With canceled SATs and campus visits, here’s what it’s like applying to U-M this year

Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 3:42pm

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Design by Cara Jhang

 

A high school senior’s fall is typically marked by road trips to college campuses, waking up early on the weekends to take standardized tests and rushing to finish an endless stream of essays by Halloween. Throw in a global pandemic and everything changes.

The University of Michigan has made a number of key changes to the college application process this year. Most notably, the University has adopted a “test-flexible” policy and extended the early action deadline two weeks. Early action applications are now due Nov. 15 as opposed to the traditional Nov. 1 cutoff.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s application cycle will look different for both applicants and the admissions department. The Michigan Daily talked to high school seniors, college admissions counselors and U-M administrators to understand what it’s like to be a high school senior applying to the University of Michigan this year.

Test-flexible policy leaves some relieved, but others with questions

In July, the University announced it would transition to a “test-flexible” policy for the upcoming application cycle, which allows students to submit standardized test scores other than the ACT or SAT, such as the PSAT, PLAN or AP exams. The University will also accept self-reported scores given that students submit official scores by the end of the enrollment process.

The policy still strongly encourages applicants to submit a test score, but increases flexibility in the method of reporting and the type of exam. If a student is unable to take a test altogether, they can still be considered for admittance. 

Several high school seniors expressed relief in response to the more accommodating testing policy. Roy Huang, a senior at St. Andrews College in Ontario, Canada, will be applying early-action without a test score. He said he felt relieved by the flexible policy after  all Canadian Scholastic Aptitude Test dates were canceled.

“(The new policy) reduces a lot of the anxiety around getting a test date and needing to keep on studying for the SAT,” Huang said. “Now, I can focus more on supplements and writing the common app essay.” 

Not all seniors reacted as positively to the flexible policy. Catherine Hwang, a senior at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the University should consider adopting a “test-optional” policy instead. Test-optional policies, which do not require or encourage submitting test scores, are endorsed by other peer institutions, such as New York University.

“There’s definitely potential for (the University) to be test-optional,” Hwang said. “I think that NYU and (the University) fall under the same competitiveness when you look at their acceptance rates, so (the University) could provide some other options for students.” 

Students and high school counselors expressed confusion about what exactly a “test-flexible” policy entails.

Laura Hollyer-Madis and Norman Hurns, high school counselors from the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and Birmingham, Mich., school districts respectively, shared similar frustrations over the ambiguity of whether or not admissions officers will expect test scores. Hollyer-Madis equated the policy to a “moving target.” Hurns agreed, saying different U-M representatives and sources have stressed the importance of including test scores differently. 

“Originally, they were saying, ‘Well, we want to see something, even an AP score, a PSAT score, something,’” Madis said. “And then the last presentation I saw, it seemed to be leaning more towards test-optional. So, I’m not exactly sure (what the University wants).”

In response to concerns over how the University would fairly evaluate applicants without test scores, Erica Sanders, director of undergraduate admissions at the University, said in an email to The Daily that no individual student would be at a disadvantage in the admissions process. 

“As is the case every cycle, each student is evaluated individually and holistically,” Sanders wrote. “We do not compare individual students to each other.”

New deadline allows more time to perfect application

Though students expressed mixed feelings about the changes to the testing policy, seniors and administrators were generally in favor of the extended Nov. 15 early action deadline. With the new deadline, early action applicants are guaranteed an admissions decision of accept, reject or deferral to the regular decision pool by late January, about a month later than previous years.

Despite admissions decisions being delayed to January, Riley Hodder, a senior at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., said the extended application deadline has allowed her to devote her efforts after Nov. 1 entirely to her U-M application. 

“It was a major benefit to be able to put off U-M for a few days and focus on (other applications) that needed to get done,” Hodder said. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Common Application, which is used by the University and more than 900 other schools, saw 8% less first-year applications and 10% fewer applicants through Nov. 2 compared to the same period last year.

Some high school administrators, including Ann Arbor Public Schools counselor Christopher Kasper, said they felt concerned the extended deadline would encourage students to procrastinate on their applications.

However, Groves High School Counselor Lilianne Kowalchuk did not anticipate students would delay working on their applications more than usual. Kowalchuk has recommended her students treat the additional two weeks like a “safety net.” She said she wants them to have their applications completely done by Nov. 1 and to use the extra time to double-check that everything has been properly submitted and received by the University.

“The kids who procrastinate are going to procrastinate no matter what,” Kowalchuk said.

Pandemic causes students to consider college options closer to home

The lack of physical college visits, admissions tours and other traditional recruiting events have further affected the information students have access to as they determine which college is right for them. 

Anna Partalis, a senior at Bloomfield Hills High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said even though she is applying to several out-of-state universities, the University remains her top choice due to the pandemic’s cancellation of campus visits.

“I feel like if I were able to do in-person tours, I would be more attached to other out-of-state schools,” Partalis said. “The experience for students in person is really important to me, so I feel like I'm definitely more attached to my in-state schools.” 

Nosheen Ahmed, a senior at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., said while she had previously wanted to go out-of-state for college, both financial issues and the possibility of the University still being virtual for the Fall 2021 semester have made her strongly consider in-state options. Ahmed said though she is still applying to the University, the ongoing pandemic has brought new factors into the equation of deciding where to attend.

“(The University is) switching to online school and restricting the dorm options, but they’re not lowering tuition, and that doesn’t make sense to me,” Ahmed said. “My mom was at risk of losing her job, and we’re going to have three kids in college (next year), so I just don’t want that financial burden.” 

University promotes holistic evaluation of applications, with concessions for COVID-19-related setbacks

With diverse grading systems, inconsistent access to standardized tests and mental health challenges posed by COVID-19, the U-M admissions office, known for its selective acceptance process, faces unprecedented challenges as they decide who they will grant admission to for the Class of 2025. The University accepted 26.1% — approximately 17,000 out of more than 65,000 for a 6,900-student class — for the Class of 2024.

Sanders said she is optimistic about the admissions department’s ability to contextually review a student’s application and consider any external factors that may affect how that student appears on paper.

“A student’s overall trend in grade performance will likely help to offset a potential concern that may present itself due to changes in academic environment caused by COVID-19,” Sanders said. “Additionally, students have the option of providing additional information by answering the COVID-19-related essay question on the Common Application.”

Beyond the inclusion of a COVID-specific essay prompt, U-M representatives are reaching out to the high schools themselves to find out about students who had families affected by the coronavirus or who suffered from physical and mental health issues. Pandemic-related effects on student performance will be considered alongside a student’s application.

Despite apprehension over several of the sudden changes, the new compassion and flexibility of universities this year have been praised by administrators. Kasper said he is grateful for what the University has done for students this year. He also said he hopes some of these changes will endure, even after the pandemic ends. 

“The test flexibility and changing deadlines have been a difference maker for our students, and students across the state and the country,” Kasper said. “It would be cool as a counselor to see colleges and universities continue some of the flexibility even when we get a vaccine and life goes back to a little bit more normal.”

For prospective students, they just hope the pandemic won’t hurt their chances of becoming Wolverines. Though it’s been more difficult to take standardized tests and find extracurricular and volunteer opportunities with remote learning, Hwang, like the thousands of applicants applying to the University this year, is hopeful she can earn a spot at the University despite the setbacks.

“As I’ve gotten older and closer to my senior year, (the University) is becoming my top school because I can attend a prestigious university while staying closer to home next to the people that I love,” Hwang said.

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin contributed reporting.

Daily News Contributors George Weykamp and Roni Kane can be reached at gweykamp@umich.edu and ronikane@umich.edu.  

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