Uncommon App: Tufts Admissions in the COVID-19 Pandemic

It has been over a year since Tufts first decided to conduct all classes virtually for the rest of the 2020 spring semester in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as current students have highlighted the many stresses they have had to deal with, prospective students applying to the university have faced many unprecedented challenges as well. Tufts had to make significant changes to move its admissions process almost entirely virtual while still providing prospective students with an insight into life on campus. Even as these drastic shifts have gone far to ensure that students are properly informed as they decide whether to attend Tufts, they also raise concerns about the burden placed on prospective students and the equity of the altered admissions process.

The pandemic has made the already strenuous admissions process even more competitive for many students. With only eleven percent of applicants admitted, Tufts’ acceptance rate for the class of 2025 was the lowest ever recorded. For comparison, the acceptance rate the year before was fifteen percent. Tufts announced a 35 percent increase in applicants this year compared to previous years, and other universities have reported similar data. “I felt like the competition to get into schools was a lot higher this year, due to the fact that so many people had nothing else to do” said Liv Hand, a member of Tufts’ class of 2025. “As a result, we’re just going all in for college [applications].” Ruby McElhone Yates, a prospective student who was admitted to Tufts but has not yet committed, also felt this pressure. McElhone Yates said, “I definitely applied to a lot more schools than I think I would have in a year where I would have been able to see more of them.”

In addition to increased competition, one of the biggest challenges for prospective students was learning about different schools when they were unable to make visits in person. Jumbo Days, normally an in-person series of events on campus for admitted students, was changed to Jumbo Month, which consisted of dozens of virtual events throughout April. Both Hand and McElhone Yates attended some of these events to learn more about Tufts, including mock classes, info sessions, and Kahoot nights; other offerings included lectures with professors, a scavenger hunt, Instagram Live Q&A’s, and conversations hosted by each of the six identity centers. “It was really hard to look at these colleges and not be able to tour and visit them,” said Hand. “But, that aside … I still felt like I got a decent understanding of at least some colleges that I was super interested into, since I scheduled interviews with admissions reps, and got sort of an understanding there.” Hannah Fein, another member of the class of 2025, noted how especially useful student-led Q&A sessions were: “[Current students] were helpful because they were very knowledgeable about what the school was like …They knew a lot and it helped, especially for the circumstances that we were in.”

For COVID safety, all official in-person tours of Tufts were cancelled during the 2020-21 school year and replaced with virtual tours. Tour guide Anton Shenk described other changes made to touring: “Tour guides started being paid, which was an amazing change to support our work, [and] make it more inclusive of a lot of students here.” Shenk believed the shift to virtual tours contributed in part to a larger number of applications. He said, “We have a lot more flexibility in terms of who can see the school, how many people tour guides can handle on a tour, the kinds of people we can access, and I think all of that contributed to Tufts seeing a record number of applications this year.”

As a member of the Student Communications Group run through the admissions department, first year Blake Anderson works on programs such as the admissions blog and Instagram page to reach potential students. Through these projects, he tries to recreate the unique experience of seeing Tufts in person. Anderson explained, “[Prospective students] don’t get to see the Jumbo statue outside of Barnum. So [admissions] tried to get us to recreate things that students would have had if they toured the school or did a fly-in program.” When Anderson was admitted to Tufts himself, he did not visit campus in person until arriving for his freshman year because of the pandemic, an experience he shares with incoming students who are now in the same situation. “That’s a story I’ve told with my admissions job a couple different times, because that’s what a lot of these students are going through,” said Anderson.

Other incoming students have found creative ways to learn about the school outside of official programs, tours, and events. Fein detailed how a program designed completely by her fellow peers helped her navigate the virtual social landscape. “There was some crazy, insane smart person that made an app with a bunch of links to all of the different group chats that you could be a part of, so I’m in a bunch of group chats for the school,” she said. “There’s a pre-med/pre-vet chat … there’s a New York one … there was even a Jewish person one … it was really easy to meet and find other people.” Others met peers and learned about the school in their class Facebook group and on the Admitted Students Network, a platform designed by Admissions specifically for incoming students to talk with both each other and current students.

Alternatively, one former tour guide, who asked to remain anonymous, gave unofficial in-person tours to prospective students after the tour guide’s mother connected with their parents on Facebook. The tours were socially distanced with all parties masked, and because the tours were less structured, the tour guide was able to talk more about each student’s personal interests. “Before the COVID pandemic, I had a set map I needed to follow, different stops where I was speaking about certain topics, [predetermined] by the actual tour guiding association. And for this, I just walked around on campus and I showed them spots that were interesting to them,” the tour guide explained.

Tufts’ admitted class of 2025 is the most diverse ever in terms of race and ethnicity, and was selected from a similarly diverse pool of applicants. Dean of Admissions JT Duck said in a January 2021 statement that “Applications from Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students kept pace with or exceeded the growth of the overall pool.” The percentage of first-generation and international applicants followed similar trends. One factor that may have contributed to this increased diversity was the implementation of a test-optional admissions policy. In March 2020, Tufts’ admissions department announced they would allow applicants to apply without the SAT or ACT for the next three years, a policy that will affect applications from the classes of 2025, 2026, and 2027, with the potential to be extended indefinitely. Previously, one of the two tests was required. More than 1,240 other universities implemented similar policies this year.

