Jack Carter

Staff Writer

Ria Prasad

Staff Writer

Taylor Alphonso

Staff Writer

COVID-19 has changed our world in so many ways, and college admissions are no exception. Changes, including the removal of SAT subject tests, AP test reformatting, along with schools becoming test optional, leave high school students with questions: How will the coronavirus change the college admissions process? Are all these tests even worth taking? To understand more about how COVID has specifically changed this aspect of student life, we sat down with Mr. Riley, High School Norths Head of Guidance, and asked him questions about college applications, admissions, and the SAT/ACT tests.

Q: Is test-optional an advantage or disadvantage for students?

A:  Schools that are test-optional will benefit students that might not test as well as they function on a day-to-day basis in the classroom. In other words, it’s a part of the equation that is removed just like class rank. High School North has never reported class rank for students. However, that’s part of the college admissions criteria for schools that do rank. So how do colleges evaluate a student without a rank or without standardized test scores? They look at the other criteria such as the strength of your schedule and of course grades. Those are just emphasized a little bit more. We usually tell students to contact the schools and they’ll give a better answer based on the information a student provides.. Most colleges advertise their average scores, and if your average scores are falling 150-200 points below the average accepted student for that university, you probably should consider test optional. [For] most of our students their SAT/ACT scores are in the range of their GPA and course rigor, so I would say most of our students do not go test optional, but counselors are here to discuss that option with students.

Q: Do you think schools will continue test-optional after COVID?

A: Test-optional has been a trend over the past 20 years and COVID like so many other things has just accelerated that trend. In other words, this wasn’t something that just came out of the blue. Just like online shopping, COVID accelerated test optional, so that schools that were already exploring the idea  have gone to it quicker. What we continue to see throughout the spring is colleges that were test-optional for this year are extending it through 2022, 2023. I think it’s probably going to have some permanence at a lot of schools. The University of California system [for example], which is the biggest public [school] system in the country, is going “Test-Blind” beginning in 2023 which means they will completely eliminate the use of test scores for admissions. So that’s a huge tipping point for the College Board and ACT. Will we come back from this? I’m not sure. My opinion is that standardized testing will always play some role in the process.     

Q: Do you think the SAT/ACT is still worth taking? 

A: I’d say absolutely. The more information you can give to colleges the better and again, because ACT and SAT use score choice there’s no disadvantage for students sitting for the test. Number one, you don’t know if you’re going to have colleges on your list that require SAT/ACT. So for that reason alone, you have to take it. Then you have the option of taking a look at your scores and seeing how those compare to the rest of your resume. It’s really hard to predict what a college will do with those scores, but the counselors are here to give advice and say, “Hey, your  GPA is  high and your test scores are relatively low compared to your  GPA and course rigor, which is of course more important. We would advise that you hold those back.” 

Q: Now that the College Board has removed subject tests and SAT Essay how much more weight does that put on AP tests and should students be advised to take more APs in order to demonstrate the learning they would have otherwise demonstrated on a subject test? 

A: That’s the question I liked the most. We don’t exactly know the answer, but I would think that test optional schools may give them increased weighting. The entire AP program is nationally increasing in size and the SAT/ACT programs are shrinking a little bit with test optional. So if a student is test optional, but they have AP scores, of course it’s going to be scrutinized a little bit more closely. I don’t think that wouldn’t translate into me encouraging kids to take more AP classes. I mean, what the counselors will do is we’ll continue to say challenge yourself, but don’t take on too much. So, you know, there’s certainly a limit for AP or honors courses for every student where it will affect other classes negatively because of the workload. But naturally if you’re applying test optional to a school, and you’ve got AP scores that you’re submitting, they’ll consider those scores. 

Q: What is the likelihood of colleges accepting AP Classes as credit this year/next year?

A: If the College Board had to continue with all virtual, very short exams like they did last year, colleges would have been really nervous and they would have lost a lot of schools. So AP went to full length exams this year for virtual and in-person to avoid that. I don’t see any problems with AP classes as credit. They don’t want to penalize the students. The College Board will do everything in their power to make sure that everything is paper and pencil or at least in school digital next year. Next year I think they’ll be taken in schools, but I’m pretty sure that AP will offer a digital option, as opposed to paper and pencil probably in future years. 

