College Admissions and Finance Awards

by Emily Toffelmire, former admissions officer at University of Southern California

This is part two in our award series. Check out our previous post and stay tuned for part three.

The 2020-2021 admission cycle has been a beast. It’s caused even more anxiety and stress than would normally be expected, and it’s laid bare inequity of our education system as well as the fragile state of so many of our institutions of higher learning. It’s been hard to identify any slices of good news out there but I do consider the move to test optional and test free admission policies to be a win—a silver lining of a mean and ugly cloud. And there are other silver linings. Despite the enormous pressure and unpredictability of the last year, many admission offices saw 2020 as an opportunity to improve the work they do: to become more accessible to more types of students; to upend years of the same old, same old in their app review process; and to increase transparency when it comes to that process.

So, we’re following the lead of Hollywood’s awards season and take a moment to recognize a few of those colleges and people who made the most of a difficult year.


Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning; College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; SC Johnson College of Business

While Cornell and so many other universities pivoted to a test optional policy in light of multiple SAT and ACT cancellations, three colleges on the Cornell campus opted for a more decisive move: they went score free. Note the use of the phrase score free rather than test blind—that was a deliberate decision and one that the leaders of the three colleges took the time to explain clearly and concisely. “We call this method of review ‘score-free’ rather than the more familiar ‘test-blind’ to be more inclusive. ‘Test-blind’ suggests you did take the SAT or ACT, but that we choose not to look at it. ‘Score-free,’ on the other hand, affirms that applications are complete without a test score, unambiguously including applicants who did not sit for the SAT or ACT. Further, we believe a ‘score-free’ review process for all applications to these three colleges offers a solution to the larger issue, rather than a potentially disjointed or individual reaction to any single test-related complication.”

I’m a fan of the score free (or test blind, as many colleges are still calling it) approach because it takes out the guesswork for students who, when faced with test optional policies, wonder: Is optional really optional? Will it hurt me not to send a score? Will kids who do send scores have an advantage over me? Should I still try to take the test even though I don’t feel safe and may even have to travel across state lines to do so? The unequivocal statement by the three colleges at Cornell wasn’t just a bold move but a comforting move, one that laid these questions to rest for its applicants who were already dealing with enough stress in their lives.


Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University

Boeckenstedt took accessibility and availability to a whole new level in a blog post last summer. The post was first notable for his insistence that optional truly means optional and that students should never, ever put their health (or that of others) at risk in order to take the SAT or ACT. But the kicker: he shared his cell number on the public post, encouraging students whose parents were insisting they take the test to call him directly. Anyone in admissions can tell you the volume of phone calls and emails they receive is staggering, even when their contact info is not advertised in a viral blog post. I can’t imagine how inundated Boeckenstedt must have been (and have to assume he also got more than a few trolling texts and garnered the attention of some spambots), so I’m all the more impressed that he was willing to share this info for the sake of advocating for students and safety.


Many colleges, including Lehigh, Notre Dame, Emory, Tufts, Columbia, and Richmond

The spread of COVID was not the only trauma-inducing event of 2020 (not by a long shot). Last spring and summer, as so many teens were ready to buckle down and get to work on their college research, essays, and apps, the country was swept up by reports of police violence and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matters movement. These events especially affected Black students, who were already disproportionately impacted by COVID and all of its economic, educational, social, financial, and medical fallout. At the same time, questions of race, power, policing, and allyship arose for students of every background—ideas many of them were grappling with for the first time.

So, we say bravo to those colleges that chose not to ignore issues that became so quickly relevant to more students than ever before, but instead integrated these issues into their applications. In posing supplemental essay questions about anti-racism, empathy, inequality, cultural awareness, and social justice, this disparate crew of colleges wasn’t afraid to ask some tough questions.

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Written by Emily Toffelmire
Emily Toffelmire is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Emily worked as an admissions officer at University of Southern California as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Thailand. Visit our website to learn more about Emily Toffelmire.