Undergraduate admissions moves alumni interviews and engagement opportunities online, drops standardized testing requirement

Sept. 16, 2020, 8:16 p.m.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has made standardized testing optional and shifted alumni interviews online, while also creating opportunities for virtual engagement and seeking to reassure students applying during the 2020-21 cycle.

High school seniors applying to Stanford told The Daily that they are adapting not only to adjustments made to the application by the University, but also to changes in their own communities, like the cancelation of extracurricular programs. Students said that they worried that deferrals from those admitted to the Class of 2024 could further drive down admissions rates for the Class of 2025. (A University spokesperson declined to comment on these concerns about deferrals.) 

Stanford announced on June 17 that students applying to the Class of 2025 and transfer applicants will not be required to submit standardized test scores with their applications. Students who were able to take the SAT or ACT are still welcome to self-report their scores. These and other changes to the application process are enumerated on a page titled “In response to COVID-19,” which can be found on the Undergraduate Admissions site.

On the page, the admissions office encourages applicants to read “What We Care About in This Time of Crisis,” a collective statement from college admissions deans which looks to “underscore [the colleges’] commitment to equity and to encourage in students self-care, balance, meaningful learning and care for others.” Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw was among the deans who signed onto the statement.

The office emphasizes that grades and extracurricular activities will be viewed in the context of the opportunities available to the student during the pandemic.

“The Office of Undergraduate Admission continues working to provide the same level of access and counseling to applicants it did prior to the pandemic and offers many ways for applicants to engage with Admission and the university community,” University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement to The Daily.

Remote alumni interviews

For the 2020-21 cycle, all alumni interviews — which remain an optional piece of the application — will be conducted through video chat. Applicants in certain counties in California and some international locations are not offered interviews, as was the case in the past.

In previous years, the majority of alumni interviews took place in person at a public location such as a library or a coffee shop, according to the admissions office’s website. However, some interviews have been done virtually in the past, especially in cases where relatively few alumni live near the home of the applicant. 

Interviews this year will be conducted on a “mutually agreed upon platform… includ[ing] Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Zoom.” Despite the distanced nature of the interviews, applicants will still be matched to alumni from their area, the admissions office told applicants.

Nicki Salcedo ’96, who is based in Atlanta and has conducted virtual interviews in the past, said that while the quality of the interview is typically not compromised due to the online environment, there are unique challenges associated with the format.

“You have to work a little bit harder to make the prospective student feel comfortable,” Salcedo said. “The virtual environment creates an extra distance that you wouldn’t have if you saw someone in person and were able to shake their hand and see their body language.” 

Charlie Gofen ’87, an alumnus who interviews applicants in and around the Chicago area, echoed Salcedo’s sentiments, acknowledging that “it may be more difficult to develop a rapport with the students online.” 

Gofen also pointed out that observations he has made in the past would not be possible with a virtual interview.

“I once suggested to an applicant that we meet at a Starbucks, and he said, ‘No, let’s meet at a tea shop in Chinatown where he’s worked for the last few years,’” Gofen explained. “It was really nice to visit in that environment and understand his life a little better.”

Some students like Elliott Yoon, a high school senior from Cleveland, welcomed the switch to a virtual interview: “I think it’s going to reduce the stress overall because a lot of people talk online anyways,” Yoon said. 

On-campus admissions events move online

In addition to changes to the application itself, the nature of the interactions between the admissions office and applicants has also changed due to public health concerns.

Instead of on-campus information sessions and tours, applicants are encouraged to sign up for a series of virtual visit programs

Students are encouraged to register for a Discover Stanford information session, which lasts 45 minutes. Similar to information sessions that were held on campus before the pandemic, the sessions feature a representative from the admissions office who discusses topics like Stanford’s academic, athletic, extracurricular and residential programs, in addition to financial aid and admissions. 

Sontee Scott, a high school senior from Somerset, New Jersey said she would have “absolutely” gone on college tours and visited the Stanford campus, an opportunity she no longer has due the pandemic. She instead attended a Discover Stanford session virtually at the beginning of the month.

Despite the virtual format of the information session, Scott said she still found the session helpful, although she acknowledged that “it’s obviously not going to be the same seeing the pictures versus being there and walking [around].” 

Other applicants like Christopher Harjadi from Mountain View, California turned to online resources and college guides to help in his college search rather than attending virtual admissions sessions.

In addition, the admissions office is offering virtual Student Forums, where applicants are able to ask questions to current Stanford undergraduates. The forums take place following the Discover Stanford sessions and are meant to supplement the information session.

Applicants can also attend Community Conversations, which are events that provide “culturally inclusive and relevant information about Stanford’s admission process, community centers, and diverse student body,” according to the event’s description. Community centers represented include the Queer Student Resource Center and El Centro Chicano y Latino.

According to Miranda, the admissions office also engages in outreach through virtual adaptations of the Exploring College Options (ECO) program and visits to individual high schools.

In lieu of a campus tour, a 360-degree virtual tour is available on YouTube. This same tour was shown to students admitted to the Class of 2024 in the spring. The admissions website also notes that student-led virtual tours and themed panels will be available in the future.

Applicants adapt to new circumstances

For current high school seniors applying to college, the pandemic has forced many of them to change plans and adjust accordingly. 

An avid hockey player, Yoon was no longer able to play the team sport due to new health and safety guidelines. However, the situation allowed him to find new passions, like skateboarding.

“It’s given me a chance to try something new instead of being really invested in something I’ve done all my life,” Yoon explained.

Similarly, Harjadi pursued more online projects as a result of quarantine, creating a free anti-stress course for students.

With less of an emphasis being placed on numerical aspects of the application, Harjadi has turned his attention to the essays, which he believes will be more important this year. He anticipates that admissions officers will be looking to answer the question of how applicants “react to this unexpected event that was put on all of us.”

Despite having had to alter her summer plans due to COVID-19 — Scott pursued an online internship rather than an in-person summer program — she is not overly worried about changes to the application itself.

“I know that admissions officers stress that everything will be valued in the context of everything that’s going on,” Scott said.

One concern shared by both Harjadi and Scott is the impact that the students admitted into the Class of 2024 who decided to defer their admissions will have on the number of available spots for this year’s applicants. Students raised concerns that the increased rate of deferrals due to the pandemic would decrease admissions rates for the Class of 2025.

While Stanford has not released official statistics regarding the number of students who took a gap year, peer institutions announced substantial increases in deferrals among the freshman class.

Yale reported that 341 students accepted into the Class of 2024 elected to take a gap year, compared to 51 from the year before. This resulted in a class size that is 21% smaller than previous years. Similarly, 340 members of Harvard’s freshman class deferred their enrollment, as opposed to between 80 and 110 in a typical year.

According to Scott, the admissions representative who presented at her Discover Stanford session assured attendees that admissions chances for this cycle will not be measurably impacted by deferrals.

“I want to believe [that the admissions rate won’t be affected] really badly,” Scott said. “But logistically I don’t know how that would really work.”

Miranda declined to comment on the impact of deferrals on applicants to the Class of 2025. 

Stanford Admissions wrote on its website, “We want to reassure you that you will not be at a disadvantage in the review of your application.”

This article has been correct to reflect that Sontee Scott’s last name is Scott and not Smith. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Evan Cheng at evcheng ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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