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Everything you need to know about applying to college in the age of COVID-19

Can you really skip standardized tests? Is financial aid drying up? An admissions expert shares what matters most for the 2020-2021 academic year.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

This college application season, students and parents must be ready to adapt like never before as the coronavirus pandemic impacts colleges and universities across the United States. Here, Bari Norman, co-founder and head counselor at Expert Admissions, answers important questions about applying to colleges for the 2020-2021 academic year.

What does “test-optional” mean? Are they REALLY optional?

Test-optional really does mean optional and more than 70 percent of colleges are test-optional for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. However, it is also true that if you are able to test and can earn a score that's at least within the range of the schools you're applying to or, better yet, at the higher end of the range or above it, you should test. So it can be true that tests are both optional and also encouraged, if possible. Colleges really do understand that some students have not been able to test due to COVID disruptions, so you won't be penalized for no scores. Submitting "good scores" (whatever that means at a particular college) can be helpful, though.

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How will financial aid be affected? What’s your advice to students applying for financial aid?

Financial aid will be impacted differently depending on the school and its own financial situation. A very small number will be able to increase aid, some will have a lower financial aid budget given decreases in enrollment and revenue this year (and an increase in expenses), and others will find creative ways to make it work, like shifting dollars from merit-based aid to need-based aid. For students applying for financial aid, know whether each school is need-blind or need-aware in their admissions process. If they're need-blind, it means they don't take into consideration whether you're applying for financial aid as part of the admissions decision-making process. If they're need-aware, it means they do need to take into account whether or not you need financial aid when making your admissions decision. In any year that can mean that an otherwise qualified applicant gets turned away; this year, we're likely to see more of that. If financial aid is an important consideration for you, I recommend not applying Early Decision (so you can see and compare offers from different colleges) and making sure you do a deep dive into schools' policies, as even schools that technically meet 100 percent of demonstrated need can offer aid packages that are loan-heavy and ultimately untenable.

Is there anyone who might have an advantage in college admissions this year that they wouldn’t otherwise have? In other news, is there good news for anyone?

Students who do well in school but aren't good standardized test takers got good news this year. At test-optional schools, scores are optional for everyone (not only for those affected by testing center closures and test-day cancelations). That means that schools that would have been a definite no because of test scores alone are now really in play. Go for that school that otherwise would have been out of reach! Also, students who don't need aid may have a leg up, given how colleges have been impacted financially by the pandemic. Early Decision applicants may have a greater advantage than usual, as well.

As an admissions expert, what’s your definition of a “good parent” versus a “bad parent”? This is obviously stressful for parents — how can they make it LESS stressful for their kids?

The more you can let your child drive the process, the better. Let them form their own opinions about each school before you share yours. When you talk things through, make sure you're not the one doing the talking. Listen to them. This is the moment they're finding adulthood. Let them. When you take control, you're standing in the way of an important developmental milestone. Allow them to work with their counselor(s) so they can explore colleges, create a timeline and gameplan, and tackle the to-do list that follows. One of the most important times to give kids space is during essay writing. If done well, the essay-writing process is an opportunity for self-awareness and growth. Make sure someone really familiar with the college admissions process is serving as a sounding board and editor for your child. Letting your child lead doesn't mean you have to remove yourself from things completely, but there are so many teachable moments along the way — for students and for parents. Don't miss out on those.

How do colleges make decisions when there are so many qualified applicants?

Many colleges in the United States have what's called a holistic admissions process, which means it's not only about the numbers (this is good news!). Sure, you need to clear an academic threshold to be realistically considered for admission, but there will still be many more students to choose from. And there are always students who get in who didn't quite hit the numbers but are otherwise compelling. College admissions is both an art and a science and this is where the art of it comes in. Things like the essays (many schools have supplemental essays in addition to the "main" college essay) play a very important role in helping admissions officers get to know the applicant beyond the numbers and also to assess "fit." Fit is extraordinarily important in admissions decision-making, particularly at selective and highly selective schools, and it's the part that's least understood, I find. Colleges are looking for students they feel will be a good fit for their campus and community. Fit has nothing to do with whether you can do the work and it has nothing to do with how badly the student thinks they fit and wants to go to the school. Colleges all have their own personalities and missions and vibes. As the applicant, you need to do your due diligence to understand the differences between schools and to write essays that compel admissions officers to envision you as part of their respective communities. What you say about yourself must jive with what your recommenders say about you and what you've done with your time outside of school, so your whole profile must come together in a specific way for each school.

College applications

How many colleges should students apply to?

There's no magic number, but eight to 10 is fairly typical. This gives you the ability to have a range of schools on your list, admissions-wise. Strive for a balanced list in terms of difficulty getting in, as loading your list with "reaches" and "double-reaches" will only leave you with few choices in the end. Apply to a range of schools: a couple you're most definitely able to get into, several that are within your target range (some will work out, some won't), and a couple that are considered "reach schools," meaning your numbers are off but there are other good reasons to apply. You won't love every school on your list equally, but each school should be on there with intention. I can't overstate the importance of doing good research and being truly knowledgeable about each school on your list. So many students get to the supplements and find themselves unable to answer the questions because all they know is that they like the school because of reputation, size, location, and/or the offering of a specific major. The better your research, the better your list, the better your essays, the better your results.

What are the best extracurricular activities to get involved in?

It's not about what you do, it's how you engage in whatever it is that you do. There is truly no preference for any one thing. Colleges need all different kinds of talent on their campus. They need journalists, scientists, musicians, athletes, stand-up comedians, techies, entrepreneurs, actors, volunteers ... you get the picture. Everyone contributes to the culture of a vibrant campus community. Do what you love. You'll do more and go farther with it. And that's what great experiences — and great essays — are made of. Don't waste time doing what you think you "should" be doing because it's what colleges expect. But whatever it is that you do, go for it. Don't just show up. Make a difference.

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