No SATs, No Tours, No Problem
Admission officials and students both made their decisions with less to go on

In high school, Catherine McLaughlin played three sports, held multiple leadership roles and bested a rigorous course load. But as she considered her college options last fall, one thing was holding her back from applying to selective schools like UVA: her SAT score.

As it turned out, McLaughlin didn’t need to fret. Because the pandemic shuttered standardized testing centers and canceled administration dates, many colleges and universities, including UVA, went test-optional, no longer requiring an SAT or ACT score as part of the application. 

Says McLaughlin, “That opened more doors.”

For UVA, it opened the floodgates. A record 47,800-plus applications flowed into the undergraduate admissions office, up nearly 17 percent from the previous year. About 43 percent of applicants didn’t include a standardized test score because they weren’t able to take the exam or, like McLaughlin, didn’t feel confident about their scores.

That was just one example of how this admissions cycle was like no other—for both seekers and grantors of admission. Both sides of the table had less to rely on. COVID curbed high school sports and extracurriculars, important selling points for students. It also shut down site visits, depriving UVA of one of its best closing arguments.

McLaughlin didn’t need convincing. She joins the Class of 2025 as an Echols Scholar, planning to take a pre-med track and play club lacrosse. “I’m not going to lie; I was kind of shocked when I got in,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting it just because I knew the way the numbers were with COVID, so many people were applying, and everything was thrown off this year. When I got in, it skyrocketed on my list.” 

The essay’s role

Even without the tours or test scores and nearly 7,000 more applications to consider than usual, not much changed for UVA’s admissions officers as they evaluated applications, they say. They still considered the rigor of a student’s high school classes. If no test score was included, it was simply a metric they didn’t have. No other part of the application was weighted more heavily without it, says Dean of Admission Greg Roberts (Darden ’17). 

And, as always, the essays provided a glimpse into a student’s life that transcripts and recommendations couldn’t paint. 

“They don’t have to be highly polished,” Roberts says. “They don’t have to be about a specific topic. Frankly, some of the best ones are about basic life experiences or events or moments in time that really tell us more about a student’s character, drive and motivation.” 

That’s exactly the route McLaughlin took. On a beach vacation in the summer of 2020, she tossed around essay options with her family. The idea that stuck was about the black IKEA table in her living room. That table, she would write, was the “eye of the hurricane” in her hectic high school life. She did her homework there, but it also kept her where she likes to be: privy to every family conversation. “It’s just so me,” McLaughlin says. 

Preliminary picture

Enrollment numbers won’t be final until students arrive on Grounds in August, but preliminary numbers provide a glimpse of the incoming first-year class (see related charts, below). As of mid-July, the 3,939 applicants who had accepted offers are a diverse mix of smart students. Nearly 50 percent represent a race other than white. More than 57 percent are women. The mean SAT score was 1445 out of 1600. 

The number of low-income and first-generation students had dropped from the previous year, however. Those numbers reflect national trends during the pandemic. “We expect that as we get back into physical interactions with students, welcoming people to Grounds, we’ll see these results pick up,” Vice Provost for Enrollment Stephen Farmer told the Board of Visitors in June.

Farmer also told the BOV of an “unprecedented jump” in the number of out-of-state students who accepted admission this year. As of mid-July, 38.5 percent of the class comprised out-of-state students, up from 31.9 percent in 2020.

By the Numbers
Class of 2025: More Students, More Diverse, More Out-of-State

Total Incoming Students
3,939
Average SAT Score
(Out of 1,964 applications*)
1445
From low-income households
257
First-generation college students
473
 
 

*UVA was test-optional for students applying for admission in Fall 2021. 
Note: Enrollment numbers are preliminary as of July 14, 2021. Official University enrollment numbers will be available at census later in the fall. Students’ racial and ethnic information is reported by UVA in accordance to guidelines set by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Any U.S. student who reported more than one race was counted in the multi-race category.
Source: University of Virginia Institutional Research and Analysis

Preparing for next year

As members of the Class of 2025 prepare for their college years, the admissions department also is looking ahead. It’s considering the role of standardized tests, which will remain optional for students during the next two application cycles. UVA will study how well students who didn’t submit test scores do academically to determine if admissions officers were able to evaluate their aptitude correctly and whether scores should be required in the future, Roberts says.

And officials are looking for new ways to handle higher application numbers this coming year, so they have more time to build connections with potential students, he says. Two signs bode well for UVA admissions staff and prospective applicants: Staff have returned to Peabody Hall, and in-person tours on Grounds resumed in mid-June. Students and families are filling them up.

“It’s a really exciting time despite everything,” Roberts says. “We’ve had a great experience with these tours. And it’s great for me personally to see people in Peabody Hall, smiling without masks and talking to each other again.” 

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.