Test-Optional and COVID-19 Through the Student Lens

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of institutions employing test-optional policies has now snowballed to 1200+, and it’s become increasingly clear that the trend of institutions reconsidering the role of standardized testing in admissions is here to stay (read our test-optional learnings from RaiseMe partners here).

This begs the question: how has the shift to test-optional and distance learning affected students on a singular, personal level? What is currently top-of-mind for students, and how can colleges step in to address those concerns and guide them in the right direction?

More specifically:

  • How can enrollment managers understand distinct student concerns across class years to set strategies for student interactions at each grade level?
  • How can colleges best communicate to students, “Everything you do in high school makes you more prepared for college and will be considered in your application?”
  • What adjustments to enrollment strategies, including those from RaiseMe partners, can be applied as best practices across the board in response to the latest and greatest student concerns?

As someone who has for years worked closely with high school students in support of their academic and test preparation efforts, I’ve seen firsthand how students have been hampered with one change after another, and yet shouldered the challenges with intention and aplomb. Inspired by the stories of students we’ve heard from on RaiseMe as well as my own experiences as an educator, I’ve created three distinct personas for considering the perspective of high school students in the saga of test-optional admissions.

While it’s important to remember that these profiles don’t reflect the full gamut of prospective students thinking about college, they’re helpful reference points inspired by actual student tensions and concerns that shine light on the ways in which colleges can connect and engage with a human lens in mind.

High School
The Late Bloomer Junior
  • Class of 2021
  • — Aspirational thespian
  • — Sights set on becoming a Film and Theater major
  • — Underdog student on-track for a win

Transitioning to the academic rigors and social pressures of high school made it difficult for the Late Bloomer Junior to view school as a priority in their 9th and 10th grade. Concurrently working a job, participating in sports, and maintaining friendships all while trying to stay on top of their academics is a truly challenging juggling act that can keep a student emotionally and cognitively preoccupied. Serendipitously, they found their passion for theater in the summer between sophomore and junior year and — with a prestigious theater program at a selective institution acting as their “North Star” — doubled down on academic and extracurricular work this past school year.

Their to-date cumulative GPA was a modest 2.5, and with a confidence-inspiring first semester performance of a 3.7, their plan was to ride that momentum into a capstone fall SAT and a summer theater program leading into senior year. Scoring well on the SAT would not only offset a lower cumulative GPA but also prove to themselves they can excel on a standardized test; the Late Bloomer Junior has never identified as a good test-taker, and it was empowering to overcome a daunting academic hurdle. They had already been playing catch-up before the onset of COVID-19, and with their school shifting to pass/fail grading this semester, additional uncertainty has been introduced into their well-constructed plan.

The Late Bloomer Junior is also spending time researching community colleges and in-state schools. Their parents were previously open to the idea of an out-of-state private school, but qualms about an out-of-state school’s affordability (and being far apart during an uncertain time) has led them to consider a more affordable option; it may make more sense to spend a few years at a local school to complete general requirements and build a portfolio of work and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete their degree.

New questions arise for the Late Bloomer Junior:
  • Will colleges still see the hard work I’ve committed to my junior year to boost my GPA, even if it shows up as pass/fail on my transcript?
  • If the colleges I have my sights set on become test-optional, will all this work I’ve put towards my SAT be for nothing?
  • If my theater program over the summer is cancelled, how else do I demonstrate to colleges that I’m passionate about studying performing arts?
Considerations for colleges:

Students will appreciate communication that the efforts they’ve devoted to their academics and extracurricular activities still play a key role in their applications, regardless of any structural changes to standardized tests or admissions requirements.

Additionally, as many students may be reconsidering their four-year institution plans in favor of more affordable options like community colleges and regional institutions, now is a great time to communicate the feasibility of transferring from a local school to a four-year institution down the line.

The High Achiever Sophomore
  • Class of 2022
  • — Type-A planner
  • — Takes pride in getting ahead
  • — Already thinking about college internships

The High Achiever Sophomore is already taking two honors or AP courses as a sophomore; studying hard and scoring well on tests has been a core value throughout their entire academic career. The SATs, SAT Subject Tests, and AP exams have always been top of mind — they’ve taken the initiative to start studying from prep books and online resources months before the exams were to take place.

With the news of the AP exams being truncated from multiple-hour tests to 45-minute free-response tests and their June SAT Subject Math 2 exam being rescheduled to August, the Enterprising Sophomore is left distraught with the reality that their meticulously crafted schedule was turned upside-down.

The High Achiever Sophomore planned to maximize credits entering college in order to start taking upper division classes as soon as possible. Uncertain about how scoring on their APs will be done, and even more uncertain about how colleges will award credit for APs, they are now thinking about what they can plan for in the next two years of high school to strengthen their application.

