What Test-Optional Means to Richmond

September 17, 2020
A post by Tom Nicholas, Senior Associate Director of Admission

At this point in 2020, it’s becoming hard to name things that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t impacted in some way. For high school seniors, the college admission process is perhaps first and foremost on this list. And, while we’re about to discuss changes driven by the pandemic, I’d like to start by pointing out that, of everything we do in the UR Office of Admission, our review of applications is probably the least impacted by COVID-19. I know there’s a great deal of anxiety surrounding college admission in this year of upheaval, but take a deep breath and keep in mind that applying to college has always been a physically-distanced process! The way that we read applications, discuss them in committee meetings, and shape the next class of Richmond Spiders won’t look terribly different this year. Unlike our visit programs, or recruitment travel, which we’ve had to completely reimagine in a virtual world, we’re looking forward to what we call “reading season” because it promises a familiarity that we haven’t felt in months.

That said, there are a few changes in Richmond’s admission process this year, the largest of which is our move to a test-optional policy for 2020-21, in light of so many test administration cancellations. When you apply to Richmond, you’ll be required to answer a question on your Common or Coalition Application about whether you want us to include your ACT/SAT scores in our review. If you say “Yes,” we’ll expect to receive scores and include them. If you say “No,” we won’t expect to see any (and if you’ve already sent us scores from a sophomore or early junior year exam, we’ll suppress those from all aspects of our review). Take care: once you say “Yes,” you’re locked in. If you say “No” and decide later that you want us to consider your scores, you can make that switch via your Spider Portal. But once we start considering your scores, we can’t undo that consideration.

If you tell us not to consider your scores – or you simply haven’t had the opportunity to take the ACT or SAT due to the pandemic – what will our review of your file look like? Not all that different, to be honest. Richmond has always practiced holistic admission, where test scores were one piece of a much larger puzzle. Take away that piece, and the rest of the puzzle is still there. For students who choose the test-optional path, we’ll just rely a little more on the other things we’ve always considered: high school performance, grades and grade trends, rigor of curriculum, engagement and involvement, the myriad of things we glean from essays, letters of recommendation, and so on. There’s still plenty for us to draw upon in getting to know you.

If you have test scores, should you submit them or not? Ultimately, the choice is yours. Consider whether they will help provide a fuller picture, and whether you feel they are an accurate reflection of your abilities. Take a look at our academic profile – keeping in mind that our selection has always been holistic, even when we required testing. Your test scores could very well be an asset to your application, so you’ll want to weigh this decision carefully.

Another change that we anticipate impacting our review process is the move to pass/fail grades by many high schools in the spring of 2020. Here, too, you can rest assured that we’ll look closely at context and give you the benefit of the doubt. We won’t make assumptions about what a “pass” grade means, or impute any assumed value to it. We’ll rely on your previous performance, your senior year progress, the rigor of your courses, and your teacher recommendations to fill out our academic review.

Finally, I’ve heard a lot of students ask about COVID’s impact on their activities resume and their ability to “stand out” in our applicant pool. In closing, a few quick thoughts on that concern. First: if there was a particular or acute impact on your life, that’s an excellent reason to make use of the Common App’s optional COVID-19 short answer. Second: in general, the pandemic’s impacts have been fairly universal – meaning everyone else missed those opportunities too, so you’re not really at a disadvantage relative to other applicants this year. Third: as in all areas, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt; for example, we don’t really expect to see much in the way of traditional extracurriculars in 2020 on your resume. And finally: standing out is about so much more than your extracurricular resume. Many students worry too much about “standing out” in this narrow sense and not enough about applying to good-fit colleges, crafting authentic essays, pursuing meaningful engagement in all spheres of life, and keeping their senior grades strong – all of which, together, have a much greater impact on your likelihood of admission.

Though extracurricular resumes may look a bit different this year, and one or two of our policies have shifted, the core of our admission process – drawing a narrative out of disparate application materials, looking for reasons to admit students, and selecting a diverse, well-rounded first-year class – remains relatively unchanged in the age of COVID. We look forward to seeing your application soon!