USC instructor teaching dance remotely
College teaching has gone online at USC and many other universities due to COVID-19. (Photo/Mary Mallaney)

COVID-19 has reshaped what school looks like for children and teens around the world. Will the pandemic also upend high school students’ efforts to apply to USC and other universities — and their prospects for acceptance?

It might help to know that college admission counselors have seen national crises before. Kirk Brennan, USC’s director of admission, says COVID-19 reminds him of cataclysmic episodes like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina: “Those devastating events left a scar that we saw on high school transcripts for years.”

The tragic episodes disrupted curricula, and many high school students transferred to schools in other cities or moved to other states amid the trauma, Brennan says. But he also remembers teenagers’ resilience. He saw firsthand how students and their families coped with those events.

During today’s pandemic, Brennan offers words of assurance for high school seniors: Remote learning and altered plans for sports, clubs, volunteering and other activities don’t automatically set you back when you’re applying to universities like USC. Admission officers understand what prospective college students are going through and take it into account.

“We know it’s tough right now, but I think that the holistic review process we employ to read applications actually holds up very well to dramatic change,” Brennan says. As high school seniors start to submit their college applications for next fall, USC admission officers share insight on what has changed — and what hasn’t — during this unparalleled college admission season.

Applying to College in a Pandemic

USC received more than 60,000 applications for the 2020 entering undergraduate class. High-ranking academic programs draw many students to apply on their own. But USC admission officers also recruit students to create a well-rounded, diverse undergraduate class. The pandemic changed the flavor of that recruitment.

Every summer, USC’s admission counselors fan across the world to visit secondary schools, lead informational workshops and meet with students. But when COVID-19 stopped their in-person visits, counselors shifted their outreach to remote digital sessions through Zoom. That spread the USC message to more students. “The good news is we expect to cover close to 50% more high schools in group outreach,” Brennan says.

We think a lot about making sure that we’re seen as an opportunity for as many students as possible.

Kirk Brennan

It turns out that virtual sessions offer flexibility. Less constrained by time or space, one USC counselor can comfortably host two or three high schools in a single online session during evenings or weekends. Hours normally spent on the road are now channeled to more personalized outreach and appointments. Cutting out travel also means that current USC students can join seminars to share their perspectives.

Of course, virtual sessions require a computer or phone, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to participate — assets some families lack. That’s one reason admission officers still send printed material to homes. “We think a lot about making sure that we’re seen as an opportunity for as many students as possible,” Brennan says.

It’s also why they’ve scaled up traditional programs, like presentations for first-generation college students, to broaden their outreach efforts. As admission deadlines approach this winter, USC counselors plan to redouble efforts to engage students who might have missed earlier opportunities to meet. “We wouldn’t have been able to do as much before, but now we’re going to be inviting them to call us, email us, sit in on more personalized Zoom sessions and make personal appointments with staff so they can get all their questions answered,” Brennan says.

Student on laptop taking class remotely

In-person activities for students gave way to remote learning due to COVID-19 public safety measures this school year. (Photo/Ling Luo)

How USC Reviews Student Applicants

For many, the pandemic has magnified the stress and pressure of the college admission process. Straight-A students might panic because their school now has a pass-fail policy. Athletes and academic teams can’t compete. Actors, musicians and dancers can’t perform in person. Church, leadership and volunteer activities are restricted. “You name it, we’re hearing it,” says Tim Brunold, dean of admission.

Many students wonder: Has COVID-19 hurt my chances of getting into college?

“Yes, the circumstances that students are facing on their journey toward their goals are upended now. But the essential questions we ask are no different,” Brennan says.

Like many selective colleges, USC considers many factors to evaluate how a student might succeed as a Trojan. Admission officials scour applications not only for a strong GPA and impressive extracurriculars but also for clues about who students are, what matters to them and what they want to achieve. During this pandemic, this approach includes looking at how a student adapted to academic challenges. That means considering how students dealt with moving to online learning without reliable internet or dealing with changes in grading policies, alongside health, family or financial issues.

We’re prepared to hear about a student’s adjustments to COVID and take those adjustments into consideration.Just focus on telling us who you are, what your plans are and how we can help you get there.

