Students at Trinity High School attend an accounting class March 2. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Students at Trinity High School attend an accounting class March 2. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
(Via Pixabay)
Higher Ed

In an unusual admissions year, California’s selective universities more closely evaluate students

And saw a record number of diverse applicants without requiring SAT or ACT scores for admittance

After an unprecedented year and a surge in applicants, some of California’s more selective universities say they are expecting a more diverse freshman class this fall without the barrier of SAT or ACT scores.

March and April are when students across the state and country typically learn admissions decisions from their prospective colleges and universities. But the pandemic upended the admissions process, often eliminating standardized test requirements and generating an avalanche of applications that threatened to overwhelm admission systems.

Admissions officers were forced to figure out how to evaluate grades on high school courses taken online during the pandemic, and how to evaluation extracurricular activities in a senior year when students weren’t in school.

But the changes may result in benefits as admission officers reviewed students who never would have qualified — or applied — in any other year.

“We saw an increase in the quality of our applicant pool this year,” said Brandon Tuck, the director of admissions on the Cal Poly Pomona campus, one of the state’s more selective schools. Selectivity is typically measured by the percentage of students who are admitted to a university. In general, the lower the percentage, the more selective the school.

Without relying on an SAT or ACT score to admit students, Tuck said the process for admissions officers has been a more rewarding job experience than in the past. Unlike past years, admissions officers weren’t forced to cut off students who had interesting life experiences and backgrounds, or even high grades, just because they didn’t meet the SAT score requirements.

While most University of California campuses followed a more “holistic” process of evaluating students before the pandemic, at the 23-campus California State University the lack of SAT/ACT scores changed the admissions process for those campuses where the test had been a cutoff for who was considered for admissions.

For many students, taking the SAT or ACT in schools and testing centers proved impossible with shelter-in-place orders in effect. Many testing centers cut back on even offering the exam during the pandemic. And although some colleges had begun allowing test-optional admissions prior to the pandemic, thousands of universities chose to drop or make the exams optional.

The focus on everything else — grades, extracurricular activities, personal essays — gave many students, particularly women and students from underrepresented groups, the opportunity to apply to colleges that they never would have considered before.

While it’s all tough to predict, college officials say they expect some of these students will be offered admission and enroll.

Across the UC’s nine undergraduate campuses, the sheer number of applications from underrepresented racial groups rose significantly, but their proportion of the overall application pool did not. Latinos comprised 38% of UC applicants for a second year in a row and Blacks increased slightly from 6% to 7% over last year.

Universities’ decisions to offer test-optional admissions “made an impact on me saying I wanted to apply to more schools,” said Alexis Ayala, a senior at Coliseum College Prep who has a weighted 4.54 GPA and an unweighted 3.95 GPA but didn’t score well on the PSAT practice test.

Ayala, who identifies as low income and Latino, applied to 11 universities, including University of California, Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Southern California — all of which have accepted him into their 2021 freshman classes. Acceptances have been going out to students for weeks.

“The writing and essays helped me,” he said. “It helped the admission counselor or anyone looking at my essays to see a picture of me.”

Lifting the controversial exam requirement

The SAT and ACT have long been criticized for being biased against low-income and some underrepresented students while higher income students could pay for expensive test preparation and tutoring which could help raise their scores.

Last May, the UC Board of Regents made the historic decision to become the largest public institution to not require the SAT and ACT when making admission decisions. (A Superior Court order later stopped the UC system from even considering optional test scores.) The 23-campus California State University system followed with a decision last April to temporarily suspend SAT and ACT admission requirements for fall 2021 and, in January, for the fall 2022 class.

Colleges worry that the increased demand is fueled mainly by each student applying to many institutions.

Many students were likely accepted elsewhere leaving admissions officers wondering about “what schools they would like to attend,” said Steve Hyman, associate vice president for enrollment management for San Diego State University. The university got 67,500 applications, a 5% hike over last year. It put 6,000 students — 2,000 more than last year — on waiting lists.

UC Berkeley saw a 27% spike in freshman applications, to 112,820. However, the campus expects the size of its new freshman class to remain about the same as it was last fall — 6,200, limited by funding and space.

Although the increase in enrollments mean this was “an unusual year” for deciding which applicants to accept, the process did not drastically change, said Abby L. Jones, UC Berkeley’s deputy director of undergraduate admissions. Like most other UC campuses, it already had instituted a system of looking at multiple aspects of a student’s background, not just test scores and grades.

However, reviewing applications without standardized testing and possibly one semester without traditional grades “really forced us to dig into the information that we did have,” she added. “Students were always more to us than how a score or one semester’s worth of grades defines them.”

Some private universities also saw a surge in applications but not all could tie the increase to their decision to go test optional this year. Many said they always had the option of going beyond students’ test scores in considering their applications.

