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  • Writer's pictureHollis Bischoff

Road to College: Pandemic prompts changes to college admissions process

Republished with permission from the Los Altos Town Crier. Originally appeared in the September 2, 2020 edition.


As the high school year starts, students and their families are also planning for this year’s college admissions cycle. The pandemic has caused a number of changes to both the preparation and admissions process. Following is your guide to the biggest changes this fall, at this time, impacting freshman through seniors.

Standardized testing and applying to test-optional schools (impacts juniors and seniors). Because it is extremely unlikely there will be any standardized testing sites available in Northern California for the rest of the calendar year, it is very important that seniors build their lists around the more than 1,400 universities that are test-optional for at least this year. If there are local testing sites available, juniors should allow seniors to take those seats and plan for testing in early 2021.

A complete list of all colleges that are test-optional, both permanently (including the University of California system) and temporarily, can be found at Applicants who do not submit test scores will be reviewed with a stronger emphasis on grades, coursework, teacher recommendation letters, essays and extracurricular activities.

Teacher recommendation letters (impacts juniors and seniors). Even before COVID-19, universities were beginning to move toward more holistic reviews, looking at factors beyond pure academics, such as character and engagement. Counselor and teacher recommendation letters, for those schools that accept them, can help provide a peek into how others perceive the student.

The teacher evaluation ( includes both a 16-category rating portion and a free-form written recommendation. Providing input to your teachers addressing each of the ratings and details of your engagement will help the teachers craft recommendations that help you shine.

Common Application COVID-19 optional essay (impacts all students). For this application year, and possibly the next three years, an additional optional question has been added asking the student to write briefly about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. There is no consistent advice about what content to include in this answer, with college admissions staff advising everything from: “Only write if there has been significant impact” to “We genuinely want to know how it impacted you and how you coped, no matter small the effect.”

One option is for all high school students to journal about their experience, actions and feelings to provide a space to allow students to discover and reconcile their feelings about the impact. Students should explore where they could or couldn’t control their actions and the emotional impact.

After capturing their thoughts in written form, many students decide this is all they need and choose not to write; others unexpectedly find they have much to say and prepare a short (250-word) statement.

Sports and extracurricular activity changes and cancellations (impacts all students). Nearly all in-person activities and sports have been impacted since March. Every student should start or keep compiling all of their canceled activities, as well as any new activities they have started – either in person or remotely. Students should list any new enrichment, interests or hobbies they have discovered during the pandemic.

Because the Common Application allows students to enter only up to 10 activities with 150-character descriptions, the list may need to be consolidated and edited for application use.

This year’s application season is still evolving and there are likely to be more changes implemented throughout the fall. Students currently applying should check each university’s website for the most recent requirements just before submitting the application.

Hollis Bischoff is college admissions adviser for CollegeUnlocked. For more information, email

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