Admissions officers debate in a decision committee. The admissions team has faced unexpected challenges in the wake of a tumultuous 2020. (Ellie Yang)
Admissions officers debate in a decision committee. The admissions team has faced unexpected challenges in the wake of a tumultuous 2020.

Ellie Yang

Masters admissions creates reform in the wake of Covid

March 8, 2021

The effects of a tumultuous 2020 have weighed heavily on the Masters admissions office. The independent school admissions landscape has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic and shaken by the nationwide reckoning with overt and systemic racism following the death of George Floyd last May. With the first year of a new “test-blind” policy for standardized testing added into the mix, the admissions cycle for the 2021-2022 school year at Masters, and other independent schools across the country, has been one of uncertainty and forced adaptation. 

COVID-19 forces admissions events online, drives application rates up

Almost immediately after the pandemic shut down the nation in March, in-person events like tours, open houses and interviews––some of the school’s most effective tools to court prospective families––became impossible to carry out safely, shifting all programming to take place virtually. Simultaneously, a pandemic-induced migration of families to independent schools has led to an uptick in Upper School Day and Domestic Boarding applications.

Many prospective students have been unable to visit campus prior to applying, and have had to rely on Zoom webinars to get a sense of their potential fit at the school.

Felipe Queiroz, an eighth grade student at The Windward School in White Plains applying to Masters as an incoming freshman day student, has dealt with the effects of embarking on his high school search during the pandemic. Felipe’s sister, Carol, is a sophomore at Masters, and he noticed the stark differences between his experience in considering Masters and hers. 

“It was a totally different experience,” he said. “The only thing I got to see were pictures from the website.” 

It was a totally different experience. The only things I got to see were pictures from the website.”

— Felipe Queiroz

Although many boarding students have interviewed for the school virtually in the past, the lack of in-person interviews for all prospective day students has been new.

Director of Enrollment Management Emma Katznelson has missed the casual interactions before and after an in-person interview, which she said can be telling of a student and their family. At the same time, she’s observed a new layer of intimacy coming from home interviews.

“You get to see their home life, which is very special,” she said, recalling instances of little siblings walking into prospective student interviews as an example. “They’re literally in my house with me. Sometimes I’m in my office––it depends where we are, but I’m always in their home.”

Katznelson said that the school decided to continue offering virtual interviews to applicants even after the effects of the pandemic subside, citing accommodation for dual-working households and single-parent households as key factors in the decision. 

The new reliance on virtual tools has provided the school with more flexibility than ever before––the admissions office has already hosted 26 events via Zoom, more than double the number of events from all of last year, and interview timing now ranges from 7:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m Eastern Time.

The school’s virtual admissions events have often become the first impression a potential applicant has of Masters. Katznelson noted that the school’s heavy use of Zoom has made it more important than ever to capture the essence of the Masters community during those events, especially given the local presence of other selective independent schools that share a pool of potential applicants with Masters, like Rye Country Day School (RCDS), The Hackley School and Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

“[Covid] has put the onus on us to be deliberate about explaining who we are, because [prospective students] can’t come to campus,” Katznelson said.

Some of the aforementioned independent schools near Masters have been faced with a similar situation. RCDS, for example, has also moved all interviews and admissions events to online platforms. The school, which is located just over 15 miles from Masters, is now offering its first on-campus tours since March, exclusively for admitted students. The tours, the first of which took place four weeks ago, only take place over weekends in order for the school to maintain a reduced capacity on its campus. Like Masters, Rye Country Day’s admissions team organized an increased number of events, all of which took place virtually. 

Rye Country Day Director of Admissions Matt Suzuki said, “For many families who are not familiar with schools, it’s a very daunting process to ask them to commit to a school for x amount of years without even visiting.”

The increase in applications among Upper School Day and Domestic Boarding applicants at Masters is likely to have been caused directly by effects of the pandemic, rather than the school’s new test-blind policy, or other factors, according to Katznelson. 

“I do think we’re seeing an uptick in applications because people are unhappy with the way their schools have handled virtual learning,” she said. “Specifically, many public school families have been frustrated with the lack of in-person education and synchronous education, so they’re making the decision to move to independent school.”

Katznelson noted that the increase has been inconsistent from grade-to-grade, but pointed to it as a general trend she has seen this year.

According to Suzuki, Rye Country Day’s applicant pool generally stayed the same between last year and this year, with a slight decline in applications in some grades. He hesitated to draw any direct connections to the effects of the pandemic yet, but noted that Rye Country Day saw a slight rise in interest around the beginning of the school year, coming particularly from New York City families looking to escape the densely populated city during the pandemic. 

Admissions shifts to a “test-blind” policy

Masters will no longer consider the standardized test scores of applicants due to a new “test-blind” policy, which was put into effect this past fall for all incoming applicants. Masters previously required applicants to submit a score from one of two independent school entrance exams––either the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) or the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT). 

Unlike the increasingly popular “test-optional” approach––where applicants have the option to choose whether they submit test scores or not––a test-blind policy means that the school ignores all standardized testing completely, putting the focus on other factors, such as grades, teacher recommendations and interviews. 

Many schools, both independent and at the college and university level, have opted for a test-blind or test-optional approach because of the pandemic, which has limited access to standardized tests. And while COVID-19 may have informed Masters’ decision to go test-blind, the school has said that the policy may be here to stay. 