Lastly, they had originally planned to volunteer at the library as a tutor over the summer, but now that the local library has closed indefinitely, they wonder about how they can make the most of the summertime and fill it with something productive and meaningful.

New questions arise for the High Achiever Sophomore:
  • Will colleges still value and respect the credit earned from AP exams this year given that the format was changed?
  • How do these changes affect how AP classes are taught, and if the new format is here to stay, does that mean I can handle more or fewer AP classes next school year?
  • Are there virtual volunteering options to which I can dedicate my time?
Considerations for colleges:

Students can have some of their stresses alleviated through clear indication from colleges on how they plan to accept test scores and what else students can be doing to prepare for college and the application process. Test-optional is not necessarily test-blind, and students will value the reassurance that what they’re doing in high school will positively impact their admissions decisions.

As in-person volunteering positions this summer and beyond may be cancelled, students can still make an impact on their community through virtual means (see options on VolunteerMatch or while being encouraged to do so through nudges with micro-scholarships.

Community College
The Rising Freshman
  • Class of 2024
  • — Youngest of three siblings
  • — Feeling the pressures of a first-gen college student
  • — Already mentally in summer-mode

The Rising Freshman is trying to focus on the future rather than on the pinnacle events they are missing, such as the class trip and graduation ceremony. Currently in 8th grade, they have enviously looked up at their older siblings, a high school junior and a trade school student, both of whom visibly enjoyed the freedoms distinctive to high school.

They overheard their middle sibling, who had been preparing for the March SAT before it was cancelled, argue with their parents about not taking the SAT at all anymore since so many colleges have gone test-optional. This is paired with a discussion on skipping standardized tests altogether; the oldest of the three has loved the decision to go to trade school, and the middle sibling is considering a similar route.

Meanwhile, the Rising Freshman has always heard about how important standardized tests and extracurriculars are for getting into college, and going to college remains a powerful goal and motivator for them. They feel inspired by the diligence of their older siblings, but they also feel a mix of pride and anxiety with the possibility of being the only — and the first — college-bound student in the family.

Daydreaming about which college quad may be where they make new friendships is juxtaposed with the pressures that accompany becoming a successful first-gen college student.

New questions arise:
  • What will high school be like if we end up having the first semester (or year) of school online — and will I miss out on the high school experience?
  • How else can I define success for myself in high school outside of standardized tests?
  • Where can I find support to prepare me for college? Who can I turn to?
Considerations for colleges:

Understanding where students are coming from, even high school freshmen, continues to play a key role in considering enrollment strategy for future years; communicating with lower-classmen that there’s much more to their student resume than their test scores and GPA, and fostering their dedication to personal hobbies and extracurricular interests, can act as a motivator and morale-booster during this confusing time for young students. First-gen college-bound students especially are faced with social, emotional, and financial pressures, impacting both their academic performance and plans to attend a four-year institution.

Engaging with students early in the education lifecycle can help them navigate these challenges and build strong relationships with your institution.

It’s encouraging for students to hear how there is infrastructure in place to support students in the pipeline from high school into college. Reminding students that the support systems they have from people in high school (e.g. CBOs and counselors) have equally helpful counterparts in college (e.g. admissions and majors advisors) can be invaluable in successfully guiding first-gen students to college.

RaiseMe + Engaging Students in the Classes of 2021-2024

I hope these student profiles will help you create realistic lenses through which adjustments to enrollment strategies can be viewed. RaiseMe allows colleges to connect with students as early as the ninth grade; engaging with students through these changes and challenges fosters transparency and equity. RaiseMe partners like University of Toronto and Nazareth College have shared their experiences adapting to COVID-19 in how they engage with prospective students and families.

Leveraging social media can be an enormously powerful tool for communicating clear, immediate, and empathetic messaging to students. There are a wide variety of social media platforms students are currently using, and texting students can also act as a personable method of communication. Partners who have rekindled traditional practices like calling prospective students speak to the efficacy of these tactics, as well.

Virtual tours of colleges have become a primary generator of student engagement as many in-person college tours and events have been cancelled. RaiseMe partners can adapt their RaiseMe micro-scholarship models to award students for completing a virtual tour of campus.

Now more than ever, it is important to effectively communicate with high school students. Considering your prospective students’ personal experiences, partially captured here by these three student profiles, plays a key role in planning engagement and recruitment efforts. There are over 2.5 million students on RaiseMe willing and eager to connect with colleges; these students may be feeling lost, and they deserve the compassionate guidance of higher education institutions on how to navigate this health crisis and how realize their college aspirations.

If you’re interested in how RaiseMe works with colleges to supports students to and through college, click here to learn more and get in touch with the team.

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