At the University of Southern California, 70,971 first-year students sought admission this year but only 8,804 got offers this week, a historic 7% record increase from 2019 and a 20% increase from last year. The freshmen class includes more Latinos — 18% of admits — and Black students — 8%, according to USC.

Across the CSU system, applications dropped about 3% for this fall, but a few campuses saw significant growth.

At Cal Poly Pomona, the 8% increase in applications brought in students who didn’t apply when the SAT was required including many Hispanic, Native American and female students in college STEM majors. It also means a longer waitlist. “We’re at capacity for a lot of our programs,” said Tuck, the admission’s director. The campus only has 3,800 freshman and 3,800 transfer seats available this year.

More than test scores

“This has been the toughest year for schools and colleges to have to make these adjustments since they could not rely on the metrics they relied on before,” said Jayne Fonash, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a private counselor in Virginia. “They were learning as they were doing it.”

Campuses that chose to be “test-optional” welcomed students submitting an SAT or ACT score if they were able to sit for the exam.

Many other colleges went “test-blind,” which meant they did not students’ test scores even if they submitted them. Those campuses relied more heavily on other factors. That meant examining students’ high school GPA, the quality of classes they took, the grades they got in those classes, personal essays and questionnaires, extracurricular activities, work experience and recommendations.

One important feature on the UC application this year was the extra space at the bottom of the four required personal insight statement essays. In past years, students were able to use that for any additional information but this year they could include explanations of how “extraordinary circumstances related to Covid-19” impacted them and their education.

Kimberly Pascual, a graduating senior from Skyline High in Oakland, said she’s confident it was her essays that put her over the top for admission to the five UC and six of the seven CSU campuses she applied to. She’s currently on a waitlist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but was admitted to UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside and UC Davis.

Pascual, who identifies as Southeast Asian, has a 4.3 GPA and has three years of internships focused on social justice and education under her belt. She said she could not sit for the SAT because of testing cutbacks during the pandemic. She did take the practice SAT, but scored 1010, which is “not high enough for the really selective schools,” she said.

More forgiving because of pandemic

Pascual said she doesn’t test tell well and was relieved not to have to take the SAT. “But also, there were so many more students applying that it made everything more nerve-wracking because I knew it would be more weight on my essays and extracurriculars. So, I put my all into these essays because grades alone wouldn’t cut it.”

What made admissions more difficult was how to evaluate pass or no-pass high school courses. “We adopted credit or no credit policy on our own campus,” said Hyman of San Diego State. “We understand students were going through challenges with remote learning.”

Where a letter grade wasn’t available, admission officers examined the courses students selected along with other factors like personal essays.

At UC Riverside, which also stopped using test scores, admissions officers were challenged by inconsistencies in how high schools graded students during remote learning. The university, which saw freshman applications increase nearly 7% to 52,560 for 4,900 seats, is giving a second look to students with some pass/no pass grades that made them less competitive than they would be otherwise, explained Emily Engelschall, UC Riverside’s director of undergraduate admissions and interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services. “We just want to make sure that students are not being disadvantaged because of what the pandemic did the last semester of their junior year,” she said.

(The UC system allowed pass/no pass in the high school courses taken last spring and summer that are required for admission, known as A-G.)

At UCLA, which received a record 139,493 freshman applications this year, up 28% from the year before, officials initially thought that the admissions process would be more difficult without using standardized test scores at all. The campus has so far admitted 10.5% of its applicants. That could inch up once offers go out to students on the waitlist, but is expected to remain below last year’s 14% admission rate.

While those test scores were only one of 14 factors in the application review, they helped confirm a student’s abilities and placed their GPA in context, officials said. However, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA vice provost for enrollment management, said she “was very pleased to learn” that the 250 application reviewers “felt fairly competent in their ability to read without standardized test scores.” These application reviewers include full-time admissions employees and specially-trained former and current high school counselors hired for the evaluations.

Beyond academics, UCLA looks for “evidence of resilience, persistence, drive, passion and creativity,” Copeland-Morgan said.

While the pandemic banned many group activities such as sports and theater, admissions officers looked at what students did in the first three years of high schools in an effort to discern what Copeland-Morgan called “a pattern of engagement.” “We had three years of activities to evaluate those students on,” she said.

And during the lockdown, many students, she added, were committed to finding “alternative ways to pursue their passions and community interests” such as Zoom political campaigns or in-person food drives.

At least for one of California’s most selective colleges, deciding admissions is forever changed, said Tuck, Cal Poly Pomona’s admission director. “This is what we want to do going forward. We don’t want to go back. We want to look at the entire student when we look at our admissions process. We don’t want to boil it down to just two data points. Yes, it’s more work, but it’s rewarding, and we feel good about it.”