Four well-established admissions directors discussed Covid-19’s impact on the class of 2022, this year’s high school juniors. Applerouth’s Ginger Fay moderated a webinar February 7 with George Washington University’s Carol Lee Conchar, Georgia Tech’s Rick Clark, University of Wisconsin’s André Phillips, and Washington & Lee’s Leonard Satterwhite as they addressed the test-optional landscape, holistic admissions, essays, and how to connect with colleges when visiting is restricted.

Optional means optional; holistic means holistic.

With thousands of colleges going test-optional this year, at least for the short-term, testing has taken a back seat. Clark said that when a student applies to Georgia Tech without submitting a test score, the readers there don’t know—or care—why the score isn’t present.  Pasting a link into the chat, Clark said, “Optional does mean optional” (–publications/newsroom/test-optional-means-test-optional/), and “holistic still means holistic.” 

Like many schools, these four use the “holistic” method of assessing a student’s application. Some alumni got concerned that without using SAT or ACT scores, Georgia Tech would be letting “anybody” in. But that, according to Clark, is far from the case. Consider a stool, he said, with the legs being rigor of coursework, GPA, extracurriculars, recommendations, and standardized tests. Take away the testing leg, and you still have a steady stool. More weight falls on the remaining legs, but the readers can still evaluate an applicant’s suitability.

How will admissions change?

Wisconsin’s Phillips said that the pandemic has prompted his institution to think more about delivering and navigating the semester. They are thinking about how students connect and how the university can foster connections. Phillips said his crystal ball is broken, but the university is scrambling to figure out how to do things differently. “How can we use this opportunity to modernize and innovate?” he said. “How do we tap into the potential of each new enrolling class?” He thinks that the changes will elevate the student’s voice, and that institutions will have to think differently about how applicants will be able to present themselves.

Phillips predicts that more colleges will move to test-optional permanently. What will replace testing as the way to get to know applicants? The transcript is most important, but “student voices will rise.” Writing will become all the more important—not just writing, but storytelling. This helps them imagine what the student will be once they arrive on campus.

Should juniors bother with testing?

Should juniors and younger students even bother to take the SAT or ACT? Conchar, of GWU, gave a definite yes. She recommends taking at least one SAT and one ACT. (You can try out free practice tests of both and then stick to the one that’s more comfortable.) “How you perform will give you a lot of information about yourself. If you feel the scores are in line, submit.” She says that GWU says to compare your scores with the middle 50 percent of scores reported. Although GW has been test-optional for about five years, Conchar said, “We are not grade optional. What you’re doing in the classroom is really, really important.”


Satterwhite of Washington & Lee said that although essays are important, neither essays nor test scores will “get you over the line” into the admit pile. “The essay should be a way I learn of and can appreciate some distinctive part of you.” Think about personalization, about what you want the admissions folks to know about you. Satterwhite said that he reads the essay last in the process of going through admissions materials: “It’s a way for me to pull everything together. How does the essay fit into the big picture?”

Georgia Tech’s Clark said that the pandemic has helped kids find their “passion” —though he cautions them to ban that word from their essays. “Life has paused and changed,” said Clark. What do you really miss? What are you “really bummed about not having?” Students got to see what was important to them. “The point is,” he said, “they had time, they thought about what they were interested in, and they followed that.” Essays told of how students found ways to pursue their interests when the usual ways closed. Pay attention to what you’re upset about losing, Clark said, and “look for a college that has those things you really care about.”

How can students get to know colleges?

Phillips, of Wisconsin, said you should “try to understand a school’s mission.” Mission statements are carefully worded to reflect a school’s priorities and aims. Clark, of Georgia Tech, said that social media can be a great way to find out actual students’ views of the college because “they aren’t talking to you–they’re talking to each other.” You see the true culture. Look at the school newspaper, find the Snapchat account for the club soccer team. GW’s Conchar said, “Social media is a great source for student voices.” She also recommended signing up for podcasts, recorded presentations, and other media you can watch at your leisure. 

Advice, by year in school

Grade 9, Carol Lee Conchar, GWU: “Don’t stress out! Just prepare for tenth grade, and don’t go crazy on college.”

Grade 10, André Phillips, U. Wisconsin: “Tenth grade sets the table for junior and senior year. Think about the opportunity to develop one critical skill that will travel with you: invest in your ability to write. The best way to do that is to read and read some more, outside your normal interests and school; develop a love for reading.”

Grade 11, Rick Clark, Georgia Tech: “Listen closely to the seniors and watch them closely. You’re going to be friends with a senior who really wants to go to X and they’re not going to go there. Follow them when they [go to Y instead of X]. Year after year, kids love where they end up. It works out.”

Grade 12, Leonard Satterwhite, W&L: “The name or reputation of a college is not as important as what you do when you’re there.”

It’s about context.

Throughout the webinar, the word context kept cropping up. Clark noted that this year, everything must be considered in the context of the pandemic. 

Satterwhite, of Washington & Lee, who has been in admissions since 1973, said, “Contextually, things are very different.” Colleges want to see that “you’ve done what you need to do to be a good fit for us in terms of preparation”: getting good grades in rigorous courses, taking advantage of the opportunities that you have in the place you’re in. With or without test scores, students should look for ways to demonstrate that they will be a good student, wherever they apply.

The Impact of Covid on the Class of 2022