College admissions have always seemed opaque and confusing to students and families. But the coronavirus pandemic only further complicated the issue, especially after many California colleges and universities stopped accepting the SAT or ACT for admission last year as social distancing prevented students from sitting for standardized tests.

Now, students may wonder what has become the most important aspect of the application process: essays, extracurricular activities, grades or their backgrounds?

“It’s not about what is more important,” among these criteria, said Emily Engelschall, interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services at the University of California Riverside. Engelschall was one of the panelists invited to help clear up the fog on the admissions process during a roundtable hosted by EdSource on Wednesday. “It’s really about what the student is telling us” on their applications about their lives.

Grades are looked at “a little bit more closely” now that standardized tests aren’t part of the evaluation. But across the nine undergraduate UC campuses, admissions officers use 12 other factors like special talents, location and the number of and performance in honors or dual enrollment courses to help determine admission, Engelschall said.

In the 23-campus California State University system, each institution has its own admissions model. But at Cal Poly Pomona, “it’s really about looking at the full student,” said Brandon Tuck, director of admissions for the campus, one of the panelists.

“We have a lot of history on the student and how they’ve progressed academically through their high school career,” he said, referring to the information students provide on their applications. Grades are still very important, but each institution should be examining students that fit the profile of their institution. For example, the Pomona campus is a polytechnic university, which means performance in science, technology, engineering and math classes will carry more weight with admissions officers there, Tuck said.

After the elimination of standardized tests, more students appear to be applying to colleges than before, as many feel they have a more equitable chance at admission. But there’s still too much secrecy around the process, students say.

Jessica Ramos, a UC Berkeley freshman studying psychology, said she applied to about 30 colleges and universities last year.

“As students, we see it as luck,” said Ramos, who was also a panelist. “Admissions is like this secret, like the new show that just came out, ‘Squid Games.’ … We kind of get put into this system where whoever gets chosen, gets chosen. We don’t really know anything about what’s behind the scenes. So there never has been trust with admissions. It’s just this type of luck game.”

When navigating admissions today, one big question students are contemplating is how to use “pass” or “no pass” options on their transcripts. Thanks to Assembly Bill 104 California high school students can change their letter grades for courses taken in 2020-21 to a “pass” or “no pass” without lowering their GPA. The change doesn’t affect their financial aid or admission to CSU or UC.

“There is a large concern about the number of ‘pass’ and ‘no pass’ grades that are showing on an application,” Engelschall said. “That’s another data point that we’re not seeing on a student.”

Josh Godinez, a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona and president of the California Association of School Counselors, advises students to apply to eight to 12 colleges with a mixture of CSU, UC and private institutions.

“So that [then] we just see what happens,” he said, adding that he also encourages students to apply to a community college and get their financial aid applications in. “Because you never know … and at least that gives them a Plan B to consider.”

Admissions officers are also well aware of the changes or accommodations students have had to make because of the pandemic. So it’s good for students to let admissions offices know if they weren’t able to participate in an activity or take a dual enrollment class because those opportunities were cut off for them, Godinez said.

“Make sure if you, or your child, was one of those students that had some sort of obstacle to take something that would have otherwise been taken in a normal year, that that information is shared as part of that (Covid-19 pandemic) experience,” he said.

For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.

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