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By Julia Glum
Updated: August 25, 2020 12:56 PM ET
Sam Island for Money

College admissions traditions like hand-writing essays, putting them into an actual mailbox and hoping for thick acceptance envelopes are ancient history.

And soon, rituals like taking the SAT may join them.

It’s no secret the pandemic put higher education in a tailspin, but it’s not only affecting current students. As U.S. high schoolers prepare to submit millions of applications to the nation’s colleges and universities, they’re facing an unpredictable admissions cycle. Everything from standardized tests to extracurricular activities has changed, upending the application process and making the already stressful experience of getting into college even more nerve-wracking.

“This will be a college search season like no other,” says Robert Massa, an adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

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Whether you’re a student, a parent, or a teacher, here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus crisis and college admissions.

Schools are going test-optional… kind of

Standardized entrance exams were losing favor to begin with, but the pandemic may have sped up their demise. Most spring and summer 2020 test dates were canceled, thwarting many students’ plans to take the exams one or more times before application season. And it’s a lingering problem: Only about half of the 402,000 students registered for the Aug. 29 SAT will be able to take it.

As a result, hundreds of schools have announced they’re going test-optional, at least temporarily. According to FairTest, an organization that tracks test-optional policies, over 60% of U.S. four-year colleges and universities will not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores in order to be considered for admission for fall 2021. Elite schools like Duke University, Brown University and Yale University have joined the list, as have entire state university systems like in California and New York.

In fact, 85 of the top 100 schools in Money’s Best Colleges ranking have announced test-optional admissions for the upcoming class of applicants.

This may sound cut-and-dried, but it’s unclear how it will actually play out.

The major issue is the fact that, unless a college has specifically declared itself test-blind, it’ll often still weigh scores students voluntarily send in. For example, Daniel Lee, cofounder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, says tests aren’t truly optional for students in certain groups applying to top universities.

Many colleges attempt to enroll a well-balanced class, trying to avoid admitting too many students of the same race or from the same location. (At selective colleges, that often applies to white applicants or applicants from some Asian backgrounds.) In these cases, because there are already way more qualified applicants than slots available, students who choose to share their strong scores may be more attractive admits.

“It’s a supply and demand problem,” Lee adds. “There’s an oversupply of overrepresented applicants with high testing, so if you’re overrepresented, you greatly hurt your chances by not submitting testing.”

Confused? You’re not the only one.

The mini test-optional movement is rattling high schoolers. They can’t tell whether they’re genuinely off the hook or if they should submit scores — and potentially risk their health — just in case. Though roughly 520 institutions have signed onto an open letter affirming that “they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score,” there’s still a lot of anguish among applicants.

Jayne Caflin Fonash, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, sympathizes with students. But she also urges them to prioritize their safety.

“I know it’s frightening … you’ve been told it’s important [your whole life], but all of a sudden this pandemic pulls the rug out from under that and the entire playbook is different,” she says. “All of us would encourage students never to put themselves in a situation where their health would be compromised just to take standardized test.”

Admissions officers will have to be flexible

The coronavirus crisis didn’t only bungle the SAT and ACT.

Advanced Placement exams, shortened and moved online in May, experienced tech glitches that left students shaken. Many districts traded the regular A-F grading scale for pass-fail systems. The outbreak even screwed up class rankings that indicate how well students perform when compared to their peers.

Colleges typically rely on these scores, grades and rankings to judge whether an applicant would fit in at their school. With the benchmarks compromised, they’re searching for other ways to measure students.

“Schools who were already seeing testing as a modest predictor of student success now don’t have that available at all,” Fonash adds. “They’re going to need to look for greater substance in the holistic admission process.”

READ MORE: THE BEST COLLEGES IN AMERICA, RANKED BY VALUE

Admissions officers will have to consider characteristics like empathy, problem solving and critical thinking. Those soft skills can be difficult to assess. In a normal world, these skills would be showcased in the internships, volunteer hours and summer jobs that appear on a student’s application. But those opportunities have disappeared, too.

There’s some good news, though: About 300 college admissions deans have signed onto an open letter vowing not to penalize students for not participating in extracurricular activities during the pandemic. The Common App has added a question inviting students to explain how the crisis has affected their “health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans and education.”

Mayssoun Bydon, founder and managing partner of the educational consulting firm Institute for Higher Learning, recommends students answer that question honestly and from the heart.

