by Emily Toffelmire, former admissions officer at University of Southern California
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, let’s follow the lead of Hollywood’s awards season and take a moment to recognize those colleges and organizations that made the most of a difficult year.
McGill is one of the most commonly mentioned universities when we talk to American students considering studying in Canada. It has an excellent reputation around the world and, if you can stand the cold and are down to learn some conversational French (bonjour-hi!), McGill could provide a bargain compared to the cost of many American universities. Understanding that COVID was causing a host of issues and concerns for their global applicant pool, the McGill admission staff sprang into action by offering two hours of drop-in chat sessions every Wednesday throughout November and December. With one Zoom session in the morning and one at night, they ensured students, families, and counselors in just about every time zone could find time to stop by with questions that were answered directly by admission staff. And the quantity of sessions offered meant that nearly every attendee got some one-on-one time with a staff member; one of our counselors attended and said it was one of the most helpful interactions she’d ever had with an admissions office.
Over 300 colleges, including the University of California system, the California State University system, Babson, Boston University, and Pitzer
It wasn’t just repeated SAT and ACT cancellations that made it hard for students to meet application deadlines. There was also the general, daily stress and emotional upheaval caused by quarantine, virtual education, illness, financial woes, and everything else wrought by 2020. Some days, it was simply hard for students to even think about writing an essay or filling out an app. By extending deadlines for students, these colleges made this admission cycle a little less stressful.
Multiple campuses, including Reed, Amherst, Colgate, William & Mary, Davidson, Harvey Mudd, Penn State, Texas A&M, The College of New Jersey, Tufts, University of Connecticut, University of Utah, and the University of Wisconsin.
Going test optional for a year isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Going test optional or test free for two years or more, demonstrating that you understand the dynamic nature of a global pandemic and the unimaginable strain it is putting on all high school students, not just rising seniors.
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Lee Coffin, Vice Provost for Enrollment & Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College
In early June, when Dartmouth announced it was adopting a test optional policy for fall 2021 applicants, Coffin laid down some truth so eloquently and succinctly, we’re just going to put it right here: “’Optional’ is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle. This is not a moment for euphemisms or gimmicks; there should be no parsing of intent with this amended testing policy. It is a clear response to an unprecedented moment that requires admission officers to reimagine some of the elements we have historically required as we reassure anxious students about their upcoming applications.” We know it’s still hard to believe that strong testing may not help a student’s application. And, look, I don’t know that we fully believe that either. But what we do think, and what Coffin confirms, is that not submitting a score, whether because COVID prevented you from testing or because the SAT and ACT fail at capturing your true potential, is not going to doom your application.