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.


5 things you can do right now to stand out

Summary: If you’ll be applying to an American college in the next cycle (i.e., during 2020 for fall 2021), you need to be prepared to write about what you did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Master your ollie, memorize the subjunctive in Spanish, keep your gratitude journal. Now’s your chance.

You can be sure that a few months from now, when high school seniors are writing their college applications, everybody, their brother, and their dog will be writing about COVID-19. It’s just going to be unavoidable. Many of you are a little young to remember this, but after 9/11 something similar happened—everybody wrote something about how the attacks affected them (even if in truth fortunately the worst many of us endured was some level of uncertainty or longer waits at the airport).

This time is different. Half the planet is under orders to shelter in place. We are united in a way that has not happened in our lifetimes, and we are, for the first time in history, able to communicate in real time with almost every other part of the globe. I personally have friends in China, Brasil, Africa, and Europe that I’m chatting with daily about quarantining. I’m sure you have similar stories.

Of course, the admissions committees will be aware that there is now the ‘easy, obvious’ topic to write about and many will likely craft new prompts to ask you specifically about your unique experience in a way that suits college applicants.

So, now is the time to get busy. Think about what you can do for yourself, for your community, and for the world. But also think a few months ahead about what you’ll be writing about for your college applications.

I’m sure you have some great ideas yourself, and I’d love to hear them. I have a few ideas that I would like to share (and perhaps you’re already doing one or more), with a couple of other ideas that may inspire you as well.

1. Keep a journal

You may be doing this already, as I know a lot of teachers are requiring their students to keep a journal. I agree with them—this is a historic time, and you’ll want to look back on it some years down the road. I would also suggest recording short videos and taking photos as well; you may want to turn this into a project of sorts, and having various media on hand will help.

But at the very least, write down a few sentences every day to record what you did and how you felt. Take a couple of pictures or videos of life at home, six people in the kitchen, your no-haircut hair, your freezer stuffed with food.

2. Set up an accountability/study group

If you’re like most of the kids I know or work with (even my own children), then you’re seeing this situation as a kind of extended spring break and are enjoying your time off, maybe sleeping later than usual and watching a lot of Netflix. But you’ll admit that you’re starting to feel just a tad bored.

Unfortunately, this is the human condition—we don’t like working so much as having worked, and we often need an outside motivator to keep us working.

This is perfectly normal. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

But if you truly want to set yourself apart, now is the time to be the kind of person you know you can be. This is your chance; there’s no better opportunity. You’ve got the time, and you have more freedom to make choices than you’ve probably had in your entire life.

And you also know that developing your mind is a lifelong pursuit, but one that is especially important to engage in now at your age—learning a lot as a young person is developmentally more important in your early years than it is in later years since your brain is still maturing and is able to take in information in qualitatively different ways now than it will when you’re, say, 60 years old. Disclaimer: Learning is always important. It’s never not important. In fact, learning as an adult can slow down certain kinds of aging and help retain brain function. But young people who don’t get certain kinds of information at certain stages of their development have trouble catching up, and some may never catch up.

Finally, if you’re the type that’s aiming for top schools, then you’re also the type who’s a self-starter, someone who does the hard stuff because you enjoy it or like the challenge, not because you have to. If your teacher recommends reading an article, you do it. You take detailed notes in class, highlight with yellow, pink, blue, and green, and review your notes later. You ask at least several questions in every class, not to kiss up, but because you really want to know.

If that’s you, then you’ve probably already figured out some kind of study schedule. If it’s not you, but you’re becoming that person, here’s your chance to inch towards your goal.

So find a group of friends from school. Set goals for yourselves, set times to meet, and check in on each other. You can even set a time to set daily expectations. ‘Yo Adrian, let’s set up a Zoom meeting for every morning at 9:30 AM to check in on each other. We’ll have a stand-up and announce to everybody what we’re going to get done for the day.’ Maybe even create a Google spreadsheet to write down your assignments and goals with due dates.

You will thank yourself if you do this. Your grades will thank you. And your teachers will appreciate not having to manage you as well.

And on that note, another way to stay busy while helping others coming right up.

3. Offer to help a teacher

You may find this hard to believe, but many teachers are feeling a little overwhelmed right now. For years, they’ve been teaching in one way, and then almost literally overnight, they’ve been told that they need to change virtually everything they do in just a few days. It’s like coming home to your house, and suddenly, you’re living in a tent while you’re rebuilding your new house in a different country. Everything is different. I know some teachers are working 12-15 hour days right now just to adapt to this new learning scenario. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could approach a teacher and ask if there’s any way you could help. Most likely, the teacher will politely decline and say that she, he, or they is happy if you just keep up with the work assigned, but maybe if you offer to help by setting up study groups to keep all students on track, your teacher will be thankful.

4. Give back/help someone else

So much of our lives is consumed by our own desires that we often forget that others have desires just as powerful and real as our own. You may not think so, but someone out there could really benefit from some help from you specifically, from someone to talk about random life stuff to going over some difficult concepts in Pre-Calc. Yes, you. You can make a difference. Put yourself out there and offer to help. Perhaps even get involved with some local tutoring organizations, from your library to community centers to other organizations that are popping up to help others.

5. Make masks

Here’s an easy one! Our President has recommended that we all wear masks when we go out in public. I think this is a great idea, and wearing a mask shows others that you’re taking this situation seriously; by wearing a mask, you’re functioning as a role model. Maybe someone somewhere will see you wearing your mask and think, ‘Hey, if she’s doing it, so will I.’ And that person could also inspire another person!

So a lot of people are asking where they can get masks, while others are stepping up to make them for others to give away. It’s probably just a matter of time before people in the US use masks to make fashion statements, to distinguish themselves, or to promote their club or brand (because if you don’t have your own brand, you aren’t playing the game!), so this is a good time to get in on the ground floor if that’s your thing.

Here’s a good resource to start with:

And you never know, you may save a life! (For real.)

6. Reinvent yourself

Finally, this is your chance to ‘reinvent’ yourself. If you’ve had something in the back of your mind that you thought you could accomplish, now’s the time to start working towards it. I have a friend who, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 spread in the US, lost her job as a direct result of business shutdowns. Not a week later, she and her longtime boyfriend broke up (not unexpected, but still). With no job, and no boyfriend, instead of sinking into the pits of dark despair and self-pity, she has decided to throw herself into remaking herself to be better than she ever was. She is taking online courses in her interests, meditating, keeping a journal, and exercising at home.

So, think about setting some goals for yourself. Here are some examples to get you started.

Write out the following somewhere:

When COVID-19 ends, I will have:

Again, these are just some ideas to get you thinking. Surely you have your own ideas of what to learn or improve, from knitting to baking to Spanish to Arduino.

Final thoughts

These are historic times; what you do now will shape you forever. You have a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime chance to make something of yourself, to be a new you.

And more pragmatically, if you’re applying to college in the next year or two, you may very well need to write about what you’re doing right now.