Institutions that usually take test scores into account will have to find other ways to evaluate test-free applications like Mr. Strachan’s. At Yale, admissions officers will take a closer look at elements like teacher recommendations, high school transcripts and student writing, including the personal essay, said Mr. Quinlan, the admissions dean.
That aspect also gave Mr. Strachan difficulties: What to write about, and how to stand out? With his soccer and lacrosse seasons canceled, along with other extracurricular activities, he filled the time by starting a group called A Helping Elbow with friends and classmates, to deliver groceries to older people or those with compromised immune systems.
As the organization grew, the students started sewing hundreds of face masks. The experience became a dominant part of his college application.
Just as students have struggled with this strange admissions season, so have colleges. The databases they buy from testing companies have fewer names, test scores and demographic information this year, adding to the challenge of recruiting. Virtual college tours and other forms of online outreach make it more difficult to form personal connections.
“Everything’s on Zoom, which is hard,” said Peter Hagan, head of admissions at Syracuse University.
But others said virtual outreach removed the logistical difficulties of reaching possible applicants.
“We’ve connected with an incredible number of students,” said Mr. Quinlan, the admissions dean at Yale. “The barriers to information sessions — not getting to Topeka, Kan., or getting to New Haven — are gone.”
For Ms. Caldwell, who attends an all-girls Catholic school in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, the last few months have been rocky. Her father, an autoworker, got Covid-19 early on but has since recovered. Neither of her parents finished college.