By Path Mentor M.Q., alumnus of Columbia University, majored in Neuroscience (Originally Posted on June 16, 2020)
Due to COVID-19, colleges and universities are changing their admissions criteria. Some schools, like Cornell University and Harvard University, are waiving the SAT or ACT for admission, due to the difficulties in taking the exam. Some students may not have access to the resources needed to study for the exam or even have a place to take it as test centers around the country stay closed. This change is unprecedented so no one really knows how this year’s admissions will turn out. However, there are still some things that students can do to prepare for this change.
If you are applying to college this school year and already have a good score, then do not feel like your hard work is going to waste. While SAT/ACT scores may not be required, they certainly can help your application if they are good. Schools often have a hard time differentiating between the large number of applicants and standardized tests are an objective measurement they can use. If you have not yet taken one of the tests but feel you can score highly, then I would still strongly recommend taking it. If that is not possible, do not fret. Use this time to focus on other objective measures of your academic success like your GPA and AP/IB exam scores. Those metrics will matter even more, now that there is no standardized exam to compare everyone to. Maintain a high GPA and study hard for your AP/IB exam scores even if it is difficult right now. If you manage to score high even with a global pandemic going on, colleges will take this as a sign of your ability to academically perform even under stress.
In addition, for people applying now, the extra time spent at home can be spent crafting your personal statement. It can be hard to write an essay that captures your essence, which is what schools are looking for. They want to know who you really are. I personally began my essay writing in July and had many rounds of revisions with friends, teachers, and mentors before submitting. Ask your editors if the essay captures something special about you, which should be your goal in writing. Each student will give a unique contribution to the college environment which is the quality admissions officers are trying to pick up on. The better your essay is, the easier you make their job.
For students who are not yet applying to college, now is the time to solidify your grades and AP exams. The best thing you can do is act as if nothing has changed. So, if you are a high school sophomore who planned on taking the SAT or ACT the spring of your junior year, I would still prepare for the exam like you are. You don’t want to be in the situation of suddenly needing to take the exam last minute for your application. In addition, since you are further away from applying, take a critical look at your application and think about what would make it stronger. For example, do you have great grades but no extracurriculars? Now would be the time to pick up some volunteer work or hobbies. If you can find something related to COVID-19, that looks even better because it shows your initiative in a time of crisis.
In the future, schools may move towards abandoning the standardized exams for admissions. The University of California system for example, has announced they are going to officially stop using the SAT/ACT and create another standardized test within their own system to distinguish applicants. It is unknown what this exact test will look like but if it is anything similar to other standardized tests, there will be a focus on math and english so continue working on those skills. Without the SAT/ACT, applicants will likely need more impressive extracurriculars, recommendation letters and personal essays. To prepare for this, assess the extracurriculars you already are in. Think about if they tell a story about who you are. For example, if you want to attend college to study marine biology, do your extracurricular activities match? Do you have a history of working with animal organizations or showing initiative in that field? Then, when you talk about your passion in your personal essay, it will make sense because you have demonstrated your passion through your actions. If you already are in extracurriculars, think about who you might get a letter of recommendation from in a few years. Work on building that relationship and try to demonstrate growth over time by taking on more responsibilities in the next few years.
These are all suggestions for a truly unprecedented time. Taking care of yourself and staying healthy comes first.