By Ellen Loucks | Photo by Patil Khakhamian

For many undergraduate students, acceptance into graduate school is key for securing a professional position or a career in higher education. However, rescinded internship or job offers, pass/fail grade tracks, and asynchronous learning are all causing many students to consider taking time off after their college years, or perhaps rethinking going to graduate school altogether.

In an open letter to “Graduate Schools, Employers, and Future Opportunities” on April 15, over 150 undergraduate student body presidents and representatives from 157 colleges and universities across the nation argued that students’ transcripts from the spring 2020 semester should not be a defining factor for acceptance into a graduate school program. According to Susan Svrluga from the Washington Post, the letter was sent to numerous organizations, including the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Council of Graduate Schools.

The letter calls for graduate schools to lower quantitative entrance requirements, including cutoffs for applicants’ GPA or test scores. The letter emphasizes that neither all courses nor all students have transitioned well to online learning. For example, many seminar classes have ceased in-person discussions and science classes have removed the lab component. Furthermore, many students are adjusting to time zone differences, extra responsibilities at home, and loss of access to academic resources. Although not all schools have mandated that 2020 spring semester grades will be evaluated on a pass/fail basis, students who have needed to opt for a pass/fail option are likely those who have been most affected by COVID-19 or have been historically marginalized.

Gretchen Wardell, a Career Coach and Pre-Law Advisor at the Career Center, reassures students who are worried about suboptimal spring semester transcripts that graduate and professional schools are aware that people have been affected in many different ways by COVID-19. She stresses that students should not be concerned about the impact of one semester upon their future “because you have seven other semesters’ worth of grades that grad schools can look at.” Rather, students should be figuring out how best to articulate their personal COVID-19 experience to graduate school admissions.

A critical component of professionalism is knowing how to answer the prompt, “Tell me about yourself.” Wardell states that in light of COVID-19, graduate schools will be interested in knowing how an applicant has effectively used their time during the 2020 spring semester. An important question to consider when writing a personal statement or preparing for a graduate school interview is: How did you make use of your time during COVID-19, and how did you seek new or unique opportunities? What does your COVID-19 experience say about you and your character?

“It is important to be open and honest when you tell your story [to graduate schools],” Wardell said. “Yes, graduate schools are aware that internships have been cancelled and that the academic learning environment isn’t ideal. Yeah, [COVID-19] is really tough. But have you taken advantage of the opportunities that you have at home, which weren’t available to you on-campus? How have you contributed to your family or community? Are there free [skill-building] classes that you have taken? How have you used your time well?”

For students who are considering taking time off in between their undergraduate experience and graduate school in light of COVID-19, Wardell encourages them to do so. “I am a huge fan of gap years,” she said. “I think it would be a really good idea for [students] to take time off and make sure that [they] are pursuing the right program. Extra time can help [a student] carefully evaluate [their] subsequent career prospects.”

A remote fall semester is one of the most pressing concerns for graduating seniors who will attend graduate school within a few months. Although no final decisions have been made, the face of higher education will undeniably look remarkably different come the 2020 fall semester. According to Doug Lederman from Inside Higher Ed, colleges and universities will need to be prepared to switch modalities “at the drop of a hat.” For example, Flower Darby, director of teaching for student success at Northern Arizona University, plans to have an online teaching coach monitor each course that is being taught virtually for the first time — if, in fact, remote classes continue.

Regardless, learning will proceed, and flexibility and understanding will be required from everyone involved at all levels in higher education.

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