College Admissions Criteria and the Impact of COVID-19

Numerous factors are considered by admissions officers when evaluating applications. In order of importance, the primary ones are:

  • Overall GPA
  • GPA in college-level courses
  • Course Rigor
  • SAT/ACT Scores
  • College Essay
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Demonstrated Interest

Before we review each one in detail, let’s look at what’s changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.


With the shift to remote learning and the cancellation of spring test dates, it’s likely that both GPA and test scores will be weighted less heavily in this fall’s application cycle than in previous years. Grades from periods directly impacted by school interruptions in particular will probably be handled very differently; colleges may request information from guidance counselors for further consideration or even discount the grades entirely from this timeframe.

Due to test cancellations this past spring and lower testing capacity this fall, many schools have gone test optional for at least this coming admissions cycle. While scores may not be required by your schools and their importance this year is diminished, it’s still recommended that you take the test as strong scores will make your application stronger.

With the lessened importance of grades and scores, college essays will be more important than ever this year. School was disrupted and tests were canceled – admissions officers will take that into account when evaluating these factors. The essay process is relatively unaffected by coronavirus and students need to take every advantage of essays to really show who they are.

Extracurricular activities are also impacted as students have been unable to participate in many due to school closings and social distancing. There are still ways to continue existing activities as well as opportunities to try something new. Don’t let COVID-19 stop you from exploring interests and growing as an individual.

Also remember that most students are experiencing the same disruptions and changes — and admissions officers will work diligently to account for any varying levels of disruption and ensure that all applications are evaluated fairly.


Overall GPA

Your overall GPA represents the average grades throughout your 4 years in high school. Overall GPA is calculated by adding the numeric value of your grades in each class together and then dividing that amount by the number of classes.  The higher the GPA, the better.

GPA in College-Level Courses

In addition, schools look at your calculated GPA in more advanced and demanding classes. If you take only easy classes, a 4.0+ GPA may be pretty easy — and schools know that. So make sure you don’t just skate through; you need to challenge yourself in high school and show that you’re a strong student academically.

Course Rigor

This ties into both of the GPA factors and basically shows how difficult or challenging the classes you took are. Throughout high school, select classes that demonstrate your ability and desire to push yourself and work hard, while making sure you can handle the course load.

SAT/ACT Scores

Strong standardized test scores have long been important, and even with so many schools going test-optional this year, high scores are still important. Many students, particularly those do well, will continue to submit scores and schools will continue to use them when making admissions decisions.

College Essay

College essays are where students can really differentiate themselves from other students and demonstrate the unique value they’ll bring to a college campus. You need to take essay writing seriously and start early enough to craft a great personal essay — no cliched stories, no COVID-19 essays. Put yourself on paper and show admissions officers why you deserve an acceptance letter.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are a big piece of holistic admissions — and more and more schools are moving towards considering students overall rather than data points about that student. Well-rounded students bring a lot of personality and character to a student body leading to more diverse and enriching experiences for everyone. Quality over quantity is also important; make sure to engage in extracurriculars you truly enjoy and care about. Don’t sign up for every club there is just so you can list them on your application — admissions officers can’t be fooled that easily.

Recommendation Letters

Letters of recommendation for teachers and counselors who know you well are another great way to show colleges who you are as a person, not a dataset. Your GPA and test scores show you can academically perform and recommendation letters add personal insights into who you are.

Demonstrated Interest

Demonstrated interest basically represents how serious admission officers think a student is about attending their school. Applicants who call with questions, schedule interviews, tour the campus (virtually is fine these days), open emails from the school, and so on, are showing that are truly interested in that school. Some schools use demonstrated interest as a factor in making a decision — it can’t overcome poor grades and scores but it can tip the scales in favor of a borderline student.


  • Focus on grades and your GPA and make sure you’re ready to have a strong first year in high school, even with the pandemic.
  • Familiarize yourself with admissions criteria and make plans for all areas — high grades, good class rigor, strong test scores, meaningful extracurriculars.
  • It’s never too early to start thinking about how you want to present yourself to colleges on your application.
  • Focus on school work and make sure you’re ready for school to start back up. If you slipped academically due to school closings last year, now is the time to get caught back up and on track for your sophomore year.
  • Take a good look at your classes for the coming semester and make sure they’re not only doable but also good course rigor. You’ll want to show colleges you were challenged academically and performed well at that level.
  • Continue with the extracurriculars that are still possible to do safely. And explore others that you might not have considered previously!
  • Junior year is the most important one for college applications. Even with everything going on these days, you’ve got this!
  • Grades from this year are key. And while grade importance on applications is affected this year, good grades always help students.
  • Think through your test plan given COVID-19 changes. You may have less chances to take the test over the next year so map out a plan now — and then be flexible when you have to make changes. Make sure to include adequate test prep as you may not get to retake as much as prior years.
  • Keep extracurriculars going as possible, and find new ones as needed. Quality is usually better than quantity, but under current circumstances, you may need to try a few to find something you like.
  • First, remember that all seniors applying to college this year are affected by COVID-19. The magnitude of impact across individual students are can vary a great deal, but you’re all affected. College admissions officers know this and they are doing everything they can to help students.
  • School will be different this year but do your best to continue on and get good grades. You can explain circumstances if needed to explain why your grades slipped this year, but it’s important that you still try to do your best.
  • Test scores are optional at many colleges this year, and you may find it difficult to take the test this year. If you are registered, make sure to practice and prep as you might not get a chance to retake it. Scores may be optional, but good ones will still help.
  • Try to keep going with your extracurriculars and show leadership while handling changes during this time. If you can’t participate currently, look at other ways to show what you can do — start a new online group, learn a new skill, explore safe volunteer opportunities.
  • Focus on your essay and make it the best it can be. Essays are largely unaffected by coronavirus and will likely be a bigger factor in admissions decisions this year.
  • Hang in there! And ask for help if you need it.