Q: What changes are being implemented at our school for the Class of 2022 after walking the current senior class through the college application process?

A: The application process for class of 2021 seemed to be pretty smooth this year. We did everything online. So we allowed students to enter college transcript requests exclusively through Naviance. Obviously we didn’t have kids coming in our offices dropping off transcripts requests. The actual process itself did not change. It was already 95% digital since kids fill out applications online. We will decide over the summer, depending on how many students are virtual, what that transcript request process looks like next year. We update that every year, but I’m almost positive we’ll stick with an all digital request process where kids aren’t physically giving stuff to us, just because that’s the way the world is going.

Q: Now that a lot of college representatives won’t be visiting our school in person does that mean students should reach out to admissions representatives on their own to show demonstrated interest?

A: The visits are still gonna happen. It’s just instead of them taking place in the guidance conference room at lunchtime, there’s going to be a dedicated Zoom link just for High School North students. So you’re going to get that same one-on-one or small group experience. In terms of demonstrated interest that’s going to get easier for students. Colleges will easily be able to see who’s logging onto a virtual tour or a virtual open house, and that will count as demonstrated interest. So yes, they’re still going to try to figure out who is more likely to attend their school, and that’s one of the ways that they can do that. But students aren’t going to be at a disadvantage in terms of getting one-on-one time with college admissions reps. We will have a lot of those virtual visits in the fall [which] we’ll post on Naviance. Again, those virtual visits will be in most cases, just for our high school. So it’ll be a small group, of just your peers. [you will] get to ask questions one-on-one and find out a little bit more about those schools. 

Q: What is one misconception students have about this process/something most people don’t know, but should be made aware of? 

A: I’d say probably the biggest misconception would be that colleges, when they’re evaluating applications, are comparing our students almost exclusively against other students from our high school. In other words, colleges might have a limit of students from West Windsor Plainsboro that they would consider, and that if there are too many students admitted then that makes it difficult for our applicants as a whole. That’s completely untrue. Colleges evaluate applications individually. They want qualified applicants period. It’s easy to understand why students from North would feel like “Wow if every one of my friends is applying to UPenn, that’s gotta be disadvantageous for me because they have higher GPAs. I understand where that comes from. But again, colleges are looking at it from a different angle. They’re really looking for the best candidate overall. A similar misconception would be, “No students got into Stanford last year.” So does that mean we’re “blacklisted” or does that mean based on our past statistics students have less of a chance of getting into these schools? That’s another version of the same misconception that your individual application is based off of our past or our current applicants. I think that’s helpful for kids to be aware of going into the process that you’re not being compared to your neighbor down the street necessarily. 

Q: Any advice you would like to give rising seniors as they enter the college applications process? 

A: I have a rising senior of my own at home. The advice I would give would be number one, even though you can’t visit campuses right now it still means that you can do virtual visits. There are a lot of virtual college fairs going on and colleges have enhanced the opportunities for students to experience their campuses and access information virtually. I think that’s going to be a lasting trend. Campuses aren’t going to send out representatives across the country as much as they have in years past. Instead they’ll rely on Zoom and other virtual opportunities to explore campuses and get questions answered. I also think that colleges are going to be opening up a lot over the summer and inviting rising juniors and seniors to actually physically tour those campuses. So my advice would be of course, in the summer, in the fall as campuses open up to take advantage of the college tours and college visits, because there’s really no way to replicate that virtually. The other advice in terms of the college applications process that I tell kids every summer is to get started with the  college essay and your Common App during the month of August, before classes begin in the fall. Many colleges have deadlines that come up during October and November. So August tends to be a quieter time where you can make where you can work on an essay or do some of the easy work with the actual applications prior to school starting in September. So my two pieces of advice would be visit once you’re able to, and use the summer to your advantage when it comes to certainly working on the essay. 

Picture Source: Teen Vogue

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