4 big questions you may have about college admissions during the pandemic, answered by an Ivy League dean and a former NYT education writer

a group of people sitting on a bench: Graduating Masters students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) gather the day before their online graduation ceremony, in Manhattan, New York City, May 15, 2020. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

© Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Graduating Masters students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) gather the day before their online graduation ceremony, in Manhattan, New York City, May 15, 2020. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

For high school seniors and their parents, and for families of high school juniors as well, the ongoing pandemic has impacted every aspect of the college search and application process. 

a close up of a sign: "THE COLLEGE CONVERSATION: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education," by Eric Furda and Jacques Steinberg. Courtesy of Penguin Random House

© Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“THE COLLEGE CONVERSATION: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education,” by Eric Furda and Jacques Steinberg. Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have become optional at most four-year colleges and universities, at least for this academic year and perhaps into the future. Many students who were scheduled to enroll on college campuses this fall have instead chosen to defer their arrival by taking a gap year, raising questions among applicants for next year’s class about whether the availability of precious seats will be tighter. 


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Meanwhile, the ability to visit campuses in-person — normally a critical step as young people and their families assess potential fit — is often impossible, not least because of the range of quarantine rules between states, forcing young people to embark on these journeys virtually. And then there is the matter of cost and affordability, especially for families under escalating financial strain.

From our combined vantage points — as a veteran dean of admission whose office will consider tens of thousands of applications later this year, and as a longtime education writer who has observed this process up close for more than two decades — we know that an admissions gantlet that can feel bewildering in the best of times has been made all the more unnerving by the events of the last six months.

And yet we continue to believe that this year’s search and application process is one that can be successfully navigated by students, parents, and counselors alike, even amid a haze of ambiguity and uncertainty, especially for those willing to seek out answers with persistence and patience.

Indeed, we would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the pain, suffering, and loss it has unleashed, has provided an opportunity to instill in young people a new sense of perspective of what matters most, including as they contemplate their futures and how a higher education might further their life’s goals.

In that spirit, we wish to share some thoughts in response to questions that we know are top-of-mind for would-be applicants and their parents this fall.

If a college or university says it is test-optional this year, are those tests really optional?

No student or family should put themselves at risk this fall by sitting in a classroom or other venue for a proctored SAT or ACT exam. Indeed, the process of simply trying to register for this year’s exams has often been fraught, adding an unnecessary layer of anxiety by consuming precious time and attention.

Our counsel is two-fold. First, we suggest applicants take the colleges at their word when they say they are not requiring standardized test scores for admission this year. Moreover, families should bear in mind that a student’s transcript — the courses they have chosen to take, and their performance in those classes, even on a pass-fail basis — has always been the most important factor in an admissions decision, especially when combined with teacher and counselor recommendations. And this fall and winter will be no different in that regard.

Will an increase in gap-year requests among this fall’s incoming first-year students, when compared to prior years, impact my chances for admission to next year’s class?

While such requests are indeed on the rise at many colleges and universities this fall — in some instances by a factor of three or four times — students, families, and counselors should be careful about drawing conclusions about how that math may affect admission rates for future classes, including the class that will enroll this fall. That math is complicated — and perilous for an outsider to truly discern — because many factors influence the percentage of applicants ultimately offered admission.

All colleges have enrollment targets, such as the minimum number of undergraduates who must be enrolled at any one time to support budget projections, a model that could override any gap-year trends by necessitating an even larger first-year class next year. Meanwhile, it is possible that some students living a six-hour plane ride away from a particular college, or even overseas, may choose to apply closer to home this year, throwing off long-established application patterns. 

How can my child possibly take the measure of a campus they can’t visit?

As a result of colleges’ responses to the pandemic, it has arguably never been easier (or more cost-effective) for students and families to get to know a campus through the virtual offerings of admissions offices, which now not only include virtual tours and information sessions but also online presentations by faculty, academic departments, and student groups.

While we believe there is no substitute for an in-person visit — and in some instances a masked walk across campus may still be possible, particularly in the spring as final decisions are being made — young people and families can still learn much from a distance, especially if they are willing to apply the skills of journalists and deep researchers by probing for answers by asking pointed questions.

With colleges and families experiencing financial strain, how will we as a family be able to afford the cost of a higher education?

Many colleges are tightening their belts, with hiring freezes, furloughs, and cost-cutting, often with the aim of not only preserving financial aid budgets but in some cases increasing them to meet the rising needs of current and prospective students. Some are going so far as to cut tuition or at the very least hold it to prior-year levels.

Here again, it is critical that families be willing to dig deep and gather facts — from the colleges’ own financial aid websites, as well as sites like frank and ScholarMatch, which offer credible information, some of it at no cost. These calculations are, of course, deeply personal and entail a family’s assessment of the long-term value of a higher education weighed against its cost. For some, an affordable higher education may begin at community college, where credits toward a bachelor’s degree can be earned at a fraction of the price of a four-year institution, perhaps with an eye toward a transfer to such an institution after a year or two. 

As with so much of this year’s upended college search and application process, a clear-headed, practical, open-minded approach by applicants and parents alike can help ensure a successful and affordable pathway to college. 

From “THE COLLEGE CONVERSATION” by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg, to be published on September 22, 2020 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Eric J. Furda and Jacques Steinberg.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Eric Furda. Eric Furda

© Eric Furda
Eric Furda. Eric Furda

Eric J. Furda is the dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the former executive director of admissions at Columbia University.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Jacques Steinberg. Jacques Steinberg

© Jacques Steinberg
Jacques Steinberg. Jacques Steinberg

Jacques Steinberg is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Gatekeepers” and “You Are an Ironman,” and is a former New York Times education journalist. He has served as a senior executive at Say Yes Education and is on the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He appears periodically as a college admissions expert on NBC’s Today show.

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