Kirk Brennan

“The basic question we start with in every application is ‘Why?’” Brunold says. “Why do they want to come to USC, why are they interested in this major and not that major, why are they motivated?”

USC’s holistic review delves into essays, recommendation letters and academic records to understand each applicant as a full person, not a set of numbers. A low grade is not always a deal-breaker. Admission officers want to know the story behind that grade. “Any time a student can help me — an adult who doesn’t know them — understand more about their hopes, dreams, passions and motivations, the better,” Brunold says.

Some eager applicants might be tempted to write about their undying loyalty to the Trojan Family, but admission officers recommend a more essential, heartfelt topic: Tell your own story. “Rather than regurgitating marketing material, focus on letting your character and personality shine,” Brunold says. “At this stage, many don’t know which college is their absolute first choice. And that’s OK.”

COVID-19 has upended one major part of the review process: the testing-optional policy. Like many other colleges, USC will not require that students submit scores for standardized tests like the ACT and SAT. The tests have long been a bedrock of college admission, and the change this year raised suspicions among students. “Testing really is optional,” Brunold insists. “We’re not saying one thing and doing another!”

And just as reviewers give each application close attention, students should do the same with colleges. “We invite students to put the university through its paces the same way we do with applications,” Brunold says. They should look closely at USC and ask counselors tough questions to see if the university is a good fit.

Dealing with Decisions

Each year, nearly nine students vie for each available seat in USC’s incoming undergraduate class. Once admission officers make their decisions, they always prepare to face disappointed families. “We get it,” says Kedra Ishop, vice president of enrollment management. “As humans, you can’t help but spend time trying to figure out, ‘Why not me? What piece was I missing?’ And COVID will exacerbate that.”

Families with a talented, well-qualified student who wasn’t accepted to the university might start second-guessing. Should they have focused on a varsity sport instead of piano? Did opting for another class instead of AP Spanish or calculus hurt their chances? This year, they’ll likely wonder if COVID-19 restrictions played a part. But it rarely comes down to one simple reason.

“As enrollment professionals, in addition to the assessment of individual students, we’re also thinking about the other objectives we need to deliver,” Ishop explains. To ensure USC has the vibrant campus life that students and professors expect, counselors look for a balance of students to fill majors, departments, labs and other programs while also seeking a diverse mix of hometowns, demographics and extracurricular interests. Fantastic students sometimes get turned down because there just isn’t room for every qualified person.

When students who weren’t accepted reach out to ask why, USC admission counselors talk through options to find the best place for them. If someone’s heart is set on USC, transferring or applying as a graduate student might be a good path, Ishop says. Counselors also offer support for discouraged family members. “We always try to remind parents this isn’t meant to be a reflection of them but of a larger process,” she says.

The First Steps in a Lifelong Journey

In February, USC announced that U.S. students will receive free tuition to USC if their families have an annual income of $80,000 or less. This financial aid initiative is part of the university’s drive to expand affordability and access. In the following months, the emphasis on financial assistance has only sharpened.

“Families that weren’t on aid may now find themselves in need of financial resources after COVID,” Ishop says. “We have to broaden how we communicate our financial aid support to a new audience.”

…we’re squarely focused on what we can do institutionally on the issue of affordability.

Kedra Ishop

Financial aid applications typically require that students include income data going back two years. But families may have seen a drastic change in their budgets in the last six months as businesses close and some workers lose their jobs in the pandemic-fueled economic slowdown. For some families, finances may rebound in a few months. For others, struggles could carry on indefinitely. “We’re still in this and we don’t know how it’s going to end,” Ishop says. “But we’re squarely focused on what we can do institutionally on the issue of affordability.”

Brunold acknowledges that the full impact of COVID-19 may be impossible to quantify in a college application. But admission officers can relate. The reality is that the people reading the applications are facing many of the same challenges, he says.

They also know it can be easy for students to lose perspective as they apply to USC and other universities. He encourages applicants to remember that acceptance into college is just one of many steps in a lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

That’s one thing the coronavirus can’t change.

Learn more about the USC application process on the admission blog and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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