written by
Iris Fu

The Effects of COVID-19 on College Admissions

Advisor Tips 5 min read

COVID-19 brought unprecedented changes to the airline industry, closed millions of businesses, and now, it’s shaping the future of college admissions.

Phil Roeder | CCY BY 2.0

In April, the University of California system announced that it would go test optional in 2021: students applying to enter in the fall of 2021 (Class of ‘25) will no longer be required to submit an SAT/ACT score for consideration. And it isn’t just the UC’s that have taken this step: the schools now offering test-optional admissions for 2021 includes all of the Ivy Leagues, many private colleges like Northeastern, Dartmouth, Williams, and Duke, and state schools like UT-Austin, Texas Tech, and the entire Wisconsin system.

Find a full list of schools going test-optional in 2021 here, and be sure to stay updated—college admissions news is changing by the week.

In an even more historic moment, the UC system has also committed to completely dropping the SAT and ACT requirements over the next five years, during which they plan to develop customized testing that is more equitable for low-income and minority students. Davidson, Rhodes, Tufts, Middlebury, and Williams have also started a three-year review period to determine whether they’ll keep any test requirement at all.

This informational essay was written by Iris Fu, Stanford ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Stanford application essays from Iris or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today. Be sure to check out Iris’s College Admissions Youtube Channel for a corresponding video to this article.

What does this mean for students?

If you are a rising senior who was unable to take an exam before standardized test dates were cancelled, you may not need to send in a test score this fall. However, if you have testing results you are happy with, it is best to send them in regardless. While some colleges are not even looking at standardized test scores in making admission decisions, others may still take note, or may use them for merit aid. But new test-optional admissions doesn’t mean that all tests have been cancelled. The SAT and the ACT are still scheduled to be offered this fall, and at Bullseye, I advise my students to give the exam their best shot.

A high test score can only help your application. If you have the means to study, sign up for, and take an exam, I recommend that you take it at least once. If you don’t score as high as you had wished, you can always retake the exam or simply choose not to submit your scores.

It may be worth considering the cost of money and time when you take the SAT or ACT. Some students may need to weigh the opportunity cost of spending resources on the SAT/ACT rather than on other parts of their application. If you end up needing a large amount of effort to get a good score, for example, it might not be worth taking the test at all.

Coffee Shop Thoughts
Yale University

What does this mean for students applying in 2022 or later?

For students who are not rising seniors, this test-optional trend will likely mean that test scores will be less emphasized in your application. Your GPA and your intellectual curiosity, as shown through your essays and teacher recommendations, will play a larger role in attesting to your academic prowess.

Other factors in the holistic application process, such as extracurriculars, personal character, and family background, will be more highly scrutinized to help admissions offices recruit for a more diverse class. Keep in mind that the base of this test-optional trend is a stated commitment to increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion. This means that highlighting your personal narrative and unique breadth of experiences will be more important than ever in these coming years of college admissions.

Remember that the majority of schools made no long-term commitment to changing or eliminating their testing requirement. In a test-optional situation, I still recommend choosing to take the tests before you decide whether or not to include your scores with your application.

So, to all underclassmen: take the tests and try your very, very best. Then, focus on developing your unique personal narrative, a strong set of extracurriculars, and compelling essays.

Element5 Digital | Unsplash

More new trends from COVID-19

Cancelled early action deadlines

So far, Princeton University is the only top-tier institution to announce the cancellation of their early action deadline. This means that they will only have one deadline—traditionally known as “regular decision”—on January 1st, 2021. Princeton announced that their decision was based on equity concerns, since COVID-19 has made many college prep resources less accessible.

Whether other top-tier institutions will follow suit is unclear, but it would not be surprising to see Harvard or Yale cancel their early action deadline as well.

What about early decision?

Early decision is fundamentally different from early action. Early decision is binding, meaning that if you are accepted in the early pool, you must attend. With COVID-19 decreasing yield rates, it is very likely that colleges with early decision plans will try to recruit a higher percentage of their incoming class through early decision. This, to a certain extent, will guarantee the institution a higher yield rate.

book girl
Eliabe Costa | Unsplash

In addition, the financial uncertainties caused by COVID-19 means that universities are desperate for more money. To secure students through a binding early decision program means that the university can secure more tuition-paying students, thereby increasing their revenue in a financial downturn. All in all, if you have your eyes set on a university with an early decision deadline, definitely plan to use it to your advantage. The early deadline may give applicants a boost even larger than it has in previous years.

Will more deferrals this year mean lower acceptance rates next year?

With COVID-19 ensuring a rather unusual fall experience for incoming college freshmen in the class of 2024, deferral rates have jumped to a level higher than usual. To fill empty seats this year, colleges had to admit more students from their waitlist than they expected. However, the same students who left empty seats for the class of 2024 are pre-filling seats in the class of 2025. This means that there will be less spots available than usual for the class of 2025.

Logically speaking, this would create lower acceptance rates in the class of 2025, and it truly wouldn’t be surprising to see this play out in real life. Therefore, class of 2025, brace yourself for an even more competitive year in college admissions.


This informational essay was written by Iris Fu, Stanford ‘24. If you want to get help writing your Stanford application essays from Iris or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today. You can also check out Iris’s College Admissions Youtube Channel.

college admissions scandal covid-19 covid and college
College admissions insights you won't want to miss. Delivered to your inbox weekly.
Sign up for our newsletter