SATs, GPAs and deadlines: College admissions experts give advice amid COVID-19 crisis

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The novel coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on many elements of life, including students prepping for college.

High school students and families are anxious about how college applications will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis. SATs are postponed with the possibility of being offered digitally at home, spring grades are changed to Pass/Fail and extracurricular activities have been canceled. These added uncertainties aggravate an already stressful application process.

Kristen Sze interviewed University of California Director of Undergraduate Admissions Han Mi Yoon-Wu and Western Association of College Admission Counseling President Lauren Cook to get answers about how the UCs will conduct admissions moving forward and what students can do to help their college applications stand out.

As high schools make patchwork decisions on what to do about grades and GPAs, students and parents have been concerned that their school's decision may put them at a disadvantage. But Yoon-Wu pointed out that evaluating an applicant's grades has always been a messy business.

"The assumption is that they were on unequal footing to begin with. There has never been uniformity on how letter grades are awarded across schools or across districts," said Yoon-Wu.

She added if students are able to provide some clarification in their application on how their high school calculated their spring semester grades, whether they were affected or not by the pandemic, it would give UC admissions a better idea of the context in which the grades were earned.

Since standardized test scores are no longer required as part of a UC application, students may be left wondering: If they have an SAT or ACT test score, should they include it?

"If the scores are such that it provides additional information about the student's academic performance ... such as to supplement their GPA, then it would be used as an added value factor. But we're not going to deduct in any way for anything that is missing in the application," said Yoon-Wu.

At this point, all Ivy League schools are still requiring test scores, said Cook.

In the absence of some of those other measurements, Cook anticipates personal statements and essays will be even more important in this year's applications. However, she noted many students will be likely writing about their COVID-19 pandemic experience, and students should think carefully about whether that's the topic they want to tackle to make sure their writing samples still stand out.

Letters of recommendation, required or suggested for many private schools, may also end up being a more important part of an applicant's portfolio.

What can students do while stuck at home to help boost their applications while stuck at home? Students should look inward for that answer, Cook suggested.

"I do think there's some families that have an impulse to ask, 'What can I do right now that would look good?'" said Cook "I would always encourage people to think about it from the other point of view. Think about being the most 'you' that you can be. What makes you happy? What do you get excited about? That will make admissions officers excited, too."

She suggested artists continue to hone their craft, writers record their COVID-19 experiences and anyone can look for opportunities to volunteer. Online classes are also an option for those looking to expand academically over the summer.

As for taking a gap year, Cook advised most students against it. With so much uncertainty in the world, she said attending a university was probably a safer bet than traveling or trying to find work.

Watch the full interview with both experts in the video player above.

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