A major reason why, according to Director of Enrollment Management Emma Katznelson, is because of the inherent advantage standardized testing gives to wealthier candidates, who can often afford tutoring and extra help for the exams. For those reasons, Katznelson said the school was likely to have adopted a test-bind policy even if COVID-19 didn’t make the impact it did last spring.

“For us, it’s always been a little bit problematic, philosophically, to be offering and requiring a test that we know gives kids an unfair advantage,” Katznelson said. 

For us, it’s always been a little bit problematic, philosophically, to be offering and requiring a test that we know gives kids an unfair advantage.”

— Emma Katznelson, Director of Enrollment Management

She added that when Masters made the decision to go test-blind in the early summer of last year, the school was one of the only independent schools in the region to have adopted that policy, although numerous others, like Fieldston, followed suit shortly thereafter. 

Masters considered adopting a test-optional policy, but Katznelson said that when some applicants provide a point of assessment that others don’t, it can be difficult to evaluate those candidates against each other fairly. 

“Let’s say you have two candidates from the same school who on paper, look more-or-less the same––same GPA, lovely kids involved in lots of things at the school, would be good humans at Masters––and one sends you test scores that they knocked out of the park, and the other doesn’t send you test scores. Though I know my team to be incredible people who care about justice, it is very hard to not assume that other kid didn’t send the scores because they weren’t good, or to say, ‘I wish I knew, because this kid got perfect scores on the ISEE.’”

However, RCDS has continued to require admissions testing, even with the pandemic. Director of Admissions Matt Suzuki said RCDS recognizes the lack of equity that can come when requiring the ISEE or SSAT, but that his admissions team simply needs the information to accurately evaluate candidates, especially given that due to rules in some public school districts, some applicants are unable to receive letters of recommendation from teachers, and current-year grades are not always accessible due to public school schedules. 

Even through the pandemic, Rye Country Day required students applying for a spot in the 2021-2022 school year to submit a test score. The ISEE and SSAT both offered at-home testing, but between technological issues and limited seating at in-person tests, Suzuki admitted that while some applicants struggled to get admissions testing done, candidates were still able to submit scores to the school. 

Regarding the access issues that required admissions testing raises, Suzuki said that Rye Country Day recognizes the inequities, but struggles to address the issue comprehensively.

“That is something that we’ve discussed and we know it’s an issue. We don’t have any solutions.” 

Queiroz, who was recently admitted to the Class of 2025, said he was grateful Masters has adopted the test-blind policy. 

“The test is the most stressful part––I was relieved,” he said. “But I already felt like Masters would accept me not because of my test score, but because of who I am, and what else I bring to the table.”

A strong focus on diversity, equity and inclusion

Masters’ admission office––along with many other school administrators and faculty––was challenged by students to take meaningful action to make its processes more equitable, especially in regards to racial and ethnic diversity. 

The students’ vehicle for their criticisms was primarily the @blackattms Instagram account, which serves as a platform for current and former students to share their experiences with racism on campus. 

In late July, Masters responded with ‘A Better Masters: An Action Plan for an Inclusive Community,’ a multi-pronged plan with the purpose of making the school more equitable. 

One of the seven sections of the plan was dedicated to admissions, which outlined three action steps the school would take: a direct reference to the school’s “commitment to being an anti-racist and anti-bias school” in all prospective student interviews, an anti-racist and anti-bias statement added to enrollment forms for all enrolling families to sign and new admissions programming for prospective families of color.

Katznelson said that each of these three steps have been taken by the admissions office. 

“We want people to know from the jump that this is a school that believes in this, and that we want you to be in this journey with us,” she said.

Katznelson, who worked as the Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, Calif. for nearly six years before coming to Masters, said she’s seen a new emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in the greater admissions community over the past few years.

“I feel like before, a lot of admissions professionals talked about issues of multiculturalism or diversity or equity, and I think they did it because it was good marketing for them––they didn’t want to be the school with all white, rich, privileged kids, and they didn’t want to seem like they were an elitist institution,” she said. 

Now, after the social unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd last May, and especially after critical posts from student-led accounts like @blackattms, she says that has changed. 

“Kids are awake, and recognizing that there are a lot of problems in the world right now about these issues,” she said. “If schools weren’t paying attention to what was happening around race and class before, they are now.”

Kids are awake, and recognizing that there are a lot of problems in the world right now about these issues. If schools weren’t paying attention to what was happening around race and class before, they are now.”

— Emma Katznelson, Director of Enrollment Management

Katznelson emphasized that when the admissions team reads through applications, her team talks about the racial makeup of a class “in a very candid and transparent way.” If admission officers’ first priority is assembling a class of students academically and socially prepared to join the community, she said the next step is looking at the racial and gender breakdowns of a class. 

Junior Caleb Jakes, who founded Students of Color Empowering Excellence and Mentorship (SCEEM) at Masters, said he felt optimistic about the new admissions policies, but he emphasized the importance of the school sustaining its attention on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Let’s hope this continues every year, we can’t fall back when things go back to normal, meaning when these things weren’t talked about as often,” he said. “Will the same procedures be held to the same degree as they are now?”

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