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How The Pandemic Changed The College Admissions Selection Process This Year

Apr 19, 2021

College-bound high schoolers are making their final deliberations ahead of May 1, the national deadline to pick a school. That day will mark the end of a hectic admissions season drastically shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many colleges dropped standardized testing requirements, and because some high schools gave pass/fail grades and canceled extracurriculars and sports, admissions counselors had to change how they read and evaluate applications.

"[It was] definitely the craziest of all my 36 years, without a doubt," says Lisa Przekop, director of admissions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The UC school system received the most applications in the United States.

Like many others, Przekop says all of her staff has been working remotely throughout the pandemic. But if pivoting to working from home wasn't a challenge enough, Przekop says the school saw an increase in applications of 16%.

"On top of all that, we had to devise a way of doing our admissions selection process without the use of SAT or ACT scores," she says. "So any one of those things would have been a major change, but to have all of them at the same time was beyond anything really that I could've imagined."

Przekop spoke with All Things Considered about how what counselors looked for in applications this year changed, what topics they saw in admissions essays and how the process might have actually improved in spite of the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Has it all added up to more time spent on every individual application?

Quick answer, yes. Things are much more nuanced now. And although a student may have, for instance, planned to do certain activities, well many of those activities were canceled. The other big difference was students were a lot more depressed this year, obviously. Everybody's more anxious, including students. They're applying for college which is stressful in and of itself. And so what we found is a lot of students used their essays to talk about depression, anxiety, things like this. To read essay after essay after essay about depression, anxiety, stress — is taxing. And so we really had to encourage staff to take more breaks as they were reviewing. So it definitely slowed the whole process down at a time when we had more applications to review.

Can you give any insight into what you are basing your decisions on this year?

Absolutely. Maybe in the past I would've focused on that GPA right away. Now when I'm looking at that academic picture, I have to look at the fact that did the student challenge themselves as much as they could have? Were the courses even available? Do I see any trends in their academic performance? If their spring term of last year, their junior year, was all pass/no pass, can I safely assume that they did well in those courses? And that's where you really had to rely on what the students shared in their essays to try to piece that together.

Are you noticing greater diversity in the students applying to UC?

In terms of ethnic diversity, yes, we are seeing that. In terms of diversity of experience — for instance, first generation students and students with lots of different socioeconomic backgrounds — we're definitely seeing that. I'm seeing students who are very committed to the environment more so than i've seen before. I'm seeing students who are more politically aware and active than I've seen before. So I'm definitely seeing a pattern of behaviors that look a little bit different than students in the past.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

College-bound high schoolers are making their final deliberations ahead of May 1. That is the national deadline to pick a school. Now, because of the pandemic, many colleges dropped standardized testing requirements. And as for grades, with remote learning, some high schools are giving pass or fail grades instead of traditional GPAs. Meanwhile, those extracurriculars and sports that students usually use to help them stand out - nope, they've been disrupted too; all of which has added up to a very hectic year in college admissions offices, including schools in the University of California system, which received the most applications in the country. Well, Lisa Przekop is director of admissions at UC Santa Barbara, and she joins me now.

Welcome.

LISA PRZEKOP: Thank you. Thank you. It's good to be here.

KELLY: You've worked there in the admissions office at UC Santa Barbara for 36 years, I am told. So you've got the long view. How crazy has this year been?

PRZEKOP: Definitely the craziest of all my 36 years without a doubt.

KELLY: Wow. And in what ways? Just give us a little bit of a sense of what it's been like.

PRZEKOP: Well, we're dealing with a pandemic. All of my staff are working remotely. We had an increase in applications, pretty dramatically - about 16%. And on top of all of that, we had to devise a way of doing our admissions selection process without the use of SAT or ACT scores. So any one of those things would have been a major change, but to have all of them at the same time was beyond anything really that I could have imagined.

KELLY: Yeah. Has it all added up to more time spent on every individual application? - because it's just more complicated now than it has been in years past to try to figure out, should we let the student in or not?

PRZEKOP: The answer to that - quick answer is yes. Things are much more nuanced now. And although a student may have, for instance, planned to do certain activities, well, many of those activities were canceled. The other big difference was students were a lot more depressed this year, obviously, you know?

KELLY: Yeah. We all have been.

PRZEKOP: Right. You know, everybody's more anxious, including students. They're applying for college, which is stressful in and of itself. And so what we found is a lot of students used their essays to talk about depression, anxiety, things like this. To read essay after essay after essay about depression, anxiety, stress is taxing. And so we really had to encourage staff to take more breaks as they were reviewing, so it definitely slowed the whole process down at a time when we had more applications to review.

KELLY: Can you give any insight into what you are basing your decisions on this year?

PRZEKOP: Absolutely. Maybe in the past, I would have focused on that GPA right away. Now when I'm looking at that academic picture, I have to look at the fact that, did the student challenge themselves as much as they could have? Were the courses even available? Do I see any trends in their academic performance? If their spring term of last year, their junior year, was all pass, no pass, can I safely assume that they did well in those courses? And that's where you really had to rely on what the student shared in their essays to try to piece that together.

KELLY: OK. Are you noticing greater diversity in the students applying to UC?

PRZEKOP: In terms of ethnic diversity, yes, we are seeing that. In terms of diversity of experience - for instance, first-generation students and students with lots of different socioeconomic backgrounds - we're definitely seeing that. I'm seeing students who are very committed to the environment, more so than I've seen before. I'm seeing students who are more politically aware and active than I've seen before, so I'm definitely seeing a pattern of behaviors that look a little bit different than students in the past.

KELLY: Lisa Przekop, thank you very much.

PRZEKOP: You're very welcome.

KELLY: She is director of admissions at UC Santa Barbara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.