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Graduate schools nationwide adjust to changing admissions landscape

The March LSAT, MCAT and GRE were also cancelled in wake of the COVID-19 epidemic

The University’s School of Law said that they will not penalize applicants for taking classes CR/NC.
The University’s School of Law said that they will not penalize applicants for taking classes CR/NC.

While the University attempts to attract the Class of 2024 using online services like Zoom and TikTok, another group is also struggling with admissions — prospective graduate students. COVID-19 has disrupted testing, grading and other application processes nationwide. 

Testing requirements

The COVID-19 outbreak has disturbed testing across the globe — the March LSAT, MCAT and GRE were all canceled, and several of the organizations that administer these exams are considering suspending April testing as well. 

The Association of American Medical Colleges canceled MCAT testing globally and waived all rescheduling fees until further notice. According to their website, the AAMC plans to offer additional testing opportunities but has not specified when or how this will take place. 

Similarly, the Law School Application Committee canceled the March LSAT, which is required for most applicants to law schools across the United States. All registrants have been rescheduled to the April exam. 

“Canceling the March test was a difficult step, but we believe it was the most responsible course of action to protect test takers, test center personnel, and the broader community,” the LSAC said in a statement. 

In addition, the LSAC said that they are considering whether administration of the April exam can go forward and noted that they will announce a decision no later than April 10. The LSAC indicated that they are exploring alternative methods of administering the exam, including secure remote-proctored tests and an additional spring or summer administration.

Third-year College student Kiera Goddu originally planned to take the August LSAT because she was supposed to be abroad to finish her Spanish major earlier in the summer, though she now has both June and July free due to the cancellation of University summer study abroad programs.

“I am trying to decide whether it is worth to risk signing up for a June or July test date, knowing that these may also be cancelled and that my preparation may be disrupted by further changes in circumstances regarding CO-VID 19,” Goddu said.

GRE testing has also been suspended nationwide, though other countries will conduct limited testing. However, the Educational Testing Service is temporarily allowing students to take the GRE online while at home. According to the ETS website, the test is identical to exams taken at test centers and will be monitored by live remote proctors. 

Kim Sauerlein, director of career communities at the University’s Career Center, said that this adjustment may be a good option for pre-law students who were registered for the canceled LSAT since there are a proportion of law schools that also accept the GRE, such as Boston University’s School of Law and Wake Forest University’s School of Law.

The Cavalier Daily reached out to a number of law and medical schools and inquired if they anticipated any changes to testing requirements due to the outbreak of COVID-19 — no schools indicated any plans to waive these requirements. 

Medical school admissions

Wes Hester, the University’s director of media relations and deputy spokesperson, noted data from the National Association for Advisors in the Health Professions reporting that about 96 percent of medical schools will accept pass/fail classes for this semester, though about 37 percent prefer grades. 

The University adopted an opt-out credit/no credit grading system March 18. Students still have the option to take letter grades, but must decide whether they will do so before the last day of spring semester classes, April 28.

“We expect that nationally higher ed institutions will modify their expectations and understanding of work undertaken this semester,” Hester said. 

Admissions teams will now have to consider transcripts from schools with both opt-in or opt-out pass/fail and universal pass systems, and medical schools have started to adopt various policies regarding these systems. 

While the University’s School of Medicine did not clarify whether they would be accepting pass/fail coursework in their statement to The Cavalier Daily, John Densmore, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, said that they do not see this switch impacting applicants. 

“We do not see this impacting applicants,” Densmore said. “There is plenty in the application outside of one semester that will allow us to make admissions decisions.”

Harvard Medical School, however, plans to only accept pass/fail coursework if a student’s institution has instituted a universal pass/fail system.

“So that no applicants are disadvantaged by policy decisions made by their colleges/universities as a result of this unprecedented event, HMS will accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades,” the Medical School said in a special notice on their website. 

Meanwhile, other schools are suggesting or requiring that students submit a clarification of their grades this semester along with their application. 

The University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine plans to continue its holistic admissions process and will welcome applications from all students, regardless of their university’s grading policy. If, however, a student attends an institution with an opt-in pass/fail system and that student elects to take classes pass/fail, they will be required to provide a written explanation addressing that decision. 

According to their website, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has not yet decided whether or not they will accept prerequisites taken online this semester. While the school said that they do not currently accept online courses, they noted that the current circumstances are “most unusual” and will require them to be more flexible with respect to this criteria and the shift to pass/fail made by many other universities. 

“We will continue our previous discussions about whether to accept online courses for the prerequisites at an accelerated pace that has been prompted by the pandemic,” the Johns Hopkins website reads. 

The University of Michigan’s School of Medicine will accept pass/fail courses regardless of whether or not a student’s university has chosen to institute a universal pass system. In a statement, both assistant dean for admissions Steven Gay and admissions specialist Carol Teener said that the admissions department would accept applications without MCAT scores and encouraged applicants to think about whether this year is the right year to apply. 

Law School admissions

The University’s School of Law said that they will not penalize applicants for taking classes CR/NC and noted that they understand there are many reasons that students may need to do so, considering the current circumstances. 

“We would not view that negatively in a law school application,” Senior Director of Admissions Ashley Merritt said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Similarly, according to Michelle Heck, associate director of admissions at University of Richmond’s School of Law, the the admissions department will not penalize students for today’s highly unusual circumstances. 

“We are very aware of the challenges students are facing right now,” Heck said. 

Heck also said that failing grades will be cause for concern regardless of a graded or pass/fail system and noted that students are free to submit an addendum explaining their circumstances.

Columbia Law School told The Cavalier Daily that while they will keep the current circumstances in mind during the admissions process, students are encouraged to submit a clarification of their grades if their university has adopted a pass/fail system. 

