Sept. 16, 2020
Myths have permeated the college admissions landscape for decades, with many people believing that only legacies get accepted to the Ivies, while others think colleges offer subsidized loans to every family who wants them. But with COVID-19 still turning the admissions world upside-down, more myths than ever have cropped up, leading high school seniors to wonder what's true and what isn't.
Many students found this year's AP testing environment to be less than ideal, with 45-minute tests that they had to take from home as opposed to the previous three-hour exams that they could take in a classroom free of distractions. To make matters worse, some students believe their tests were scored inaccurately, and had no ability to appeal. This has led a large number of students to say they plan to report zero AP test scores to schools.
However, Hernandez says, this isn't necessarily the best plan. The way that you share your AP exam scores with colleges is to self-report them on your Common App, so you are able to choose which scores to disclose. If you have multiple AP test results that you're sharing from ninth and tenth grade, it may seem strange to colleges if you don't submit any from your junior year, despite having taken the respective AP classes.
"Admission officers still appreciate students who took the test, because if you chose not to take the exam, it can look like you're not putting the effort forward, particularly in a year when you couldn't take SATs or ACTs," she says. "I probably wouldn't send a score of 1 or 2, but I'd submit a 3, 4 or 5. If you did get a 1 or 2 and you feel you have extenuating circumstances, you can submit the score and write under the application's "Additional Information" section explaining why your score was low."
College admission officers like to see AP test scores because they're representative of college work, she says. "They will be taking everything with a grain of salt this year because they know that some people had incredible hardships, and admission officers are human beings who understand the irregularities presented in this strange time."
In light of the pandemic and the lack of test scores for many students, some families believe that they can overcome low grades or a lack of rigor by highlighting their extracurriculars more strongly. However, Hernandez says, many schools will expect to still see good grades as well as strong extracurriculars.
"For the competitive schools, academics make up about 80 percent of the decision, so admission officers will certainly look at extracurriculars and leadership, but if your academics aren't in line with the school's averages, you may not be able to outweigh that with extracurriculars."
The review process is likely to be more holistic this year, Hernandez says, but colleges will want to see strong grades for your first two and a half years of high school, especially if you won't be submitting test scores with your application. "That's particularly true at the highest-level schools, but where you may find opportunities will be in the next level down," she notes. "Some of the small liberal arts schools that have competitive admissions may offer an advantage to students who apply Early Decision because it will give colleges more certainty in terms of yield and financial aid outlay on the earlier side," she said.
Both the Common App and the Coalition Application are providing a space this year where students have the option of sharing how the COVID-19 pandemic affected them. However, this section is not required, and students shouldn't feel pressured to complete it, Hernandez advises.
"In this section, schools are looking for insurmountable obstacles, such as if you couldn't afford a laptop so you were unable to take online tests, or you lost family members to the illness and had to take time away from your studies," Hernandez says. "People have had unspeakable tragedies, so if something interfered with your learning, I'd put it in as long as it isn't trivial. If there's true hardship, by all means discuss that. They're looking for extenuating circumstances, and they'd probably see that your teachers and counselors are also mentioning how you coped with these hardships when they write their recommendation letters."
Because a higher number of students deferred their admission and chose to take a gap year this fall, many high school seniors are concerned that colleges will have fewer slots for this year's applicants. However, Hernandez says, colleges are working to offset that, and she doesn't expect it to have a tremendous effect on admissions during the upcoming cycle.
"It's possible that colleges may have fewer slots, but it isn't likely to create a major change in admissions," she said. "About 20 percent of Harvard students deferred, which is about 350 people — and that's a lot — but Harvard said they won't take fewer students. Instead, they'll have more housing options. My guess is because Harvard isn't going to take fewer students, other schools have started following that model. They may try and spread it out and offer a gap year or a spring admission offer to space out when new students arrive. It may take four or five years for colleges to offset that acceptance change, but it's likely that they will find creative ways to keep accepting close to the same number of students this fall."
Due to the pandemic, students have been unable to play on teams, go to camp or handle other extracurriculars as they would have in the past, but that doesn't mean colleges don't want to see that they've been active since COVID-19 hit, Hernandez says.
"Admission officers are looking for resourcefulness right now," she says. "I'd encourage students to think about what they can do in their communities, and with it being an election year, it's a great time to do that. Are you working the polls, are you volunteering from your house to make a change? Are you sending out postcards encouraging people to vote? Any ways you're helping your local community will allow you to have a great substitute for those extracurriculars you've missed," she says.
In addition, making a difference in your community will not only help with college applications, but could help make a change in the world right now. "College admissions will be an extra bonus for volunteering because you'll look more interesting if you've done something unique, as compared to the sea of people who are in Model UN or working on the school newspaper," she said.
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