“Admissions officers are human, and they understand that all of this has taken a toll,” she says.

Cost is a bigger factor than ever

Just like you can’t talk about the pandemic without mentioning the recession, you can’t talk about college without mentioning the cost.

Fonash expects families to be extra cautious and deliberate with their education dollars this year. Students may think, “if I can attend a well-priced two- or four-year state institution, maybe that is the best way for me to pursue my undergraduate degree rather than going further away to a more selective school with a very high sticker price,” she says. (For their part, 57% of parents surveyed this past April said they wanted their children to enroll at a college less than 30 miles away.)

Families may be struggling with money, but so are colleges. As they juggle budget cuts, decreased enrollment and the cost of outfitting their campuses against coronavirus, some schools may find themselves needing to change their financial aid offerings.

Different types of college will handle the issue differently. USC’s Massa says wealthy privates and a handful of extremely-in-demand publics probably won’t adjust things much. Well-known but less well-endowed schools may increase merit aid, which is tied to achievements instead of need. Finally, less in-demand institutions will need to incentivize students to enroll by discounting their prices and increasing merit aid.

“Any time enrollment is threatened, colleges and universities are going to target their financial aid money to students who are going to bring them revenue,” Massa says.

State colleges, regional universities and big publics could reduce need-based aid. They’ll need to attract paying students with discounts.

In that situation, he predicts schools won’t necessarily cut down on how many low-income students they accept. Rather, they’ll likely offer less aid to each student, relying on families to bridge the gap.

“In order for those schools to afford to help very needy students, they need students who can pay,” Massa says. “In a very real way, they’re turning around tuition dollars: You pay to help someone who can’t.”

Say the cost of attendance is $30,000. If a college would offer a student $20,000 worth of aid in non-coronavirus times, this year it may only offer $15,000. And in order to make up that $5,000, the student may have to take out a bigger (or another) loan.

To mitigate this, Massa stresses the importance of applying to schools that are right for you — not shooting too high or too low based on your likelihood of getting accepted.

“If students apply right, they should be OK in the financial aid process,” he adds.

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It’s an opportunity for college admissions to evolve

A recent Axios poll found that 22% of college students are opting not to enroll this fall, with most of them planning instead to work full-time.

That, plus the (un)popularity of remote instruction, fear of catching coronavirus on campus and logistical hurdles for international students, could increase deferments this year. More students are coming off of universities’ waitlists this fall. With seats in the fall 2021 class already reserved by fall 2020 admits, new applicants may encounter more competition for the available spots.

There are several semi-silver linings like this.

READ MORE: THE BEST COLLEGES IN AMERICA, RANKED BY VALUE

Recessions are typically accompanied by graduate school booms, so students may be inspired to plan (and save) for that earlier in the process. They may seek out virtual mentorship and networking opportunities that were previously geographically impossible. Families could find themselves more willing to consider high-quality schools off the metaphorical beaten path because they’re closer or more cost-effective.

“For years, we’ve talked about fit — about finding the school that meets your needs academically, culturally, socially, going to a school where you have an opportunity to excel but not feel overwhelmed,” Fonash says. “Find a school with the intended major you’re looking for, the community you’re looking for, but find it at a price that’s more affordable for you.”

To that end, this is a perfect time to use your resources.

If you’re unsure whether to submit your SAT score to a college, contact them and ask what role it’ll play in admissions. If you’re unsure how to find schools in your financial range, reach out to your school counselor, an independent consultant or a community group that can help you navigate applications. Check out tools like TuitionFit, a service that helps students discover schools in their budget and compare financial aid packages.

The circumstances are certainly not ideal, but Fonash sees this as a chance to dial back some of the anxiety and fear students and parents have about college admissions. A lot of these trends have been in the making for a long time.

In that sense, the pandemic could actually end up making admissions more equitable, inclusive and affordable.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Never waste a crisis,'” she says. “It presents the opportunity to take a serious look at making the changes you’ve been thinking about for a long time, because the world is already turned upside down.”

This story has been updated to clarify Robert Massa’s comments on financial aid.

More from Money:

Money’s 2020-2021 Best Colleges Rankings

The Number of Students Taking Time off From College Doubled Due to Coronavirus

College and the Black Lives Matter Movement: How to Find a School That Values Diversity and Antiracist Policies

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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