Standardized tests are often criticized as giving an unfair advantage to wealthy, mostly white students, who may have greater access to private tutors, prep classes, and other resources. “Standardized tests don’t actually determine how good of a student you are,” said Amma Agyei, a junior who will soon be Tufts’ first Black female student body president. “Some people are good at testing, some people aren’t good at testing.” Duck reported that half of all applicants chose not to submit standardized tests. “Given how much has changed this year, it is hard to identify what precisely played a role in changing the size or composition of our applicant pool or admitted cohort,” said Duck, “Though I do think our test-optional policy contributed to the surge in applications.”

However, test-optional admissions means that more weight is placed on other parts of an application, such as grades and essays, which can also be affected by unequal socioeconomic factors. Although essays allow for individuality, some applicants can have their essays reviewed by teachers, tutors, and parents, while other students may not have that opportunity. “It feels like, as someone who’s applying, that essays weigh a lot more heavily [during COVID],” said McElhone Yates. “And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because in some ways you have more of an opportunity to be beyond the number [you] got on a test on this day, but in other ways, I think some of the more systemic issues [in the application process] could be stronger in essays as well.”  

Junior Andrew Vu, a FIRST Center peer leader, hoped that the test-optional policy will increase the number of First-Generation Low Income students and students of color at Tufts, which is currently small. In the class of 2024, 11.9 percent of students identified as first generation. Vu said, “Not having standardized testing as a requirement should open the doors for Tufts to do a better job of admitting more POC as well as FGLI students onto campus … I hope that is a good first step in making it more equitable.”

Tufts’ admissions policy is “need-aware,” meaning that financial need is taken into consideration during the application process. The admissions department must be careful not to exceed the budget they are given as they accept students with differing amounts of need. “While Tufts meets the full demonstrated financial need of all admitted students, it is need-sensitive, which means that we have to work carefully to not exceed a finite aid budget each year,” Duck said in an email. The Observer reached out to the university’s financial aid office for additional comments, but representatives were unable to respond by the time of publication. 

Although this fall’s incoming class has the potential to be Tufts’ most diverse yet, the school still has a long way to go in terms of racial and ethnic representation. Agyei believes that this lack of diversity has more to do with which students choose to enroll than which students are accepted. “Tufts always does accept more than four percent Black students,” Agyei said, “but it just ends up happening that only four percent enroll … they just realize other schools are better at supporting persons of color than Tufts is.” Black students made up 7.8 percent of those admitted into Tufts’ class of 2024, but were only 6.5 percent of the enrolled class. The admitted class of 2025 is composed of 11.5 percent Black students, and as of fall 2020, the overall undergraduate, non-international population of Tufts consisted of 4.6 percent Black students. In 2015, amidst a wave of similar protests in schools across the country, over 200 mostly Black Tufts students walked out of class, identifying as #TheThreePercent––a hashtag derived from a study that found only three percent of students at Tufts, BU, Northeastern, and MIT were Black. One of their demands was to raise the percentage of Black undergraduates from just four percent to thirteen percent, which would be representative of the national population. In the past six years, though, Tufts has made little progress towards that goal. 

Agyei identified an armed campus police force and events such as orientation week and campus tours that are mainly designed for white students as factors that make Tufts less welcoming to POC and may discourage them from attending. “I do not think any [Orientation week] events were suited towards persons of color; they were very much geared toward the white majority, and things like that prevent Black students from coming or persons of color from coming here,” Agyei said. She also emphasized the need for Black students to feel safe on campus, especially amidst a national crisis of police brutality and racism: “If you go online, you’re gonna see [that] Tufts police are armed … Why would I choose a school that has an armed police presence over another school that does not have armed police?” 

According to Shenk, there is an ongoing effort to make tours of Tufts more inclusive. Tour guides are now required to give a land acknowledgement recognizing the Indigenous land the university occupies, and he emphasized that it is important to be aware of race when talking about campus safety. Shenk said, “If you’ve ever been on a college tour, your tour guide might have said, ‘Oh, here’s the different resources we have for safety here on campus, I’ve always felt safe on campus…’ but you seriously need to be aware of that … [as] a white guy walking around campus.”

Agyei also criticized high enrollment deposits as having a disproportionate burden on low income students, and the fact that admissions staff has previously made more visits to private high schools and schools with predominantly white students, while overlooking schools with more Black students and students of color. “In the past, Tufts did not make a lot of visits to schools with greater populations of persons of color,” Agyei said, “This year they did more of that.” Pushing for more visits to public schools and schools with diverse populations is part of her plan for admissions as TCU President. 

Despite the unique circumstances, Hand still felt that they made a good decision on where to attend college. “[Tufts] just seemed like a really fun, yet academically challenging place to be,” they said. “It’s just a lot of people who really … know who they are, and know what they want to learn and what they’re passionate about … I feel like I really picked a college that has a good community.” McElhone Yates echoed similar sentiments: “I really appreciate how many people say how friendly and nice students are, and how important that seems to be to the community. And I think that’s really stood out at Tufts … because that’s the kind of thing that you can’t really get from a virtual tour or a webinar.”

However, the pandemic also highlighted problems that still exist within university admissions and larger campus culture that prevent it from being a truly equitable process for all. Shenk recognized Tufts’ status as a relatively inclusive university but also pointed to systemic inequalities that exist within the admissions process and the fact that there is always room for improvement. He said, “Tufts obviously can always do better, but we’ve also consistently been ranked [as being one] of the most inclusive college campuses in the nation. So there are some things we’re doing right, [and] there are some things we could be doing much better.”