Coronavirus – Impact on International College Applicants

April 17, 2020

As the entire world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, international high school seniors already accepted into an American college must wait to see what unfolds with respect to travel restrictions, potential delayed college openings in the fall, or a temporary shift to online instruction. Current juniors, likely homebound and dealing with a severely interrupted grade 11 year, must now ponder the decision of whether to still target the U.S. school of their dreams; an enterprise fraught with its own set of challenges and unknowns.

To help with this predicament, we will cover the following topics in this blog:

  • The latest news on the SAT, ACT, and test-optional admissions
  • Should international students go test-optional?
  • Should international students still take SAT Subject Tests?
  • How to take the TOEFL, IELTS or Dualingo exams
  • Are Initialview interviews still a good option for international students?
  • The rising importance of essays
  • Will American universities be less selective in the 2020-21 admissions cycle?

Everything in this blog is aimed at international high school juniors who desire to attend college in the U.S. in the fall of 2021. However, current sophomores (or even freshman) can also benefit from much of this information. Let’s begin with standardized testing…

Latest on the SAT/ACT

The College Board has officially cancelled their June SAT testing date. Students will not be able to take the SAT or SAT Subject Tests at that time. This comes after the cancellation of the May exam as well as the March test (at most locations worldwide). They have pledged to, if possible, offer tests every month from August through December. They also state that, “In the unlikely event that schools do not reopen this fall, College Board will provide a digital SAT for home use, like how we’re delivering digital exams to 3 million AP students this spring.” The ACT has yet to cancel their June test but doing so certainly seems like a possibility.

In response to the delays as well as the future uncertainty, many top-tier colleges in the U.S. have decided to go test-optional for at least the next admissions cycle. Highly-selective colleges that have already dropped their SAT/ACT requirement for the current high school Class of 2021 include:

  • Amherst College
  • Boston University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Davidson College
  • Middlebury College
  • Northeastern University
  • Santa Clara University
  • Scripps College
  • Tufts University
  • University of California (all campuses including UCLA and Berkeley)
  • Williams College

Should international students go test-optional?

It really depends on how strong of a test-taker you happen to be. Traditionally, because American colleges are less familiar with grading policies of foreign high schools, testing takes on an increased importance for international students. In a more typical year, sans pandemic, elite schools require average SAT or ACT and scores that are above the 95th percentile. For example, Princeton’s mid-50% SAT range last year was 1460-1570, which is pretty standard among Ivy and Ivy-equivalent institutions.  For clues as to how test-optional admissions is likely to look at uber-selective schools like Williams, UC Berkeley, or Tufts, we can look toward the University of Chicago, which went test-optional in 2018, but still sees the vast majority of applicants submit standardized test scores as part of their application. Bowdoin College has been test-optional for over 50 years and yet, in 2018-19, 60% of admits included SAT scores and 46% submitted ACT results (with many submitting both).

If anything, this test-optional wave will end up granting an even more substantial edge to those who possess excellent standardized test scores. While phenomenal, a 1500 SAT score, 34-35 composite on the ACT, or 800 SAT Math Subject Test would not have previously blown open the gates at prestigious universities where tens of thousands of students can claim similar credentials. However, Class of 2021 international students with exceptional scores may stand out a bit more than usual due to the exceptional circumstances that have altered so many test administrations.

Should I still take SAT Subject Tests?

In addition to the main SAT or ACT, SAT Subject Tests are wonderful opportunities to demonstrate mastery of content that unequivocally shows your academic prowess and depth of understanding. SAT Subject Test requirements have been officially dropped by every school including MIT (the last school to do so), but these tests still carry significant admissions value at many elite universities. If possible, we highly recommend still sitting for SAT Subject Tests. The previously stated updates (and question marks) from the College Board apply to Subject Tests as well.

Can I take the TOEFL, IELTS, or Dualingo?


Due to the health crisis, ETS, the company behind the TOEFL exam which tests English proficiency has instituted an at-home option on a temporary basis. The test is taken on your home computer and monitored by a human proctor via ProctorU. The test is available everywhere that the regular TOEFL exam is typically administered with the exception of Mainland China and Iran.


Similarly, the IELTS has moved to an online format that can assess English skills in the areas of Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking in a timed test taken entirely from home. The exam is available once a week at scheduled times. Students can register as of April 22nd and the test will be available until in-person testing can resume.


