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College Admissions During COVID

How students and parents can navigated the ever-changing college admissions landscape.
Robert Franek

COVID has undoubtedly altered the college admission’s landscape, making it tricky for high school students and parents to navigate the next steps.

Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review, says we are just starting to see further changes to the admissions process, accelerated by COVID, and not surprisingly, it is stressful.

“The college process can be a stressful process because of all the component parts, finding a school that's truly going to be a best fit for you, academically, campus culture, financial aid, career services, taking standardized tests. The SAT, the ACT, but let's not stop there — AP exams and others, financial aid cost of college. This, for even students and their families who are blessed financially, it is still a huge stressor,” Franek says. “But factor in a global pandemic and things change.”

In this episode of the EdCast, Franek offers guidance for high school students and parents trying to figure out where to go from here and provides insight into how COVID has uniquely impacted the admissions process.


  1. College application rates are trending upward, which means even more reason to focus on finding the best fit.
  2. An increase in test-optional schools doesn’t necessarily mean not to take the SATs or AP exams, in fact, Franek says if it’s still possible to consider taking the tests anyway to add to the application.
  3. Still in remote learning? School sports were cut? No extracurriculars? Don’t stress out about how COVID may have changed your junior or senior year, Franek says, noting that colleges are well aware of what’s going on and it won’t alter the admissions process.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Times are strange for many high school students navigating the college admissions process during COVID. Princeton Review's Robert Franek has spent more than two decades working with students and their families to break down the often stressful experience of applying and choosing a college. He says COVID has changed college admissions forever. And we are beginning to see a lot of this in increasing test optional schools, virtual open houses, and more. I remember how anxiety inducing applying to college was long before COVID. I asked Rob what he's hearing from high school juniors and seniors right now.

Robert Franek: Kids are nervous. Their parents are nervous. Their counselors are nervous. And they're nervous about many different things, even pre COVID. We all know this. The college process can be, it doesn't have to be, but can be a stressful process because of all the component parts, finding a school that's truly going to be a best fit for you, academically, campus culture, financial aid, career services, taking standardized tests. The SAT, the ACT, but let's not stop there. AP exams and others, financial aid cost of college. This, for even students and their families who are blessed financially, it is still a huge stressor. But factor in a global pandemic and things change. Everything is at a fever pitch or has the potential to have a fever pitch. But what I'm hearing, particularly from high school students, is this resilience saying that, "Yes, this is a tough hand, but it's our hand and we're going to play it well." And that I love.

Jill Anderson: That's wonderful to hear because a part of me was a little bit curious, whether a lot of students, once they found out what was going on this past fall, if they just decided to hold off or not go to school. What do you know about that?

Robert Franek: That did happen for the Fall of 2020, those students who would have been first-time freshmen this past fall, many of them chose different opportunities, whether that's to stay at home. The idea of a gap year was so attractive in the early part of the summer and the mid part of the summer when students were deciding. But again, due to COVID, travel restrictions and social distancing and otherwise I have precluded many students from taking those gap years. Now, I think gap year programs have gotten very smart. Many of them are offering virtual gap year programs, which it might not be as enticing when you first look at it. But then when students dig down, they can have a substantive experience understanding the limits of our pandemic times, but understanding that they can still embrace something that's going to compliment them outside the classroom. Well, one have a different experience and could make them more attractive when they actually apply to college the next academic year.

Jill Anderson: In my own community, I noticed this a lot. I heard concerns from parents about their high schools right now. In a lot of cases, they're remote, they haven't been able to get the proper ventilation or things they need to get students back in the building. And this has created a lot of anxiety for parents, maybe even the kids. And there's this fear out there that they are losing out, and this is going to impact their future in some way. So what do you have to say to that?

Robert Franek: Yeah. I've heard the same thing. And yes, we can't unexperience what we've experienced over the last 11 months of time. None of us, whether we're professionals, whether we're students. So that is just going to be with us. And from that, we learn different things. Students have had a crash course, as have faculty and us, using an online interface to have conversations of substance, classes of substance, build relationships of substance. And that's something that last year would have been very difficult, likely, for us to get our noggins around in any real and significant way.

