CBO - Summer 2021

How Covid-19 Has Changed U.S. Admissions: Or, perhaps not really changed at all

COVID-19 has upended the way that many of us go about our daily lives. We have had to adjust to working or taking classes from home, keeping distance from our friends, and engaging with our communities virtually.  Naturally, anxieties about our current new way of living seep into the already anxiety-riddled process of applying to U.S. universities. So much has changed- U.S. admissions must have too!

The U.S. admissions process has remained stable, still requiring almost the exact same information on the application and in the supplements from students as in years past. But of course, there have been a few changes, so it is important to understand what those are and what effects they are having on the process.

Standardized testing

The biggest adjustment we have seen this year is in standardized testing requirements. In the past, either the SAT or ACT was required for admissions to most U.S. universities, additionally, highly selective universities tended to “highly recommend” submission of two SAT Subject Tests. Between test-optional policies and College Board updates, the testing landscape has changed significantly.

As of April 2021, according to fairtest.org more than 1,380 (out of approximately 2,330) accredited, 4-year colleges and universities have become SAT/ACT test-optional or test-blind (not looking at scores at all). This policy allows students who either are not happy with their scores or who have not had access to testing to simply not submit an official standardized test score. Universities with more holistic admissions policies have been able to implement this new policy quite seamlessly, as they already ask students for numerous other application requirements that can be assessed for academic prowess beyond a standardized exam.

One effect that test-optional policies had was to increase applications to the most selective universities in the United States. This is not surprising, as testing can present a real barrier to students who have not been preparing for high level admissions since early Grade 11. While only preliminary statistics have been given from some universities at this time, many students who were accepted to highly selective institutions did not submit SAT or ACT scores.

Lastly, two more significant changes have come directly from the College Board, the makers of the SAT. First, the College Board removed the optional essay from the SAT. Most universities did not require the optional essay, and in more recent years it was not providing much useful information to admissions officers. In response, the essay portion will no longer be part of the SAT. Second, the SAT Subject Tests, one-hour exams based on core subjects like Math, History (U.S., World), Science (Biology, Physics, Chemistry), English Literature, and Languages (20 options), have been discontinued. The main reason the College Board has given is that the Subject Tests fairly redundancy with another one of their products, the AP exams. More and more universities have not been using SAT Subject Tests in their admissions processes, and so they will also be decommissioned.

Changes to the application

In general, U.S. university applications look nearly identical to pre-COVID times. The biggest difference on the Common Application (used by 900+ universities) is the 250-word optional essay addressing this prompt:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

As you may have noticed, students who have had disruption due to natural disaster, such losing a home to a wildfire or flood, can also address this prompt. This prompt has been an extremely useful additional because instead of students lamenting losing access to extracurriculars and other opportunities throughout the application, they can concentrate that information into this section.

Expectations for guidance counsellors

Currently, the most critical part of the application process is for guidance counsellors to help admissions officers understand any changes that have been made to your school’s curriculum since COVID-19. Attach an addendum or supplementary document to your normal school profile in order to show the difference between previous years and now. For example, if your school changed to quadmesters, you should include information on how many courses students take in each quadmester, when they are graded, and any other changes to progression that can be expected. Additionally, if any testing was eliminated or made optional, that is especially important to clarify.

Looking ahead, as you write your recommendation letters for students, consider how they adjusted to online learning and highlight any ways they were able to maintain their academics despite challenging circumstances, and possibly even support others. Make sure to build in time for meetings with students considering studying in the United States to combat loss of face-to-face time with them over the last year.

Travelling to the United States – not as difficult as you might think

Perhaps surprising to some, the process for Canadian students to enter the United States has not changed at all since COVID-19. While U.S. visa issuing worldwide has had its challenges, Canadian citizens get to skip the step of applying for a student visa to go to the United States. Because of this, the process of departing Canada and entering the United States is straightforward.

Students receive an I-20 document from their new college or university (which can now be received electronically) and they take that document with them over the border along with a Canadian passport. Canadians have not had any restrictions flying into the United States, so anyone can accompany a student into the U.S. by air. If a student chooses to drive over the border, there has not been any issues with first-time university students being driven by a parent over the border. However, it is particularly important that the parent call ahead to the border crossing to ensure that this will be okay.

Although the U.S. government does not require either vaccination or a quarantine when entering the United States, each university campus has its own policies and procedures. It is critical that students are working with their Designated School Official (DSO) and International Student Services Office (ISSO) to understand what is required for the student to come and study on-campus. Many institutions will require proof of vaccination in order to study but may allow the international student to receive the vaccinations once on campus.


It can be challenging to keep up with eligibility for student-athletes, so the first suggestion is to make sure students have opened an account on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) website (ncaa.org) and agreed to receive updates from the organization. The NCAA has done a great job with periodic webinars to help explain their changes for the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years.

The changes:

  • SAT/ACT is not required for the NCAA for student-athletes enrolling in the 2022-2023 academic year.
  • Elongated “grace periods.” A “grace period” is the time that students can take as a gap year after graduating high school and prior to enrolling in university. Due to COVID-19, the “grace period” has been extended another year, meaning that sports that had a one year “grace period” (most sports) now have a two-year period.

You may be less familiar with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a smaller athletic organization with about 250 member universities. As of April 2021, the NAIA is maintaining their normal requirements, which is to submit two out of three of the following:

  • Official SAT or ACT scores
  • Minimum of 2.0 Grade Point Average
  • Be in the top half of the graduating high school class

If your student-athlete has no access to an SAT or ACT, you can assist them with meeting their minimum requirements if you are able to prove they are in the top half of their graduating class.

Final Thoughts

As an EducationUSA adviser, I work with hundreds of students and although this year was turbulent, I saw many of the exact same trends as previous years. Top athletes were recruited into NCAA, NAIA, and community college athletic programs. A small select group of students were successful in gaining admissions to Ivy League universities. There were students who were ecstatic with their admissions outcomes and there were those who reached only for the top and found themselves disappointed.

Here is the best advice I can give to students. Be yourself and pursue the things that you love to do. When it comes time to choose universities to apply to, create a diverse list of schools that you are excited about. Share yourself on the application and then leave it up to the decision-makers. Take a deep breath and know that each potential pathway ahead is a great choice.

EducationUSA is a U.S. State Department program offering free advising and resources. To learn more about studying in the United States visit educationusacanada.ca.

By: Jenika Heim, EducationUSA adviser