The 5 ways COVID-19 is changing how the University of California admits applicants
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The 5 ways COVID-19 is changing how the University of California admits applicants

On May 21, 2020 the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to begin phasing out the use of the SAT and ACT for admissions decisions.

How did we get here?

We are living in historic times. The world may never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. Chances are the ways we work and go to school will undergo massive, permanent, systemic changes. The institutions that educate us and the businesses that pay us will adapt to the new normal and along the way, will discover important benefits and ways to make improvements to existing systems and policies. Old familiar names will disappear. Businesses will go bankrupt. So will many colleges, especially the ones that don't adapt fast enough or don't have the prestige or recognition of larger, better-funded universities. The Harvards and Stanfords of America will weather the storm, but the smaller, private colleges may not. Some of the early changes involve testing requirements, specifically the SAT and ACT. You probably know that the SAT has been under assault for decades; some people think that the SAT (and standardized tests in general) are unfair to many groups. In a word, more affluent students have access to better preparation for these tests, so they score higher on the tests. The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal (in which some rich people basically simply paid money to cheat on the SAT or bribe university representatives) dealt a massive black eye to American higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is the latest element in this perfect storm and is serving as the catalyst for the upheaval.

The changes

Note: When I refer to current juniors or 11th-graders in this article, I am assuming that they are applying to college directly and will not take a year off or defer. For example, current college-bound juniors are in the high-school class of 2021 and will apply to college to start in the fall of 2021 (not in the spring of 2022 or the fall of 2022).

Here is an overview of the actions that the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously for on May 21, 2020:

  • 1 'Test-optional' for fall 2021 and fall 2022: If you're applying to start in the fall of 2021 or fall of 2022, you do not have to take the SAT or ACT if you don't want to. Whether or not you should is another question that we address elsewhere. Note: The University of California is reserving the right to use SAT or ACT scores in other decisions, such as for course placement or scholarships. I believe this policy allows wiggle room for certain departments to look at SAT or ACT scores if they want to.
  • 2 'Test-blind' for the fall 2023 and fall 2024: If you're a California resident applying to start in the fall of 2023 or fall of 2024 (current ninth- and eighth-graders), then the University of California will not look at your SAT or ACT scores. If you're applying from outside of California, you can opt to submit your SAT or ACT scores if you want. Again, whether or not it will help or hurt to submit SAT/ACT scores is a whole 'nother topic of discussion.
  • 3 A new, specific test for the University of California: The University of California will try its best to come up with a new test to replace the SAT and ACT. Yes, I also thought that they wanted to get rid of standardized tests, but the University of California has decided to research whether they can create a test for California that is better than the SAT/ACT. (Opinion: I don't think they can; whatever they come up with will likely look a lot like current tests. There are only so many ways to test verbal and math abilities.) What this means to current eighth- and ninth-graders is currently unclear, but we have several theories that we will elaborate on in future articles. If you're applying from outside of California, well, it's not clear either—you may still have to take the SAT or ACT. Note: It's not that easy to create a standardized test for a state with a population greater than that of most of the world's countries and a university system that receives some 220,000 applications yearly. One of the regents threw out the number of $100 million as the cost to create a new test, which President Napolitano rejected.
  • 4 A new test for fall 2025, unless there's not: No, that's not a joke. The University of California hopes to have a test ready for those applying for the fall of 2025 (current seventh-graders). But if they fail, well, no test for you! Unless you're applying as an out-of-state student; in this case, you might still have to take the SAT or ACT. (But what if you offer to travel to California? We don't know. Nobody knows.)
  • 5 No more SAT or ACT writing test: These tests were already unpopular with college admissions departments, but now it's official. The University of California will not look at these essay scores ever again.

So what does this mean for me?

In an increasingly 'test-optional' world, admissions have become trickier than ever before. Colleges are claiming that they will be able to make decisions just as well as before and if you don't submit SAT or ACT scores, you won't be penalized. (Some colleges, however, have outright stated that they actually still expect you to submit your scores.) Of course, with no test scores or without consideration of your test scores, every other part of your application just became that much more important: Your GPA, your outside activities, leadership, application writing, demonstrated interest, grit, curiosity, and the rest of the usual suspects. We also believe that integrity and ethics will become more important in coming years as well.

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