gone?

Usually, there are 6 components that determine if an applicant enters a competitive college. Removing test scores, we end up with 5 application elements.

  1. Having a high Grade Point Average (GPA)  is pretty straightforward. A high GPA is the foundation for making a student academically competitive. Excellent grades demonstrate a track record of academic achievements. Consequently, colleges want students who maintain a high, unweighted GPA to attend their institution.
  2. There’s also course rigor, an important factor that gives a competitive context to a student’s GPA. Essentially, course rigor showcases how advanced and academically challenging a student’s classes are. A student with a high GPA but who took easier classes will be far less competitive than a student who may even have a slightly lower GPA but who takes many advanced classes.
  3. Next, we have College Admissions Essays, which show what kind of person a student is outside the classroom. Schools care very much about an applicant’s essays, as an essay allows a college to see a student’s character in addition to their grades. That’s why an applicant should never write their essays hastily or as an afterthought to their application. Lastly, college essays are essentially the only part of an application that the student is in complete control of.
  4. Coming in at number four, we have recommendation letters. Like college admission essays, preparing recommendation letters is often an afterthought for many students. However, they’re very important. Admission officers read these with careful consideration, as they show the kind of impression a student has made on teachers and mentors.
  5. Finally, students have to explain how all these elements function together in their application narratives. This is where a student’s extracurriculars, coursework, hobbies, and essays all converge to show a college one’s talents and strengths. Imagine a student who enjoys working with plants. They could incorporate that into their application narrative. They declare a major in horticulture or ecology, have volunteer experience at their community garden, and take advanced life science courses. See what’s happening? Their application is telling a story. Every student needs a mix of talent, skill, and previous accomplishments to make the admission officers understand why they have to accept this individual.

Every item on this list is equally important. Yet, to enroll at an elite college or win a competitive scholarship, they must all work together. However, there are other skills, more underrated but no less vital, we should also consider.

Why soft skills are vital

I see the term “soft skills” as another way to say “life skills.” We start learning these skills long before college and we use them far after. For example, one of the most important soft skills a student should develop is networking. You see, networking is a crucial skill that benefits students before, during, and long after they finish college. However, networking is not accumulating phone numbers or acquaintances. For a student preparing to enter college, networking is about finding mentors and earning their respect.

These mentors ideally should possess professional expertise in the student’s desired career. If a student can do this, they have an edge over other applicants. For example, let’s go back to the student interested in plants. They could find an ecology professor at a nearby university, publish some research under them and make an impact on the flora in their community. When the time comes, guess who will attest to the students’ brilliance, passion, and work ethic in a recommendation letter? Yes, their mentor.

Completing a guided project like this becomes the application narrative’s climax. In addition, such experiences help students build immeasurable confidence.

Likewise, students should see their teachers in a similar light. The teachers in the classes connected to a student’s career interest are most significant. Again, developing meaningful relationships with teachers means receiving memorable college recommendation letters. If these mentors see the future applicants as worthwhile, they will also help them get more publicity by entering competitions or volunteer programs, potentially earning a spotlight in a local newspaper. This way, multiple people will confirm that a student can increase the university’s value by studying there.

Soft skills are super important

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Do we really need a new admission process?

It might surprise you, but I can’t say that college admission is as villainous as many proclaim. A college’s competitiveness is not always the admissions department’s fault. I know many college admissions counselors who do the impossible every admissions season, reviewing more than 100 applications a day. Can we really hold them responsible for all the decisions that colleges make? I don’t think that would be rational. Still, I see two ways how colleges could change their policies to meaningfully affect the admission process.

  • Straightforward marketing could clarify what schools need in terms of student numbers. For instance, a college could let future applicants know that this year they may need more engineering or humanities majors. Unsurprisingly, this helps both the students and the university. In this example, a student gains an insight into the college’s admissions process and colleges are more likely to get a pool of applicants that align with their needs.
  • Better transparency is another way to increase freshmen flow, especially when it comes to what qualities students need to possess. Currently, students often need to search “common data set” combined with a university name to find out about this, which doesn’t seem right because many people just don’t know these tricks.

Most importantly, these changes could make it easier for low-income students to enter colleges, helping the noble cause that allegedly inspired test-optional policies in the first place. Admission officers and other academic professionals can participate in developing the overhauls like this, identifying changes that fit their institution’s mission and needs.

Bottom line

The near future will probably bring no dramatic changes to the admission process. There’s no way for all schools to enforce the same policy because each college has its own practices and goals, doing what’s best for their individual admissions system. However, I expect that test-blind admissions could be a game-changer. Test-blind may slowly become adopted by more universities. Tragically, test-optional colleges will continue to be lauded as the great innovation in college admissions for a while longer.

Whatever the case, I hope that this article helped you understand how it works and what you should do to increase your chances for acceptance. Overall, in addition to strong test scores, reliable mentors, and a strong combination of GPA, course rigor, excellent essays, excellent recommendation letters, and a compelling application narrative can get students admitted into their dream schools.

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Marc Gray
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Marc Gray is the founder of the Odyssey College Prep program. As the director of education, he helps parents and students simplify college planning. His enterprise aims to give parents who are overwhelmed by the endless decisions of college planning a stress-free and comprehensive solution. Marc also helps students discover and enhance their talents through advanced aptitude testing, ensuring that they can develop them into practical skills to use while building their dream careers.