7 tips for applying to college during COVID

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Sep 28, 2020

The college application process is never without stress, but for high school seniors this year who are readying their essays and researching schools, the COVID-19 crisis has added an unwelcome layer of uncertainty.

Millions of students across the country have been unable to take the ACT or SAT after their test dates were canceled, often at the last minute and after having prepared for months. Those who did find an available seat are unlikely to be able to retake the test multiple times before the early action and early decision deadlines hit this fall, a practice that prior-year applicants relied on to elevate their combined “superscore.”

Other applicants are rightfully wary of test-optional policies and any impact that may have on admissions and scholarship awards.

If that weren’t enough, many seniors still cannot visit the campuses of their top-choice schools for in-person tours, making it infinitely more difficult to curate a list of colleges that meet their “safety,” “target,” and “reach” criteria. They worry that the students from last year’s graduating class who deferred or took a gap year may make the applicant pool more competitive this year. And, in some cases, students who were making an 11th hour academic push to elevate their grade point average (GPA) during their junior year were unable to do so when their high school converted to pass-fail grading (in lieu of letter grades) to reflect the challenges of remote learning.

In short, it’s a mess.

“This application cycle is like no other before it,” said veteran college counselor Christina Taber-Kewene of CTK College Coach in Maplewood, New Jersey. “My clients have been grappling with all of the usual questions with respect to college admissions, as well as the issues that have arisen from these events.”

Common questions include:

The answers can be involved.

Should I submit or even take the ACT/SAT if the schools on my list are test optional?

If you’ve been lucky enough to take an ACT or SAT and your score is on par with or relatively better than your GPA, you should consider submitting it to test-optional schools.

“My unwavering recommendation for students, particularly in a year where so many things have been taken away, is that AP exams and SAT or ACT scores are a way to distinguish yourself in the eyes of admissions teams for test-optional schools,” said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review.

He noted that colleges focus primarily on high school GPA and the rigor of an applicant’s course load, but they still value standardized testing as a tool to measure students against a common yardstick. Another reason to submit? Many colleges are still figuring out how to determine scholarship eligibility in a test-optional year and it’s not yet clear how that process will shake out.

“Although the SAT and ACT are deeply flawed, they are still important for scholarship dollars and admission,” said Franek. “If you are nervous about incurring too much debt upon graduation, you are not alone. That’s where the SAT and ACT become powerful players in earning those scholarship dollars. These are dollars that you have earned for your academic performance.”

Taber-Kewene agreed, but added that applicants should be strategic when determining whether to submit test scores or not.

“When testing is optional, students are better off submitting scores only if they are in line with or better than their GPA, so long as they are also in line with or better than the school’s average,” she said. “If either of those is not the case, it is better not to submit scores.”

For example, a student might choose to submit her 1300 SAT score if the school’s average is 1250, but not submit it to the school on her list with a 1400 SAT average.

Should I cast a wider net for college applications this year?

Given the great many unknowns in the college application process this year, it doesn’t hurt to apply to a few extra schools, said Taber-Kewene. “With the unpredictability, I am advising applicants to broaden their net, applying both to more high-range and more safety schools to hedge against uncertainty," said Taber-Kewene.

But that doesn’t mean you should spread yourself thin.

Franek generally advises students to apply to between seven and nine schools, but said it might be useful to include a few more this year given the anomaly of COVID.

“Applying to 25 schools definitely does not get my vote,” he said. “That in no way increases your chance of admission at any of them. It does not take the place of good, substantive research."

When cultivating their list of candidate colleges, Franek encourages students to spend time identifying schools that are the best fit for them based on four criteria: academics, campus culture, financial aid, and career services (aimed at helping them find internships and jobs upon graduation). (Related: Choosing a college)

“Spend time thinking about what schools you might be happy with based on those criteria and not on brand name or reputation,” he said. “Stanford or the Ivies aren’t the right fit for every student. You might be a bit above the mean GPA at a given school, but if you can honestly say that this is your best fit, apply unapologetically and focus on how that school might benefit you financially and academically.”

How do I find the right college when I can’t visit the campus?

College admissions teams had to pivot quickly in the spring of 2020 as they shifted their “accepted students” tours from in person to online, which forced them to up their virtual game. That is already benefitting the class of 2021, said Franek.

While visiting a college in person may be preferable, virtual tours have gotten much better at giving prospects an authentic feel for the campus, academic experience, dorm life, and extracurricular activities available. Many, too, are now interactive, offering potential applicants an opportunity to ask questions by live chat, or connect directly with current students. Some schools also offer (and recommend) one-on-one interviews via teleconferencing technology for a more personal experience.

Students should take full advantage of all virtual opportunities available.

“Where you could previously only see maybe three schools in person during the summer before your senior year, you can now visit 50 online whenever you want,” said Franek, noting that virtual tours can actually be more engaging. “Students at an in-person campus tour might normally be quiet because their parents are there or other students are there, but now they are becoming super engaged using online platforms. This is a huge opportunity that before this year did not exist.”

Virtual events not only offer college-bound students an opportunity to educate themselves about the schools they are considering, but can also help them build those all-important relationships with admissions teams, administrators, and current students, said Franek.