But we know those things are happening. But as you know, many students and their parents are concerned that they've lost out on some, not only academic experience, but a socialized experience that they're getting in school. And the truth is, yes those things are happening. But I think from a college perspective, students cannot be penalized for those circumstances, act of God, call it what you will, in their college application process. And I think for the majority of stents that I talk to, when I say those things, there is a solace that comes over all Zoom platforms. And you can feel students then start to connect and parents start to put those dots together to know that this is a human process and not just a quantitative process around college admission.

Jill Anderson: Right. And something I think you've been saying a long time now is that colleges aren't holding this against kids. They're factoring these things in to the process of applying.

Robert Franek: I have been in teaching for a long time, and I'm certainly a believer in acknowledging and telling students directly how overwhelmed I am by that idea of resilience and their perseverance in a tough time. Now I understand that that doesn't happen for every student. And certainly, there are many burdens that have happened because of COVID, and I don't want to be Pollyannish about that. But for the many, many students that I talk to, that idea of recognizing, calling them out for what they're doing and doing well, it resonates. And then likely I can get their attention to talk about, okay, what are the next three or five steps that I have to do to put the next strategy in place to move on, to find a school that's best fit, to be fearless around the SAT and ACT and AP exams, and then talk confidently around financial aid in the next year?

Jill Anderson: College admissions process has been changing for a while, shifting, and I'm wondering how COVID has really impacted that and what the differences are now.

Robert Franek: The answer is pretty tectonically, it has impacted college admission in its component parts. And if there are students listening, high school students or their parents, I don't want them to be worried about that. The truth is that the process continues to change even pre-COVID. But COVID has really just accelerated that change. I'm active with NACAC, which is National Association of College Admission Counseling, and they're regional entities as well. And this has just been the conversation that's happening. College admission from a recruitment standpoint Jill, is never going to be the same. Right? We're never going to go back to every school, let's just stay in the states, having three open houses during the summertime and two open houses in the fall.

Jill Anderson: Really?

Robert Franek: We'll certainly have them, but they won't be limited to only those, right? Because we've been forced to change. The recruitment process, and I'm an old college admission guy too, and that idea of the lifeblood of getting students onto campus to come and meet with students and faculty and administrators, and of course, admission folks and career service folks, and to have a conversation of substance even when there's hundreds, sometimes thousands of people on campus during one of those dates, as glorious as they are, I would say that there was a limit on the amount of real conversations and relationship build that a student could have on one of those days.
But that truth is, now through a COVID lens, all of those things have shifted online and you can build a relationship of substance virtually as it will be with a faculty member, with a administrator, with a current student, with many different folks representing that school. And you can do that, not with just three or five schools that you and your family maybe could visit during the summertime, you could do it with 15 schools or 20 schools or maybe 30 schools that you could visit virtually in a year. That would likely be prohibitive for most students across the country.

Jill Anderson: That is really interesting. I hadn't thought about that at all.

Robert Franek: I think it's going to take a while for us to all understand COVID. It has its effects on our businesses. And certainly, the higher ed space is a huge entity and a huge opportunity for so many students. But anyway we unspool it, these things will continue to surface and then we'll discuss them at that time. Let alone the thinking about the test optional movement, pre-COVID, out of the, let's call it, 3,500 four year colleges in the country, near just over 1,000 of them were test optional. But factor in COVID and the pandemic, right? So now many, many more schools are test optional, which simply means that students needn't submit their SAT, their ACT, even their APs, any standardized test, for academic admission. But this is the part that still steams me, and I'll try to be as unbiased as possible. But test optional does not mean test prohibited.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Robert Franek: You're that barred from sending your SAT or ACT or AP exam scores. And I say this to my own students, I can see this no other way. In a time when so many things have been taken away from you academically, last spring your classes went from letter grade generating to pass/fail. Obviously classes move from completely in-person to completely online. Your activities were all been canceled or curtailed significantly through that lens. Standardized tests, as imperfect as they are, give us an opportunity to distinguish ourselves in the admission process and then the scholarship process as well. That is just a fact, and that's the stuff that I make sure I talk to students about to empower them and not have them hoodwinked in the process.

Jill Anderson: Right. So it sounds like it's a good idea to go take the SATs.

Robert Franek: If you can, I don't see another way to see it. And many schools, certainly competitive schools that have been using and continue to rely on the SAT and ACT, many of them have embraced a one-year. And now, actually Cornell just the other day, had embraced last year, a test optional policy. That was a one-year policy. They've extended it for this next year. And I suspect many other Ivys and other certainly competitive schools that use it will extend it for one year.