You may also wish to explore Duolingo, an online test that you can take anytime from home, finish in one hour, and get the results of in just two days. This convenient test is now accepted by over 1,000 institutions including Columbia, Yale, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Georgia Tech.

Should I also do an interview through InitialView?

Many domestic students applying to elite schools have the benefit of sitting down one-on-one with admissions officer or an alumni representative for an interview at some point in the application process. An in-person meeting provides them with an excellent chance to make a strong impression and a personal connection that can pay dividends come decision time. Of course, in the age of COVID-19, these will all have to move to a phone/Skype/Zoom platform.

With the playing field temporarily a bit more even, we definitely recommend participating in a taped interview through InitialView, as it is an opportunity to:

1) Showcase your English proficiency.

2) Convey a sincere interest in attending school in the U.S.

3) Make a memorable impression on an admissions official.

InitialView serves as a third party which interviews students on behalf of selective U.S. colleges. This is a videotaped interview conducted via webcam (in-person is also an option during normal times) that is then sent, unedited, to the colleges to which you apply. Even though you won’t speak directly with the admissions committee, this taped interview can still serve as a way to make a connection and demonstrate that you are more than just a collection of grades and test scores.

Essays may take on increased importance

Essays are one component of an application that are given far more weight in the American admissions system than in many others around the world. To give you an example, when applying to MIT, in addition to a 650-word Common App essay, you’ll complete two 100-word responses and three 250-word responses on topics such as “What you do for pleasure” and “How you work to improve your community.” Columbia University wants to know a list of books you’ve read in and outside of the classroom, and the plays, concerts, and art exhibits you’ve visited. International students need to understand that while these seem like frivolous questions, they are actually one of the few opportunities to showcase who they really are and forge a personal connection with admission officer, even one who will never meet them face-to-face.

Now that many schools are moving toward test-optional policies, at least through the duration of coronavirus, college essays—both the Common App main essay and the aforementioned types of supplemental prompts—will likely take on a heightened importance. With one fewer metric on which to judge and rank applicants, all other components of the application suddenly carry more weight. Putting maximum effort into the essay portion of your applications is always of critical importance, but it is reasonable to assume that finding a way to stand out through authenticity, quality storytelling, and of course, exceptional writing, has never been more vital. After all, how else is UCLA going to wade through 135,000 applications from students who all have straight A’s if SAT scores are absent from many submissions?

Elite American colleges may be less selective

There may a silver lining for international students still eyeing American colleges for the 2021-22 academic year—admissions are likely to be a bit less competitive. While, at this point, we can only speculate, the number of students applying to be part of the freshman cohort of 2021-22 is very likely to be reduced, both in the U.S. and abroad. A recent survey found that 24% of U.S. seniors had, due to the pandemic, either decided not to attend college as previously planned or were uncertain of their status.

We would anticipate some level of change for the subsequent class as well, due to worsening economic conditions. Further, there are typically over one million international students studying at U.S. institutions, accounting for 5.5% of the total higher education population. This figure is even higher at many prestigious schools where international students often make up 10%+ of the undergraduate student body. These numbers were already declining slightly since the onset of the Trump administration. Now, between official travel restrictions and potential shifts in human behavior (more people may wish to remain closer to home), the number of international applicants has the potential for a far steeper decline. Less competition will inherently mean improved odds (even if only slight) at gaining acceptance into America’s most selective universities.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

Right now, there are more questions than answers in just about any area of life—health, safety, finances, employment, global supply chains, athletics, social life, and so on and so on—it’s no different in the world of secondary or postsecondary education. Uncertainty abounds and making fully-informed decisions right now is an utter impossibility. However, current international high school students hoping to come to the U.S. for college can still engage in planning, research, and strategies that will ultimately help them in their admissions quest, regardless of how the next year unfolds. Having a plan and a back-up plan are necessary steps with regard to standardized testing and English proficiency exams and it’s worth considering how the landscape may change (increased focus on essays/interviews and better admissions odds for international students). With pharmaceutical companies around the globe racing to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, we can feel at least a glimmer of hope that normal life will eventually resume. When it does, international college applicants who are the most prepared will be at a distinct advantage.