College Admission in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Parent’s Perspective

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 26, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As the parent of a high school junior, my personal and professional lives have been on a collision course over the past few months. As a higher education marketing professional, my work at Carnegie Dartlet puts me on countless campuses and in hundreds of conversations with leaders in the space each year. But as the mom of a soon-to-be college student, conversations about campuses, class sizes, and the like have migrated to the dinner table.

Like most high school juniors, things were ramping up for my son, Charlie, starting in January. He signed up for the March SAT. He was having regular meetings with his high school guidance counselor. He was researching colleges online. And “we” booked six college tours for March and April.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. By the second week of March, Charlie’s high school was closed, his SAT was cancelled, and his upcoming campus tours were called off as colleges and universities across the country started sending students home at a rapid pace. 

So as this initial shock wave settles in, I’m trying to grasp what this all meansas a higher education marketing professional who wants to help Carnegie Dartlet’s clients navigate this situation, but also as a mom who worries what this all means for my son and all the other high school juniors out there.

As I unpack the parent perspective on how the coronavirus pandemic may affect my son’s college admission, here are the top components that I wonder about the most:

Delayed test-taking

With Charlie’s SAT being cancelled just hours before he was scheduled to take it, the question now looming is when or if he will be able to take the test at all. Many (but not all) test centers cancelled the March SAT, but some students in Massachusetts and across the country were able to take the test, and many others may have taken the ACT in February. Will the students who did have the opportunity to take the test have an advantage over those who did not? Will they receive more information from colleges earlier? Will schools be forced to or willingly elect to go to test optional as a result? Will the College Board or ACT add new test dates? These are all questions that, to date, no one can answer.


Charlie attends a large public high school, and while his teachers worked quickly to move the curriculum online, it must be understood that students are not learning a new curriculum; they are receiving reinforcement lessons and enrichment exercises only. This is because public schools must remain equitable for all students across the district, and since accessibility can be an issue, the work they are doing cannot be required or graded. 

So what does this mean for Charlie’s year-end grades? It is well known that colleges look for term-over-term grade improvements, especially in a student’s junior year—so what if Charlie loses the last two terms? If he doesn’t return to the classroom this year, how will his final year-end grades be calculated? What happens to the missed new curriculum that was supposed to be covered? Will his teachers pick up these lessons in the fall, or will they skip the material for good? Will all high schools across the country do the same thing? How will colleges evaluate junior year grades considering these likely discrepancies across the country?

Missing extracurricular activities

I am saddened for all the student-athletes, community service participants, club organizers, student government leaders, part-time student employees, and so many more, as all those opportunities and extracurriculars have been halted indefinitely. I feel for the students missing out on these formative experiences, but I also wonder how it will affect their overall college application. For many of them, they are missing these pinnacle moments that would normally round out their college résumé.

Senior year

What will the fall of Charlie’s senior year look like now? As we know, the fall for any senior is among the busiest and most stressful times of a student’s high school career. But what if they are now forced to 1) visit all the schools they couldn’t in the spring, 2) take all their standardized testing, and 3) pack in months of missed curriculum and extracurriculars into the first term? What will this do to the mental health and stress of our students? Will colleges consider moving (or removing) Early Decision and Early Action deadlines to allow more time for all the “extras” and “what ifs” that our soon-to-be seniors will face?

College financing

Last but most certainly not least: what will be the ability for families to pay for college? The impact of the coronavirus pandemic to our global economy will have profound and long-lasting effects. How will colleges and universities answer the cry for financial aid packages for families who even just one month ago could contribute more toward their student’s college fund than they can today? Will the high school Classes of 2020 and 2021 have to consider deferring their college education for a bit, and how will colleges help?

With many questions up in the air, higher education will have to re-evaluate how to approach college admission in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

These are all questions that have given me pause and some sleepless nights. But as we all navigate this “new normal,” I have been so encouraged to see how our higher education community has risen to the occasion so far and banded together to support one another. Institutions have been uncharacteristically nimble and decisive in the initial face of this crisis by making students’ health and safety their first priority. 

Colleges and universities are now uniquely poised to break down conventional norms as they move ahead with filling their Classes of 2024 and 2025. This is a pivotal moment for institutions to re-evaluate their admission processes while also considering more flexible enrollment options for students.

It will be interesting and unnerving to see how the days, weeks, and months ahead unfold. In the meantime, don’t underestimate this young generation. Gen Z students are flexible, tenacious, and entirely comfortable online. Charlie and his classmates haven’t given a second thought to a class on Zoom, completing coursework online, and doing virtual campus tours. If there was ever a time for a paradigm shift in admission, recruitment, and enrollment, this pandemic may have forced the hand.

Follow us on Twitter as we continue to post updates about COVID-19 and higher education. And if you have questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

Charlie taking a virtual college tour. Stay tuned for our next blog and survey results from the students’ perspective.

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