But they make it also clear that it's test optional, that if you have the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT, they're going to expect that you take it. And it's that durability of taking an SAT or ACT. So many students are well-intentioned on this Jill, you know this. But they just don't have the ability to take it because if you were unlucky enough to live in California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and even Massachusetts, those students, because these are populous states, many of those students have a registration form to show up for the SAT or ACT, but they get canceled. Sometimes a week, sometimes three days before. In New Jersey, 73% of all students last fall, couldn't take the SAT, right? It's difficult to reconcile in my head that students have the intention, but are barred from the ability of taking the SAT or ACT because they are still pencil and paper tests.

Jill Anderson: Hadn't thought of that. So that's a really good point. And of course, we have to talk about the SATs because that's been the big news over the past couple of weeks about they're eliminating the subject and essay portion. Is that right? And is this a huge game changer for students?

Robert Franek: I think that many students at the beginning and parents particularly said, "Oh my gosh, this is a game changer. Now we're going to be more deficient because we won't have these exams." But the truth is the writing has been on the wall pre-COVID that these two entities were going away. And the SAT subject test, just refresh everybody's memory, there are 20 SAT subject tests in all. But in 2018, 2019 as well, but let's use 18 numbers because they're full, more students took the AP biology exam, Jill, than took all 20 SAT subject tests together. So these were losing share dramatically over the last, let's call it 10 years of time. We collect information from almost 3000 undergrad schools at the Princeton Review. And we asked that question, how many schools are using the SAT essay, that's been optional for nearly six years, less than 4%, Jill. Less than 4% of four year colleges were using the SAT essay in their determination for admission into college.

So again, losing share dramatically. I think College Board saw this and they very conveniently said, "Well, let's pivot to, we create the SAT subject test, but we also create the AP exams." Not in 20 subjects, but in 38 subjects. So it was a quick pivot. We can look at this altruistically or we can look at it from a P&L perspective for the College Board, let our listeners today figure it out. But the truth is, College Board is still in business because of the AP and other standardized tests.

Jill Anderson: Right. The College Board, that would be a whole separate conversation we could have. One of the things I was surprised about, because I know you mentioned that we saw a lot of people defer, students defer in the fall and things and get creative. And from what I'm hearing, application rates seem to be up at a lot of universities, and that surprises me.

Robert Franek: Right. A lot of folks assumed that application rates this year would also be down. And just to again, give a snapshot for Fall of 2020, some schools, colleges and universities, were down 5% of their expected matriculating students, so those students that were admitted that actually matriculated onto campus in late August or early September of last year. Some schools, not just 5%, they were down 35%. So these are craters in certainly from a P&L perspective from a school because 95% of all schools in the United States are tuition driven, significantly tuition driven. But the truth is as we've discussed because of the lack of durability around the SAT or ACT, and those are the gatekeepers that many schools as we've discussed. But now that schools have embraced a test optional policy, because of the repercussions of COVID, then a lot of those schools are now seeing many more applications because there's one less gatekeeper in the process.

Now that's very good for a couple of reasons. One it's good if students are truly finding best fit at a school, put the one thing that would have kept them from attending or putting in a viable application was the SAT or ACT, and that goes away. Well, that's a coup for students. But schools, yes true, have to fill in some of that gap that we saw in Fall of 2020. But the truth is that most competitive schools across the country were down last year in Fall of 2020, but they might've been down closer to that 5%. So they don't have to fill in such an extreme gap.

So my point is this, it's going to make those schools either one, look more competitive because they have more students, but they can't grow that freshmen class that dramatically for Fall of 2021 admission. So I hate to be this naysayer, but many students are going to get rejected from those schools that have seen an uptick and a significant uptick, as you note, at many four-year colleges. And my plea to students is again, be smart, curate a sensible list of best fit schools as we always talk about, and I know that that's something that you all embrace as well, and finding a school that's going to best fit. And let's make sure that we think about that shifting student population that's applying to those schools this year.

Jill Anderson: Right. There's a lot of schools out there. And we talk about it here at Harvard, at the Grad School of Education, that people are focused on just a dozen specific schools in the country. And there are so many colleges out there to look at.