There is one other benefit, as well. Participation in virtual events helps to demonstrate interest, “which may be a more important metric this year for many colleges,” said Taber-Kewene.Not all schools track demonstrated interest, but for those that do, it is a very important factor.”

As you narrow your list of candidate schools, she also suggested reaching out to current students (or recent graduates) from your neighborhood or social network who are attending that college for their insight. If the school you are considering is reasonably close, your family may also consider doing a drive-through or unofficial self-guided tours, said Taber-Kewene.

Will acceptance rates differ this year?

Many colleges last spring temporarily relaxed their admissions policy, extending the deadline to from May 1 to June 1 for accepted students who were undecided, and took far more students off the waitlist.

It’s still early days for the 2020-21 admissions cycle, so no one knows for sure how the pandemic may affect new applicants, but Franek said it is possible that the larger number of students from the prior-year class who took a gap year or deferred enrollment could make the applicant pool slightly more competitive this year — especially at selective schools.

The most recent survey from nonprofit group The Hechinger Report found that 16 percent of high school seniors reported in May 2020 that they would “definitely or most likely change” their plans to attend college in the fall because of the coronavirus — the largest projected gap year ever recorded. That compares with fewer than 3 percent of first-time, first-year students at four-year institutions who, on average, previously went to college soon after graduating high school, but first took off a year or more. (Related: Gap year pros and cons)

The effects of a bigger applicant pool this year, however, could still be offset by the larger number of international students who may not be ready to commit to a U.S. school while COVID-19 looms, and the likelihood that more students may opt to stay in state, or even attend their local community college next year rather than travel to an out-of-state school.

“Last spring, we saw students fly off the waitlists as both visa issues and COVID interfered with international student interest and enrollment at U.S. colleges,” said Taber-Kewene. “What we also see this fall is a sizable minority of students deferring enrollment in the current freshman class. Will these factors balance out so that this admissions season is no less competitive than last year’s? Could it even make this year’s numbers more selective, with deferred students taking up enough space in freshman classes to reduce the number of acceptances that colleges offer to students in the class of 2021? We do not know enough yet.”

Will financial aid and scholarships be less abundant this year?

COVID-19 dealt many colleges a major economic blow, with lower enrollment numbers for the class of 2020, higher expenses for remote learning technology investments, and slashed revenue for schools that either kept students home this fall or separated them into single dorm rooms (and, in some cases, nearby hotels to expand housing capacity). Many also dug deep to work with students last year whose families were facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Colleges that do not have large endowments, which includes the vast majority, will not bounce back easily.

That may mean less available for financial aid and scholarship awards for current applicants, said Franek. (Related: Generous colleges)

“Schools have had to weather this storm and they’re paying for all of these tectonic shifts, including remote learning and training staff to teach online, so I suspect there may be less scholarship dollars for students entering in the fall of 2021,” said Franek, noting that families of admitted students who were adversely affected by COVID-19 should reach out early to their top choice schools immediately after they get admitted.

Financial aid dollars and scholarship money is generally doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. When the coffers are dry, that’s it.

How can I demonstrate leadership when my after-school activities have been halted?

Athletics, music, clubs, volunteer work, and part-time jobs have traditionally been an excellent way to demonstrate leadership skills on your college application. But what do you do when a semester or more of those activities have been taken away?

Taber-Kewene said there are plenty of ways for students to differentiate themselves.

“I’m seeing students do a number of things right now, from volunteer tutoring online, to virtual work for their part-time job, to taking a leadership role with unofficial (and safe) sports practices,” said Taber-Kewene. “There is a vacuum in structured activity right now, and I am encouraging my students to take advantage of that to find new opportunities.”

One of her students, a future theater arts major, worked as an assistant stage manager for an outdoor production this summer. Another developed expertise in social media marketing and is putting that skill set to work in her after-school job. Some are selling jewelry that they designed online, and donating proceeds to support causes they care about, she said.

You may even be able to start a new online club through your school that helps students stay connected, or volunteer to get out the vote (age permitting) in the presidential campaign.

How can I connect with teachers during virtual learning so I can obtain strong letters of recommendation?

Absent the requirement for standardized test scores at many colleges this year, recommendation letters may carry more weight.

Taber-Kewene suggests students stay connected with the teachers they want to write their letters of recommendation via email or student portals.

Be considerate of their time, as many teachers will write dozens of letters, and ask them at least one month before your earliest college application deadline if they are willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation.

The College Board also recommends making it easy for them by telling them what you learned in the class, reminding them of specific work or projects that you are proud of, mentioning any challenges you overcame, talking to them about your class participation, and sharing information about your accomplishments, hobbies, and plans for the future.

Final tips

College-bound seniors this year have much to consider as they prepare their applications, from whether to submit their standardized test scores, to selecting schools in a virtual environment, to differentiating themselves in a potentially more competitive applicant pool.

The full implications of COVID-19 on the 2021 admissions cycle may not yet be clear, but students can reduce their stress level significantly in the short term by focusing on that which they can control — using virtual events to research colleges carefully, staying connected with friends and family to support their emotional well-being, and staying focused on their senior year grades to ensure that they finish strong.

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The Hechinger Report, “Biggest gap year ever? Sixteen percent of high school seniors say they’ll take a gap year,” May 5, 2020.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.