Arts Admissions in the COVID-19 Era

This time of year is always a roller coaster for college-bound high school seniors and their parents – waiting for decisions, celebrating acceptances, dealing with rejection, figuring out financial aid, and the big one: choosing a college to attend. But most years aren’t like this one. A year into the pandemic, the ups and downs of college admission have become even more dramatic with long wait lists, lower acceptance rates, chaos around standardized testing, and confusion about what college will even look like come fall and beyond. To get a detailed look at how students, parents, and educators are feeling about the current landscape of college admission and the arts, we conducted a survey in February of those who are currently involved in the process to gauge how they are feeling about things. 

Standardized Testing

One of the most discussed topics of the past year has been standardized testing. For context, by the end of 2020 over 2/3 of colleges had adopted test-optional admission policies, including the most well-known and elite institutions across the country. Pandemic-induced test site cancellations severely limited access to these tests and all but forced colleges to go test optional. However, given that standardized tests scores have traditionally been one of the most important application factors that colleges consider when choosing which students to admit, this shift in how most colleges evaluate applicants was both abrupt and seismic. Add to that the fact that non-submitters to test-optional colleges were less likely to be admitted on average, it’s not surprising that students and parents are even more confused about what to do.

As colleges do their best to reassure us all that ‘test optional means test optional,’ students and parents have been left wondering if it’s even worth it to take an ACT or SAT at all. We have learned that despite the widespread opportunity to apply to colleges and have test scores excluded, not only are a majority of juniors and seniors (75%) still taking or planning to take an ACT or SAT, but almost all (89%) of those who have sat for these tests plan to submit their scores to one or more colleges on their list. Why? Because competition is fierce and the idea understandably persists that submitting scores might improve one’s chances of successful admission.

College Visits and Arts Activities

Families’ concerns this year are understandably both amplified and also different from a typical year. According to our survey, fewer than 5% of students visited colleges in person[KJ1] [KJ2]  (though fortunately that is beginning to change this spring), so this is an obvious new concern, but it’s an important one. For most families, college represents the largest single financial investment a family will ever make in its child(ren).

For arts applicants, the inability to visit extended also to auditions, interviews, and in-person portfolio reviews that all had to be moved entirely online, and this has certainly exacerbated students’ worries about getting in. In fact, 71% of high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) are fearful that they will not get accepted to their top-choice school or not get into any college at all. College arts applicants usually have many more opportunities to interact and network with both college faculty and current students through on-campus events, so it’s no wonder these worries are common these days.

Arts applicants have also endured major disruptions in their arts training at high schools, outside arts organizations, with private teachers, and in summer training programs. These types of extracurricular activities are so important to students whose continued artistic development is critical to a successful audition- or portfolio-based college admission process. Fortunately, however, this past year of challenges didn’t stop arts students from staying optimistic, resilient and creative. With virtual and social media platforms readily available as resources, students could (and almost 90% did) build upon their craft, gain performance experience, and continue training for auditions in fruitful and innovative ways. The persistence from arts students gives the arts community so much to look forward to as it continues its road to recovery.

Decision Time

March is college decision month when most colleges release freshman admission decisions, so the wait is quickly coming to an end. Most college-bound arts students and their parents are planning to stay the course and choose a college arts program to attend in the fall, but some (39%) are considering alternatives like taking a gap year, pursuing a BA or BS degree rather than a professional BFA/BM degree, or even attending a community college for the first year. Having more options always seems like it will be a good thing, but it can make choosing one all the more difficult, especially when families simply have more factors to consider than ever before. What will the student life experience look like next year on college campuses? If I take a year off, will it be even tougher to get into a good college next year? Will I be permitted to defer for a year? Should I wait until our family finances or my employment situation improves before making this investment? How do I commit to a college I was never able to visit in person?

As students and parents work through these questions and decisions, it is important to consider the perspective of current college freshmen who overwhelmingly don’t regret their decisions to attend college last fall (according to our survey, it’s 82%) even though it was smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. With colleges beginning to make promises about returning to normal campus life in September 2021, there is good reason to be hopeful about the college freshman experience.

In our conversations with families who work with ArtsBridge, whether through our own GapYear program or through our college counseling services, it is clear we are in a time when good guidance is critical. If your family is hiring an outside counselor like ArtsBridge, that’s great! For those who can’t, make sure you weigh all of your options with someone who knows the student well and whose advice you trust. 

Read more about our survey findings here.



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