Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Area college admissions more flexible during COVID
College application season can be a stressful time for high school students
Trying to muster the best scores they can on SAT and ACT tests. Making sure their grades are as stellar as possible.
And don’t forget the other factors that colleges like to look at, the ones that show a student is well-rounded. There are sports and clubs and band and part-time jobs and volunteering.
But what happens when all those things become difficult, if not impossible? What happens when a global pandemic shuts down schools and businesses, when athletic competitions and school activities are canceled?
That’s what many of today’s college-bound high school students are facing thanks to the wreckage COVID-19 has left in its deadly path.
The pandemic has altered a lot about everyday life, particularly when it comes to education. It has created a very unique school environment over the past two years, one that hasn’t been all that easy for some students to navigate.
Admissions officers from local colleges are keenly aware of that. And they say they’re doing what they can to be flexible and alleviate the concerns high school students have about the impact COVID is having on their college applications.
“Admissions officers around the country are very aware the pandemic has limited and changed opportunity for students,” said Robert G. Springall, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director of undergraduate admissions for Penn State University. “Some students’ favorite activities — whether it’s band, sports, internships or service — were disrupted or canceled.”
Springall said high school students have had widely varying experiences through the pandemic, which is something colleges need to keep in mind.
“Some events carried on during virtual school, others were canceled,” he said. “We also know many students had to carry new family responsibilities, such as tutoring younger siblings and watching them while Mom or Dad worked from home.”
One way Penn State is trying to ease some of the pandemic-created stress on applicants is by making SAT or ACT scores optional, Springall said.
“This allows high school seniors to apply to Penn State and decide if they want to submit SAT or ACT scores to complete their applications,” he said. “During the height of the pandemic, SAT and ACT tests were significantly disrupted, with many students finding out at the last minute their scheduled exams were canceled. Students also lost opportunities to do practice tests and exam prep classes.”
Springall said that in 2021 more than half of Penn State’s first-year applications were submitted with a test score.
Ursinus College has been “test optional for decades,” said Shannon Zottola, the school’s vice president and dean of enrollment management and marketing.
“But one of the things we did this year was last cycle, we changed the model for our premier scholarship, to make that test-optional as well,” said Zottola. “COVID prompted several changes and we wanted to make sure we maintained access for those students most in need of the scholarship, so we put more focus on GPA for that element.”
Listening to students
Mary-Alice Ozechoski, Alvernia University’s vice president for enrollment management, said the school’s admissions officials have been checking in on prospective students to get a sense of how the pandemic has effected them.
“Students who were juniors last school year, at this point point we’re reaching out to them and asking them how it was for them during their junior year,” she said. “We’ve had students say it wasn’t great.”
Ozechoski said the large number of schools that spent most or all of the 2020-21 school year in virtual learning has had a wide-ranging impact.
“There are students who will do well in virtual learning and others who will not,” she said. “We’re telling them, look, if this wasn’t the best environment for you, if it just wasn’t great, just let us know that.”
Ozechoski said that because Alvernia has rolling admissions — there isn’t one, set date that applications have to be submitted by for the next school year — the college has been able to take its time and getter a better sense of each applicant’s situation.
In cases where a student’s grades from junior year dipped, she said, the college is looking at grades for the first half of their senior year.
“In 90 percent of cases there’s a bump back up,” she said.
As for all the activities that traditionally fill college applications, Ozechoski said she understand the pandemic may have derailed them.
“Of course we love to see those things on a student’s application,” she said. “But if they were eliminated and it’s beyond the student’s control, there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
Overall, Ozechoski said, admissions officials at Alvernia are trying to be empathetic and understanding.
Closer to Home
Zottola said Ursinus wanted to get a clearer picture of how the application picture was shaping up, so in the fall the school sent out sent out a survey to 31,597 high school counselors to ask how COVID impacted the application patterns of their students, compared to typical years.
“We found our right away that counselors were spending so much of their time dealing with the mental health of their students, that they didn’t have as much time to spend on college advising. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to deal with all their students’ needs,” she said.
That may be why Ursinus only got 259 responses to its survey.
Among the responses in the survey was one that could be expected from students who had just endured two years of the trauma of getting an education in a pandemic.
While the counselors reported in the survey that students applied to roughly the same number of schools as they did during the pandemic, 65 percent of them reported applying to more schools closer to home.
Further, 14 percent of the counselors reported their students applying to fewer schools, and those students also were more likely to indicate that their students applied to more schools
closer to home, as well as to a smaller variety of schools, according to the survey.
Most counselors indicated that they are recommending students apply to between six and 10 schools, according to the survey.
Dwayne Walker, vice president of admissions at Albright College, said much the same.
“The message that we’ve been giving students that are interested in Albright is that we are fully understanding about how the COVID pandemic has impacted their ability to participate in sports, extracurriculars, to volunteer,” he said. “We’re not holding it against them.”
Walker said the pandemic and all its impacts has led to more frequent and deeper conversations with prospective students.
“If they share how they spent their time during the pandemic, that helps us gain more insight into who they are as an individual,” he said.
Walker said he has heard from a lot of prospective students who are worried about academic records that were impacted by COVID.
For example, he said, some schools made certain courses pass/fail instead of issuing letter grades.
“We’re not holding that against them, either,” Walker said. “We’re looking at the courses they took.”
Walker said Albright is also taking into consideration whether or not students had to learn virtually and, in some cases, is looking at grades for the second semester of senior year.
Walker said he wants to give prospective students peace of mind that COVID won’t be a barrier to their academic futures.
“We’re telling students to not be concerned,” he said. “We are understanding. We are empathetic with everything that students went through because we went through it, too, in a different type of way.”
“There were a lot of students applying this year who really struggled in their junior year when everyone went remote,” said Zottola. “We watched for shifts in behaviors and we’re focusing on removing or lowering barriers in the process.”
Zottola said “there are so many students, and parents, who are confused and overwhelmed by the experience. They are really all highly stressed, more than I’ve ever seen.”