Whether a college or university accepts a student is a big deal, both for the school and especially for prospective students.
While all colleges and universities are different, there once were pretty universal standards that they looked at when deciding the fate of a potential student. GPA and SAT scores were the big ones.
But things have changed over the years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated those changes.
One of the big moves by local colleges and universities is dropping the SAT and ACT requirement for students to apply. Some dropped the standard for entry years ago, while others did so in the last year due to a lack of in-person testing by College Board, the organization that administers the test, due to the pandemic.
For James Madison University, growth has been a big factor in how an incoming class is put together, said Michael Walsh, dean of admissions.
Twenty years ago, a freshmen class was about 2,000 students. That number has more than doubled to between 4,500 and 4,700 students.
Walsh said dropping the SAT and ACT requirement years ago came down to what the tests would show a college or university, and that was only the success of students in their first year. For that, the test is pretty good, but it unfairly judges the success of a student in their second year, when grades even out, he said. It is particularly misleading when looking at the success of first-generation college students or students from low-income families, who need extra time to get their feet under them, Walsh said.
“As a true predictor, it was very weak,” he said.
Other than that, the biggest change is the optional items a student can submit along with their application and high school transcripts. Students can choose to submit a letter of recommendation, a personal statement, a resume, all of these things or none of them.
Giving prospective students some choices in how they want to present themselves gives them a sense of control, reduces stress for the student, and also tells the admission counselor reading their application something about the student.
For some students the personal essay is a chance to say something about their time in high school that their application doesn’t indicate. And for some students, having a teacher or coach say something about them on their behalf is important, Walsh said.
“To be very blunt, not including any of these things does not hurt you,” he said of students’ chance of getting in.
This admissions cycle has been particularly difficult for admissions counselors because what are usually standard tools for judging students’ performance in school are not this year. For example, there are school divisions that decided to go to a pass/fail model of grading last year and this year. This throws off students’ GPA, particularly if they took AP classes, which are weighted more heavily.
Students’ extracurricular activities might also have been affected due to the pandemic. Because of these factors, admissions counselors are working more closely than ever with high school counselors to get a sense of the challenges faced by prospective students.
Like JMU, Bridgewater College is taking a more holistic look at prospective students who are applying during challenging and disruptive times, said Michael Post, vice president for enrollment management.
“One new aspect to reviewing applications is flexibility,” Post said. “They are applying with a lot of different circumstances. Their junior year and the start of their senior year were not what anyone expected.”
This is the first admissions cycle that BC had testing optional. And while applications are reviewed for standard measurements such as GPA and course selection, what is also important is being well-rounded. It is here that you can tell whether a student is going to be successful, Post said.
“We’re spending a lot more time talking to families and [high school] counselors,” he said.
Applications are slightly down this year, mostly because it’s hard to predict what college will look like in the fall.
“Everyone has a story about how the pandemic has impacted them,” Post said. “We’re lucky that we’re in a unique enough position to hear those unique stories.”
Much like BC, Eastern Mennonite University looks at the whole student when deciding whether to admit them. But EMU was doing that well before the pandemic, said Jason Good, vice president for innovation and student recruitment at EMU.
“Similar to our approach to education, at EMU we take a personalized and holistic approach in the admissions process in which we use more than just one or two sole indicators of success,” Good said. While EMU looks at the traditional standards, it also looks at things for traits such as grit, persistence, initiative and demonstrated improvement.
“We also look for students of character who show potential as community leaders,” Good said.
The pandemic has created some issues with how EMU has connected with students and families in the past, but hasn’t really changed the way in which it approaches the admissions process or financial aid.
Like BC, EMU made the SAT and ACT optional this year. While the pandemic pushed the issue forward, it is something that the school has been looking at for some time, Good said.
“We feel that test scores only give us one window into assessing a student’s potential and preparedness,” he said.