By Katherine Tinsley
2020 has been a whirlwind. There have been a variety of issues to tackle and discuss—from a global pandemic, a recession, a racial divide and an impending election, we’ve been overwhelmed. The coronavirus has completely restructured the world as we know it. Many of us went from starting new careers, moving into apartments, and taking on another school term to moving back home with our parents, being unemployed and or taking courses remotely. Covid-19 has forced all of our lives to change and one of the biggest shifts caused by the virus has been within education. Colleges abruptly closed their doors, leaving many students displaced and struggling to find a way home. Across the country, schools switched from the traditional grading system to the use of pass/fail in order to help reduce the anxiety and stress around taking courses and exams online. However, what exactly does this mean for the admissions process?
Many students were focused on getting into their dream college, graduate school or doctorate program and now have a semester with no grades and little to no extracurricular activities. Prior to the pandemic starting, GPAs, standardized tests, extracurriculars and community service were all a part of building the perfect application. However, when there are no grades and no more extracurriculars, how exactly will applicants be reviewed?
The words ACT, SAT, GRE and MCAT are a part of everyday conversation within academic spaces. The test scores are used as a measure of probable success within the first year of schooling. Though the accuracy of standardized exams and its ability to predict performance in college has been under debate for years, it is still the standard for most colleges. However, for the incoming class of 2025, many colleges, including Harvard, have waived standardized exams for applicants as the coronavirus has prevented students from being able to take these rigorous exams.
However, standardized testing isn’t the strongest predictor of college success. In fact, it is typically more reflective of a student’s privilege instead of how well they will perform in college. For example, a student who attends a prestigious prep school along with a private tutor and a happy home will probably perform higher than a student who doesn’t have access to the same set of resources. The tests are biased and work in favor of students whose parents have a higher level of education and a higher income.
The erasure of requiring standardized exams is not new. Sarah Lawrence College, my alma mater, is considered a pioneer of progressive education. The college is one of the first “test optional” institutions. The college’s test optional approach, its emphasis on a seminar model and use of written evaluations as a form of grading has not changed the school’s prestige or reputation. Though this is a part of the college’s pedagogy, many colleges and universities around the nation started to follow this model decades later. Prior to Covid-19, over 900 colleges and universities were test optional within the United States. For the incoming class of 2025, that number has increased. We now need to think about how this shift and the response to Covid-19 affect incoming classes beyond the class of 2025.
One of the biggest challenges with moving to remote learning was transitioning into a pass/fail system. Using pass/fail instead of traditional letter grades means GPAs, or grade point averages, are left unaffected by the previous term. Ultimately, they are “stuck” at your previous GPA prior to the Spring 2020 term. Even though most schools decided to use a pass/fail system for 2020, at some institutions, students are allowed to request an informal letter grade in order to submit it to schools.
Though many colleges have waived the standardized test requirements, it is unclear what the current stance on college transcripts is since most applicants have been enrolled in school for at least one year prior to Covid-19. This could either work in a student’s favor or work against them.
For many students across the country, they will be continuing their studies remotely. While academic institutions are aware of the effects of Covid-19 for the class of 2025 and the graduating class of 2020, how that affects current students and the admissions process for the next group of applicants—like most things in 2020—remains unknown.
Katherine Tinsley is an editorial intern who specializes in building the bridge between the industry and culture, self care, and fostering difficult conversations.