How Is the Coronavirus Affecting College Admissions?

The Harvard University campus on March 23, 2020.
The campus of Harvard University on March 23, 2020. Undergraduates were required to move out of their dorms by March 15 in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

From standardized test cancellations to postponed college decision deadlines, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly interrupted the college admissions process. Many aspects of the process remain in flux, with colleges, universities, and testing agencies responding to the news as it evolves. If you are feeling uncertain or overwhelmed as a college applicant, know that you are not alone—students around the world are grappling with the same concerns and questions. Here's the latest information applicants need to know about the impact of COVID-19 on college admissions.

Standardized Testing

Testing agencies are responding to the crisis by canceling exams, rescheduling exams, and/or moving exams online. Colleges and universities are also retooling their admissions requirements in light of the current situation. For example, Tufts University will be test-optional for the next three years, beginning with applicants who apply for the Fall 2021 semester. Similarly, Middlebury College has decided to go test-optional because of the crisis and then remain test-optional on a trial basis until 2023. Boston University and Case Western will not require test scores for students applying during the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Many other schools have made similar moves, and more are likely to follow suit in the near future.

The SAT

According to the College Board website, both the May 2nd and June 6th SAT administrations have been canceled. The cancellation includes general and subject tests. If you've already registered for a canceled exam, you will receive a refund from the College Board. Because of these canceled test dates, the College Board will be offering the SAT on August 29, September 26, October 3, November 7, and December 5. Students in the high school class of 2021 will get early access to register for the August exam. The College Board is also adding an additional School Day test date on September 23rd.

The ACT

The April 4th ACT exam has been rescheduled to June 13th. If you registered for the April exam, ACT will email you with instructions for rescheduling. If you choose not to take the test at a later date, you can receive a refund for your registration fee, and you also have the option of changing to the July 18th exam without any change fee. Although ACT is moving forward with the June 13th administration of the exam, this does not mean it will be available at all test locations. During the week of May 26th, ACT will inform students if their test centers have been closed because of COVID-19. Be sure to also check the list of test center cancellations. As of the day before the test, 2,868 test centers have canceled the exam.

AP Exams

AP exams are historically offered once a year in May. The College Board has decided to stick to the May schedule, but the exams will be modified in several significant ways. Exams will be administered online, questions will be free response only (no multiple choice), and each exam will be just 45 minutes long. To account for school closures, the exams will include only material that would have been taught in class by early March. There will be two different test dates for each exam—a primary date between May 11 and May 22, and a make-up date between June 1 and June 5. The online administration of the exam hasn't gone entirely smoothly, and a class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of students who were unable to submit their exam responses.

You can find the exam schedule and the details for each exam subject on the College Board website. To make the exam accessible to as many students as possible, AP exams this year can be taken on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Students can even write responses by hand and submit photos to the exam website with a smartphone. For most subjects, the test will consist of a single long essay or two to three free-response questions. The exams will be open book and open notes, but responses will be carefully checked for plagiarism.

To support students as they prepare for the online exam, the College Board is offering free AP review classes. The College Board states that colleges are still committed to providing credit to students who meet their AP score requirements.

IB Exams

According to the ibo.org COVID-19 update page, IB exams scheduled between April 30th and May 22nd have been canceled. Students will still be awarded either a diploma or course certificate that reflects their level of achievement in the course. Because a standardized test will not be offered to create a level playing field for all students, the International Baccalaureate Organization is requiring all schools to submit coursework for all IB candidates. That work will be marked by external evaluators, and results will be released by the planned date of July 5th. If students are unhappy with their results, they will have the option of retaking the IB assessment in the future.

Admissions Visits and College Tours

College campuses are closed, admissions officers are working from home, and campus tours and information sessions have been canceled, causing many students and families to cancel their spring college visit plans. This is particularly problematic for high school seniors, many of whom will not have the opportunity to visit colleges or participate in overnight visits before deciding which school to attend.

Fortunately, colleges are quickly adjusting to the current situation. Many colleges offer virtual campus tours, which enable prospective students to learn about the school and explore its campus from the comfort of home. In addition, a growing number of colleges have created online information sessions, as well as opportunities to interact with members of the admissions office, faculty, and even current students. These virtual resources will help students make informed college decisions during this uncertain time. Schools are adding new resources regularly, so check the individual school's admissions department website for more information about what's available.

College Decision Deadlines

May 1st has always been an important day in the college admissions process. "Decision Day," as it is commonly known, is the last date for a student to decide to attend a college and make a deposit. Acceptance letters tend to roll in from December into early April, and students have until May 1st to visit schools, compare financial aid packages, and make a final college decision.

COVID-19 has disrupted that schedule. Students' inability to visit schools, the disruption to their senior year classes, and the volatility of both family and college finances has led hundreds of schools to extend the deadline for making a decision. ACCEPT, Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today, is maintaining a list of hundreds of colleges that have extended their deposit deadlines to June 1st or later.

The Future of College Admissions

In the college admissions world, the COVID-19 crisis will be most disruptive to the experiences of current high school juniors and seniors. That said, we are living through an unprecedented moment, and it is likely to lead to permanent changes to the admissions process.

Standardized testing will undoubtedly change because of COVID-19. For years, FairTest has been keeping track of colleges that have shifted to test-optional admissions policies, and the current list has grown to over 1,200 schools. Given the pandemic's impact on testing this spring, many colleges are creating temporary test-optional policies. Some of these policies are likely to become permanent, and some already have. Oregon, for example, recently announced that all public universities are now test-optional. MIT announced that they will no longer consider SAT Subject Tests as part of the admissions equation.

The crisis has also forced colleges to embrace technology in ways that could be beneficial to future college applicants. The college search process can be expensive and time-consuming, but now that colleges are being required to move their recruitment efforts entirely online, we will see an increase in high-quality virtual tours, video chats, and online info sessions. While these experiences do not fully replicate in-person campus visits, they are a valuable alternative, and they can help students narrow down their choices before investing in travel.