How Has COVID-19 Affected College Admissions?

If you’re a high school junior or senior, you may be feeling a lot of uncertainty right now. There are question marks around grades, testing, summer activities, and more. The biggest question of all may be, “How is COVID-19 affecting college admissions?”

It is impossible to have definitive answers when the situation is still evolving, but we’ve collected the most current information available about the shifts happening in the college admissions process. Some of the changes are big; others are smaller. Each student will be affected differently. If you have concerns or are feeling anxious about college admissions, please reach out to us. We’re here to answer your questions and help you plan for the future.

Here are some factors affecting the college admissions landscape right now:

Test Optional Policies

The testing landscape is changing. SAT and ACT exams in particular have been affected. All students, especially international students, have been deprived of many of the typical test dates that Juniors favor. As a result, some colleges are going test optional, which means they will not require SAT or ACT scores for applicants. Test-optional policies vary; some schools view it as temporary (we’re seeing 1-3 years) while others are permanently making the switch. Wellesley, Cornell, Tufts, BU, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the UC system are among the schools that have committed to test optional policies (see a complete list of schools here).

While the companies that deliver the SAT and ACT initially planned to create in-home testing by August, the College Board (which runs the SAT) revised its plan in early June. In-home testing raises concerns about inequity for students, cheating, and test validity.

Once a school has gone test-optional, there’s generally no going back. We expect most of the colleges with “temporary” test-optional policies to eventually make them permanent. Many big name schools have resisted test-optional policies for years, but there may be so much momentum and public outcry that a switch to test-optional admissions is now inevitable.

Colleges are releasing updates to their testing requirements on a daily basis. It’s a great idea for juniors to start working on their college lists now so that it can inform their testing strategy.

With all that said, not all test optional policies are created equal. Some schools

Lack of Grades

Students also face grading irregularities that may affect their college applications. Many high schools have turned the 4th quarter into pass/fail or credit/no credit formats. Fortunately, a vast number of colleges—both highly competitive and not—have released statements assuring students that they will not be penalized for the specific distance education decisions made by their high schools (such as moving to pass/fail).

However, students who were counting on final grades to bring up their GPA or demonstrate an upward grade trend are out of luck. Since grades won’t necessarily reflect academic achievement, some students are turning to tests like the SAT/ACT, SAT subject tests, or APs. In other words, even if colleges waive testing requirements, a large number of students may want to take one or more standardized tests anyway.

Many schools have said that transcripts and extracurricular commitments will also be considered in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown. We believe that colleges will rely more on grades and activities from before junior spring, as well as teacher recommendations, to make admissions decisions. Therefore, it is imperative that students try to stay engaged with their school work and maintain relationships with their teachers. Encourage them to finish the year strong!

Summer Programs Cancelled

Most programs are cancelled this summer, leaving students with few of the traditional options for enrichment or community engagement. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for students to have a meaningful summer experience. This blog post details the summer 2020 landscape.

Impacts on College Preferences

Students who are trying to build their college lists aren’t currently able to visit campuses. There are plenty of other ways to learn about a school, but visits provide tangible experiences with a visceral impact! As a result, students may feel unclear about their college preferences. If a student isn’t getting a distinct impression about a school from the website or a virtual tour, they do have other options. Students can try to connect with current college students or potentially “sit in” on a class online to get a clearer picture of the schools they’re considering.

At the same time, we are already seeing a trend toward spending less money on tuition and staying closer to home. Students may be looking more closely at the state schools nearest to them. Another advantage of larger state schools is that they tend to be more financially stable. All colleges are feeling the financial pinch right now (lost sports revenue, giving refunds for room & board, etc.), and families may feel that banking on a small college without a big endowment is too risky in the current circumstances.

Uncertainty About On-Campus Instruction in the Fall

As of now, we do not have a cure, vaccine, or even adequate testing for COVID-19. Many colleges are already considering their contingency plans for the fall semester, which affects seniors who have been accepted and may have already chosen a college. Policies will likely vary on a state-by-state and school-by-school basis, but options being considered include:

    • online instruction for the fall
    • delaying the start of the fall semester by a month or two
    • not holding classes at all until 2021 (this would be an extreme case)
    • some hybrid of the above

Enrollment Expectations

Between family financial challenges, uncertainty about on-campus instruction, and even the changes in student preferences, colleges are uncertain how many students will actually enroll come fall. International students who would typically come to the US for schooling may also be deterred if the COVID-19 situation is not significantly improved by the end of summer.

On the one hand, lower enrollment numbers could mean good news for seniors who were waitlisted or students who want to transfer. However, if transfers and waitlisted students can’t make up the shortfall of students, then colleges can’t meet their enrollment goals and their entire operating budget suffers. As a result, schools may cut classes, furlough professors, or shutter special programs (in some cases, schools may close altogether).

What About Gap Years?

The uncertainty around when and where fall semester will take place is causing some students to consider taking a gap year after graduation. A student is typically able to defer their admission for one year after acceptance. However, if school is completely online in the fall, then it stands to reason that most of the traditional gap year activities will also likely be limited or impossible.

In addition, we have heard rumblings that some colleges are considering dis-allowing gap years in 2020 (with exceptions). Due to financial and enrollment considerations, colleges may want to push students to attend (possibly remotely) this fall rather than deferring. If they opt to go this route, some colleges will NOT hold a student’s spot and will make them reapply. If you are considering a gap year, be sure you have confirmed the latest version of the school’s deferment policy.


Although you may be physically distant, there is still plenty of support available to you. If you have questions or want help making admissions decisions, reach out to their college counselor/advisor—or contact us for assistance. If you need someone to lean on, we’re here for you. Connect with us at or 617-714-5262.

Keep in mind that there may not be a perfect solution to the college admissions quandary right now. When in doubt, go with your gut. The best fit school is the one that matches your overall educational and career goals. While the COVID-19 pandemic will change some aspects of education permanently, we won’t be in this situation forever!

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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