Applying to College in the Age of COVID - Kingswood Oxford

Big Thinkers Blog

December 01, 2020

Applying to College in the Age of COVID

by Jami Silver, Director of College Advising


The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 continues to dramatically alter the college admissions landscape. Many of the methods and markers that colleges have traditionally used to evaluate candidates have been disrupted or de-emphasized. Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced recession has led both students and colleges to reassess their financial realities and priorities. 


While these shifts pose significant challenges for college applicants, they also provide the opportunity for students to discover, explore and communicate their unique interests and their true selves.


How the Pandemic Has Changed the Admissions Process 


Standardized Tests

Colleges have been reducing their reliance on the SAT and ACT for several years now, and the pandemic has dramatically accelerated this trend. Because in-person administrations of these tests have been greatly reduced, fewer students have been able to take them. As a result, many more colleges have now made these scores optional or discontinued their use altogether.



When secondary schools turned to online and hybrid learning last spring and this fall, students completed fewer tests, papers, and other assessments, and grading of necessity became more subjective and generous; some schools simply adopted a pass-fail system. Consequently, grades earned during the spring/fall semesters of 2020 are not always reliable indicators of achievement.



The suspension of traditional, in-person extracurricular activities, such as clubs, athletics, publications, and performances, as well as summer internships, academic programs and sports camps, has deprived students of certain opportunities to demonstrate to colleges their talent, breadth, creativity, and leadership.



While the cost of financing higher education has been skyrocketing over the years, the financial pressures of the pandemic have forced many families to reconsider the realities of paying for college. More students are applying for financial aid and prioritizing cost as a factor in deciding which colleges they apply to and choose to attend. At the same time, many colleges, facing diminishing enrollment and tuition revenue, have been forced to reduce the financial aid they offer.


Who Are You? What Can You Control? 

Students can no longer rely on the traditional checkboxes of the admissions process. Instead, students now have the opportunity to focus more intensely on what they love to do, why they love to do it, and who they truly are. The pandemic has provided students with more time to explore their authentic passions, whether it’s building and launching a model rocket, taking an online course through a Mooc (like Coursera), writing poems or short stories, starting a blog or podcast, volunteering at the election polls, or reading everything Dickens, Morrison or Wharton ever wrote.


How Students Can Communicate Their Passions to Colleges

The college essay and teacher recommendations continue to be important in evaluating applicants and offer an opportunity for colleges to “get to know the student” beyond traditional indicators. 


The essay allows students to convey their passions, personality, character and style. Through storytelling, introspection, self-revelation, anecdotes and humor, students can put an emphatic exclamation point on their unique imprimaturs. In supplemental essays, which are geared to specific colleges, students can show how their identity and goals mesh with the values and culture of the college.


Likewise, teacher recommendations celebrate not only a students’ intellectual and academic abilities, but also their enthusiasm, effort and character, especially in response to the challenges of online learning. 


Money Matters

A student’s answer to the question “Who am I?” is now likely to include “Which colleges can my family and I afford?” The economic consequences of the pandemic and the $75,000-plus costs of exclusive private colleges, have led many families to take a fresh look at less expensive public universities and to prioritize financial aid in choosing a college. While every family’s financial situation is different, it’s important that all students and parents think realistically and strategically as they try to match family resources with college costs.


The Process of Self-Discovery Continues

While many unknowns remain about what college will look like during the next few years or how the admission process will evolve, students will continue to have the opportunity to get to know themselves, how they define success and why they want to go to college. These aspects of the college process, while often overlooked, will remain very important.  

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