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Article contributed by guest author, Nancy F. Lee.
The college admissions process can feel like a complex machine with multiple moving parts. Many “selective schools” look at numerous variables when reviewing applicants including test scores, high school coursework, high school GPA, personal statements, extracurricular activities, academic and service awards and letters of recommendation. Of these, high school GPA and coursework rigor have always been a special focus. Multiple studies have indicated that a student’s high school GPA is a key predictor of a student’s future success in college.
Covid-19 has thrown a figurative wrench in the works and U.S. colleges, high schools, students and their families are doing their best to navigate through this unprecedented time. Many high schools, facing sudden campus closures and overnight transitions to online-learning, have decided to transition all Spring 2020 semester grades from the traditional letter grades (A-F) to Pass/Fail. Given the added workload suddenly put on teachers to teach several large class sessions of 20 – 35 students virtually and the added stress on many students, who now have limited access to their teachers, this is a reasonable accommodation.
For some students, however, this transition removes the strategic opportunity of improving their overall GPA.
Colleges have traditionally relied on high school GPA, course rigor – the difficulty of a student’s coursework- and standardized testing (e.g. the SAT and the ACT) as predictors for student success throughout college. However, the pandemic and social distancing rules have led the producers of the SAT and the ACT to cancel several Spring and Summer 2020 test dates, traditionally some of the busiest test dates around the world. As a result, hundreds of thousands of aspiring college applicants have been unable to take either of these tests. As of today, both the SAT and the ACT have kept their Fall in-person testing dates on the calendar, but the pandemic may also force the cancellation of these dates. In anticipation of this possibility, both the SAT and the ACT have announced plans to develop on-line tests that may be able to be taken at home. Whether those tests are developed in time and, importantly, whether colleges will accept the scores from these hastily developed electronic versions remains to be seen. In response to this uncertainty, several colleges have announced a temporary “test optional” policy for at least the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. So, what does this all mean for college admissions and student’s applications?
Fortunately, we have some insight from previous years. Even prior to Covid-19, there was a growing movement among many US institutions to adopt “test optional” policies which allow students to submit standardized test scores such as SAT and ACT if they want to, with no penalty to those who do not. For students who do not submit standardized test scores, the high school GPA and course rigor gain even more weight in admissions considerations. For colleges such as the California State University system, which has recently adopted a more strict policy - they will not review any SAT or ACT scores for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle- GPA and coursework will be the key indicators of a student’s academic fit with a challenging college curriculum.
In recent weeks many colleges, most notably the University of California (UC) system, have issued statements that students whose schools transitioned to Pass/Fail will not be penalized in the application review. While it is not yet clear how such colleges will compare students with Spring 2020 letter grades to those without, it remains likely that a higher overall GPA will present a student more favorably. High performing students who are able to earn letter grades this semester and this summer will have more opportunities to demonstrate their academic abilities in challenging courses. Similarly, students who have previously earned poor grades can use this opportunity to significantly remediate and boost their overall GPA.
Colleges themselves are dealing with the sudden changes in their own campuses and policies for their currently enrolled students. As these issues are resolved, colleges are increasingly turning their focus to the upcoming admissions’ cycle, issuing policy changes at a rapid pace. While it is impossible to predict how each college will adjust their admissions review to account for this extraordinary time, it remains quite likely that high school GPA will be a key consideration at the majority of selective schools. Students who have access to letter grades, and can perform at a high level in classes, have an opportunity to shine.
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About Nancy F. Lee:
Nancy is an independent College Admissions Consultant who has worked extensively with college-minded students in the U.S., China, Europe and the Middle East. In addition to her private clients, she has partnered with several Bay Area colleges to design and manage programs to assist students’ access to higher education. Nancy is the contracted counselor for several Futures Academy campuses, with her main focus on Walnut Creek and San Mateo. Her education includes a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley, graduate studies in Cognitive Science at Rutgers University and a Certificate in College & Career Planning from U.C. Berkeley.