Robert Franek: Oh yeah. Yeah, totally hear it. I do this exercise. I was giving a lecture last night, 500, 600 students and parents. It was a big crowd. And I said to the students and their parents, I'm like, "Listen, I'm going to tell you two facts that you've never heard anywhere else. First fact, it's never been easier to get into college than it is today. And the second fact is it's never been harder to get into college than it is today." And they're like, "Who is this admission quack speaking into this Zoom platform?" And I said, "Okay, then here's the exercise. For every student, I want one of them to take out a piece of paper." They could put it into the chat if they want it. But I promise not to look at it. And I wanted them to write down three schools that they would love to see themselves at as a college freshmen, if money and academic admission weren't factors. Then I asked their parents who did the same thing.

And then I gave them 30 seconds to write down these schools. We really hammed it up. I'm like "Any school is fair game. This could be for-profit schools. They could be international schools. They could be whatever." And then when we hit the 30 seconds, I'm like, "Okay, keep your pens in your hand, your fingers on your keyboard and I want you to cross off the following schools." I named off 25 schools, Jill. And then I asked for a showing of virtual hands who still had three schools in the list, crickets, two schools, crickets. One kid had a military academy which I forgot to name off. There are these love letter schools that have brand and perception because you and I know, there are 3000 plus four year colleges just in the states. So in that idea of fit, that idea of let's extend the margin, let's extend our lens to incorporate those things, it still might be the most glorious competitive schools on our list a year from now, but let's make sure that we're pressure testing those schools with all the right portions of fit.

Jill Anderson: One of the things, just to bring this back to the application rates, I think you were just saying that the unfortunate thing about that is that for some students, that they will not get into that university or college that they applied to because the rates are up in some places.

Robert Franek: Yep.

Jill Anderson: What are your takeaways for those students and families out there trying to really figure out "Do I go? Do I accept going to this school? How do I figure out whether to defer? Do I just go virtual, if it's some weird hybrid thing?" What are you telling people, or how are you helping people make decisions and figure that out?

Robert Franek: I would normally give the advice for students and parents that, "Listen, there's likely more than one best fit school out there for you." So the opportunity, once you've been admitted, on average students for Fall of 2019 applied to between, let's call it seven to nine schools nationally. That's a fair number of schools. I suspect that once those students receive their letters of admission, then they would be going onto camp for an open house, a physical open house. You'd go to campus as an admitted student and have that badge of honor that you're having on campus. But then you get to kick the tires and actually go onto campus. So my advice to students is you still get to do those things this year. They're going to be virtual this spring.

For those students that are admitted now, generally speaking, most students would receive their letters of admission between March 1st and March 15th. They still have between that time and May 1st, May 1st is likely going to hold this year, and that is the national decision deadline. That's when students would say "Out of the nine schools that I'm admitted to, I'm going to go to your college or university." And during that time, that's a pivotal time because now students are not applicants, they're admitted students. But here's my council. Do every virtual event that that school is doing. Have the opportunity to interface with those faculty members and so on, as well as other folks from other offices, career services, a crucial, crucial office, or a person or entity to have some relationship building discussion with.

For those students who are younger, who might be juniors or parents of juniors that are listening to us, I think as the world continues to turn, I still think about the durability of the SAT and the ACT. AP is going to grow in prominence and importance because of the now removal of the SAT subject test. But just because those exams are substantive and they are based on what students are learning in the classroom, and that is a nice foil to what the SAT and even the ACT are testing. They test simply how well students perform on those tests. But I'm a big believer in the AP exams and other exams like that.

Jill Anderson: So it's still worth going, even in all the wackiness that's COVID?

Robert Franek: I can't see it another way. And I do respect students that say, particularly for this now upcoming Fall of 2021 class, traditional gap years will probably be more available to students in the traditional format rather than virtual format. I applaud all of those things. I do caution students that gap years have to be approved by the school, particularly if you've earned admission and then decide to defer for a year. Schools are probably going to be more strict about this, this year because of the lack of students matriculating onto campus in Fall of 2020. But I still can't see this in another way for the majority of students. School is going to be different. It is a difficulty, but it is a student's opportunity to persevere.

Jill Anderson: Well lots of great stuff here to think about and steps for students and their families to consider going forward. Thank you so much.

Robert Franek: This was a pleasure Jill. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jill Anderson: Robert Franek is the editor-in-chief of the Princeton Review. He is the author of College Admissions During COVID: How to Navigate the New Challenges in Admissions, Testing, Financial Aid, and More. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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