Just when high school students and their parents thought the college admissions process could not get any more fraught or confusing, a global pandemic is proving them wrong.
The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown logistical complications and challenges into the process for rising seniors, including canceled SAT and ACT test dates, no on-campus tours and dashed summer plans.
But college admissions offices are sending a message to the class of 2021: They are going through this crisis in real time, just as the students are, and it will not be business as usual for anyone on either side of the college application process this year.
Here's what applicants can expect this fall:
Though spring SAT and ACT test dates were canceled, ACT, Inc. is still hopeful they will be able to hold in-person exams in June and July. However, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. are making plans for more testing opportunities in the fall so that seniors can nail down a test score before their applications are due.
Many colleges and universities have decided to go test optional for this fall, if not forever, due to the decrease in opportunities to take the tests. However, it's important to note that "test optional" does not mean "test blind." Though students who do not submit a test score to a test optional school will not be disadvantaged when colleges evaluate their applications, the applicants who submit favorable SAT or ACT test scores will have an advantage. Favorable test scores support and corroborate strong transcripts — they are one more piece of evidence that can help an applicant make a case for admission.
"For this class, prioritize securing a strong SAT or ACT score above all other tests," Applerouth test prep founder Jed Applerouth told TMRW. "Strong testing will stand out for this class.
"Many students have had their spring junior grades reduced to pass/fail, wiping out the opportunity to distinguish themselves. Many summer internships and academic opportunities have been lost," he noted. "Strong testing will continue to be an asset for schools, even those that have adopted test-optional policies."
This summer, rising seniors can use the free test prep available on ACT.org or by linking their College Board accounts to Khan Academy, they can find more prep opportunities. By fall, they can be ready to perform their best on the tests, whenever and however they are available.
Applications and essays
After their experiences over the past few months, many high school seniors might find themselves tempted to write about COVID-19 and the national shutdown for their college essays — which could be a mistake, because they might find it hard to distinguish themselves when writing about such ubiquitous subject matter.
"Coronavirus is likely to be a common essay topic this year, but students should remember that there are so many wonderful ways to demonstrate to colleges the breadth and depth of who they are," said Ethan Sawyer, creator of the website College Essay Guy, where Sawyer gives students practical advice and free resources to help them with the often intimidating college essay writing process.
In order to allow students who want to write about the pandemic do so without making their main essay about the pandemic, the Common Application decided to make an addition to their platform for the fall.
The Common Application is a universal online application used by more than 800 colleges across the country. Students can fill out their basic information and main essay just one time, then answer specific supplemental questions for individual colleges.
This year, in a section of the Common Application where students can add additional information, there will a new, optional question available:
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. Do you wish to share anything on this topic?
Students will be limited to a response of 250 words or fewer.
Campus visits and interviews
Though colleges might resume tours at some point, students and their families will likely have fewer opportunities this year to travel to campuses for information sessions, tours or on-campus interviews with admissions officers.
The good news is that colleges have leveled up on their virtual offerings, and there are even online college fairs available for students to learn more about colleges without even leaving their own bedrooms.
Students may join online information sessions or find online tours at individual colleges by checking their websites, joining the colleges' email lists or following them on social media.
Colleges' own advice to the class of 2021
One great resource for students and parents getting ready to begin the admissions process is college admissions office blogs. Georgia Tech has a particularly helpful blog and has published several posts with advice for the class of 2021 and an acknowledgment that students are limited in what they can do right now.
In response to a question about how the university will evaluate extracurriculars in light of the COVID-19 disruption, Georgia Tech's director of undergraduate admissions Rick Clark recently wrote, "We know what you had planned. We know what you already participated in and what you have accomplished. We’ll do what we do every year— we’ll make assumptions and inferences, which always (and I use that word intentionally) lean toward benefiting you.
Here is how that will sound in admission committee: 'She was on the soccer team but they did not get to play most of the season. She also plays club soccer and summer tournaments and camps were canceled. Looks like she’s listing her intent to play again in her senior year.' Translation: They’re reviewing your file as if all of that actually happened. Always, to your benefit."
In another post, Georgia Tech's blog editor Becky Tankersley reiterates colleges' awareness of how strange this whole situation is for students in particular.
"The way you thought your college applications would look has totally changed. Between canceled ACT and SAT test dates, distance learning, changes in AP exams and the cancellation of extracurricular activities, your application will not look the way you had planned," she wrote.
"And guess what — we get it."