“We are aware that many institutions, including our own, will grade all classes on a pass/fail basis this semester as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Columbia Law School wrote in a statement. “We strongly encourage applicants who attend an institution with a similar policy to submit an addendum explaining their circumstances, which will also be taken into consideration.”

However, Yale Law School did not suggest submitting explanations like this, telling The Cavalier Daily that it will continue to review applications normally. Yale Law School said that it does not anticipate the pass/fail spring semesters of applicants being an issue and that it “will encourage applicants to receive additional letters of recommendation if they can.” 

According to Kristi Jobson, chief admissions officer and associate dean for admissions at Harvard Law School, the law school’s history of accepting pass/fail grades predates the COVID-19 epidemic. Jobson said that the admissions team plans to remain as flexible as possible so as to “not further exacerbate society’s many inequitable barriers to a legal education.” 

However, though they clarified that applicants do not need to submit an addendum explaining pandemic-related circumstances, they are welcome to if they choose.

“Our goal in navigating this situation is to make the application process — this year and in future years — as simple as possible,” Jobson said. 

Fourth-year College student Mia Brandon, president of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity, said that they are not providing recommendations for how members should take their classes.

“We have not advised anyone on how to take their grades this semester,” Brandon said. “As the choice came during an irregular end of semester, we want our brothers to take the time they need to adjust in classes and use this offer to accept credit from the University if and as they choose for their well being.”

Despite the difficulties of meeting online, Brandon said that the fraternity has many events planned, including meetings with law school admissions officers on Zoom and virtual tours of law schools. 

Graduate school admissions

“[Admissions] decisions are almost always made by faculty admissions committees in specific programs and departments, of which there may be many,” said Phillip Trella, associate vice provost and director of the University’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. “That said, in recent years graduate programs have generally become less focused on single variables/metrics for determining success such as GPA or GRE scores, and more in favor of holistic admissions practices that try to determine an overall best fit between a candidate and a department/discipline by looking at the full range of application materials.”

Trella said that these temporary changes in grading systems would not have a major impact on admissions processes and advised students to make the best decision for their well-being at this time. 

Maura Nolan, chair of the graduate admissions committee in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley, said that it was far too early to determine the impact of COVID-19 on graduate school admissions, but noted that Berkeley will be taking the current situation into account. 

“No one wants prospective students’ chances to be blighted by a worldwide crisis far beyond their control,” Nolan said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. “We always take personal circumstances into account in evaluating candidates, and we will continue to do so. Any specific responses to the coronavirus pandemic will have to wait until the admissions process begins next fall.” 

While Nolan couldn’t comment specifically on how Berkeley plans to adapt their admissions processes, she advised that students proceed normally — draft personal statements, ask faculty for letters of recommendation and choose appropriate writing samples — and emphasized that it is important for applicants to begin this process early in the event that university staff are delayed by their own personal circumstances relating to COVID-19. She also added that students can use their time in quarantine productively to write and revise materials. 

How this may affect graduate school admissions

Grading systems now vary across the country — some universities have adopted opt-in systems while others have universal pass. While this change was instituted to maintain equity at the University, Goddu said that she thinks opt-in grading systems favor students who have the means to continue with their classes. 

“On one hand, you want to be able to count grades that will help you and some students may have been relying on performing well this semester to balance out previous grades,” Goddu said. “On the other, there is an equity issue here in that some students have the resources to continue getting good grades in online classes in the midst of an economic crisis and some students simply do not.” 

Ellie Brassachio, fourth-year College student and former Student Council President, said that she hasn’t decided yet whether or not she will be using the CR/NC option and agreed with Goddu that the change may present some issues.

“I was pleased to see that the University listened to student concerns and chose to institute a default CR/NC system,” Brassachio said. “It has the possibility to put low-income students at a disadvantage, as they might be more likely to take the credit option due to factors like quality of living situation, access to resources like internet and adequate meals, and they also might be working more … I think it's in everyone's interest to go to a universal pass system.”

With the state of Virginia under a stay-at-home order, students are also losing valuable time to tour graduate schools they anticipate applying to. 

“This spring and this summer would have been the time that I was visiting some schools to get a sense of their programs and whether I could see myself living in the area for 3 years, so that’s been somewhat stressful just feeling like I am behind,” Goddu said. 

In light of these extenuating circumstances, Sauerlein said that she expects the typical timeline for graduate school admissions to change. While viable applicants usually submit applications closer to the opening date, Sauerline said that there may be a shift to these applicants applying later. 

She noted that deadlines could be pushed back, though that has not been communicated to her by any admissions departments, and said that she thinks testing will still be required. 

Advice from the University Career Center

While students may not be on Grounds, they still have access to the University’s Career Center to access resources relating to graduate school applications. Sauerlein emphasized that there are plenty of opportunities for students to continue with career development while at home and that they can schedule virtual or phone appointments through Handshake or email with advisors that are available Monday through Friday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Students outside the U.S. who may be in different time zones can email careercenter@virginia.edu to request an appointment. 

Additionally, the Career Center website has a page dedicated to online resources and offers free courses in areas like project-management or design if students want to hone their skills during quarantine.

Sauerlein noted that the Career Center is working directly with employers to determine whether they are keeping internships or delaying decisions, but that this information changes every day. The Career Center is also working with University alumni and other employers to create short-term, virtual skill-building activities that could help students with career development moving forward. 

“This is all relatively new — my colleagues are working very closely with employers to identify what those opportunities are,” Sauerlein said. “We're open to students because we really want to give customized advice that works for that particular student and the industry or career area that that student wants to go into.”

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