How have U.S. undergraduate admissions changed during these COVID times?


Although COVID-19 has turned most of things we do on a daily basis upside down, universities are trying to maintain as much stability as possible in their admissions processes. Students have been gearing up for submitting applications for most of their high school careers, and admissions officers want to respect their prospective students efforts, as well as keep their process as consistent as possible from year to year.

Having said that, U.S. universities understand that COVID has changed or complicated some traditional parts of the application process. These are the major changes that you can expect for the 2021-2022 enrollment cycle.

Standardized tests are (mostly) optional

The SAT or ACT, while super fun for a few, stand as a barrier for many. Since the first COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020, testing centers across Canada (and the world) have widely cancelled SAT and ACT dates. In response, the vast majority of universities have become “test optional.” The reason they are “test optional” rather than just dismissing the exam altogether, is that they want the students who did have the chance to take the test to be able to submit their scores if they would like. But don’t worry, anything labeled “optional” is truly so, and it is not held against you if you do not submit a score.

However, if you are a non-native English speaker, you will still be expected to take and submit an English proficiency exam. The most common options are the TOEFL or IELTS, but there is now a less expensive virtual option by Duolingo, which, unfortunately, is not yet accepted by all universities (1,415 as of November 2020). All of these tests were able to adapt to an online version and so are still widely accessible.

The COVID-19 question

The Common Application (which can be used to apply to more than 800 universities in the United States) has added an optional response to help students communicate their new reality. There is a limit of 250 words, and the prompt allows students to discuss how COVID-19 (or a natural disaster) has disrupted their education or opportunities. Students who have been affected by floods, wildfire, or any other natural disaster can also respond in this space. It is recommended that rather than using every written response in the application to reflect on COVID, the student concentrate this information (as much as it makes sense to) into this section.

If the application you are completing does not have a COVID-19 section, you may want to use an “additional information” section (if available) for this response.

New Counselor questions

Many of your schools probably altered your curriculum this year. Maybe you didn’t take IB exams last Spring or you are embracing the wild new world of octomesters now. It is up to your guidance counselors to report this information to the schools you are applying to through their school report. It is recommended that they maintain their old report and create an addendum with any updates from this year. The Common Application also has a few directed questions that will ask a counselor if there were any changes and what they were.

No in-person interviews, auditions, or visits

It is all Zoom all the time these days. While it is tough that you won’t be able to actually physically be on campus to check it out any time soon, there are some really amazing virtual opportunities that have come out of this new reality. Having to visit campus for Preview Days or auditions for performing arts can create barriers, particularly for international students. Now that all students are engaging in these activities online, these barriers have been lifted. You can take a 360 campus tour, attend a Preview Day, interview with an admissions officer, or submit your recorded audition all from home. See this as a positive and take advantage of as many of these opportunities as you can!

Need help applying to U.S. universities?

EducationUSA is funded by the U.S. Department of State. It is a free resource that helps international students apply to universities in the United States. Students in Canada can contact their adviser at or check out

Not in Canada? Find your local adviser at

Contributed by:
Jenika Heim, EducationUSA adviser in Canada

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