Even during a normal school year, understanding how University admissions works in the U.S can be confusing. This is because many schools in the U.S follow a Holistic Review model, which means that their selection process considers a broad range of factors. In addition to academics, the applicant’s extra-curricular experiences and personal attributes are considered when making a decision. The benefit of Holistic Review is that the student is viewed as much more than simply an IB score – generally, colleges are looking for the right fit, not just the right number. On the flip side, this makes it harder for applicants to truly understand how their application will stand amongst the rest.

Due to COVID-19, there have been major changes in the lives of students around the world, both inside and outside of school. Universities are aware that things will look different this year – and this will affect how applications are reviewed. Although admissions will still remain holistic, we have outlined some key differences to be mindful of below:

Many schools are going “test optional” for the Class of 2021

Due to the cancellation of most SAT and ACT exams this year, many universities have announced that they will be test optional for this admissions cycle. If you are applying to the U.S, please refer to this comprehensive list of test-optional schools and check if the university you are applying to is on it. 

In the absence of test scores, your academic transcript will be weighed more heavily, as it is the only indication of academic performance. Universities will be looking closely at the rigour of your courses, and for any downward or upward trends in your grades. They will also utilise Teacher and Counselor Letters of Recommendation (if required) to better understand how you are as a scholar in the classroom, and a citizen of your community.

Extracurriculars will look different this year – and that’s okay

Universities understand that due to COVID-19, many students’ extracurricular plans were abruptly discontinued. Students will not be penalised for the inability to participate in activities that are no longer available to them. However, it is important to clarify this disruption on your university applications whenever possible. In addition, what you DO want to do is emphasise the opportunities you did take advantage of – even if they looked different. What creative hobbies did you pick up? What steps were you taking to connect with others, and support your mental health? Did you find any virtual opportunities to continue learning? Just because your activities look different, doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.

There is a new COVID-19 Prompt available on the Common Application

In addition to an “Additional Information” section to write about unusual circumstances or provide more context, the Common Application has added an additional “Covid 19” optional prompt to their application. This is a good place to write about any changes to your school, extracurricular activities, and/or home and personal life that were a direct result of COVID -19. 


Overall, holistic admissions will still be exactly that – holistic. Despite the changes outlined above, you will still be reviewed within the context of the opportunities that were available to you. Universities understand that this has been a challenging and stressful year for many students, and the hope is that you can reflect on this experience and thoughtfully share how you have grown, and/or what you have learned. If you are having trouble with how to best present yourself on your application, please meet with your Guidance Counsellor – we are here to help!