Coronavirus shutdowns hit the U.S. just before most high school seniors received college acceptance packets. For members of the class of 2021, the application process – from researching options to campus “visits” – will be very different, taking place almost entirely online.
“The college search is challenging enough for students in the best of times,” said Scott Anderson, senior director and board secretary of Common App. “If you layer on top of that the general unavailability of in-person experiences and the uncertainty of what the college experience is going to be like a year from now, it’s a totally different process this year.”
We asked some experts to explain how students can best adjust to this new world.
College Tours: Can Online Replace In-Person?
Probably the biggest change for students is that they're not able to visit colleges, said Elizabeth Heaton, vice president of educational counseling at Bright Horizons College Coach, a national college admissions advising service provider.
“It’s important to go out and see college campuses, getting a feel for what it's like to be in school in the city, versus in the suburbs, versus in the country,” she said. “It’s incredibly valuable when it comes time to finalize your list and certainly very valuable when it comes time to decide where you're going to go. For a lot of people, that's been eliminated.”
Most colleges have upped their game in terms of what's available on their websites.
“What I'm seeing now is that a lot of colleges are changing their tours so its online, but it's still led by the same student volunteers, and maybe even an admissions officer,” said Heaton. Students can ask questions and get answers, just as you would on a regular tour.”
Online tours are also a way to show a school that you’re interested in them, which can boost your chances at admission, said Heaton, a former admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Before the pandemic hit, the best way to do that was to visit,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to engage with colleges virtually. Get on their mailing lists, attend the virtual tours and register for online information sessions.”
Even something as simple as opening emails you receive from colleges, clicking on links in the email and spend some time looking at the sites tied to the links will let the college know of your interest (as well as helping you find out more about the school).
The Common App Will Allow You to Share How COVID-19 Affected You
When you have a sense of where you’re going to apply, you’re likely to use the Common Application. There have been a few changes this year in response to the pandemic.
“Pretty early on, we realized that it was going to be very important for students to have an opportunity, if they wanted to, to communicate how they, their families or their schooling had been impacted by the pandemic,” said Anderson of Common App.
A new optional question invites students to write about how the coronavirus impacted the health or job status of their family members or tell about how they need to help younger siblings with their schoolwork while their parents are at work.
“There are some families for whom it's been an inconvenience and for others it’s been much more devastating,” said Anderson. “We only allotted 250 words for that response – not because we wanted to minimize the experience but because we didn’t want them to think of it as another essay. There are other parts of the application where they can share deeply what this experience has been like for them if they truly feel compelled to do so.”
The Common App website includes a resource page, “Coronavirus: support during uncertain times,” that has links to numerous resources, including updates on SAT and ACT testing.
“Of the roughly 870 colleges that were Common App members last year and have returned this year, last year, in the past 55 percent always required standardized test scores. This year, only 17 percent say they always require standardized test scores. So many more colleges are now test optional or text flexible. That's a huge change.”
One Thing That Won't Change In Your College Application: Your Essay Matters
As always, the application essay is a chance for students to make themselves stand out.
Essays have been increasing in importance in recent years, said Brad Schiller, co-founder and CEO of Prompt, the largest college admissions essay feedback provider in the world.
“There are a limited number of seats at certain institutions where a lot of people want to go, especially the Ivy or Ivy Plus types of schools,” he said. “Students with relatively similar academic profiles and test scores apply to the same institutions. The essays have been oftentimes a differentiating factor amongst those students.”
This year, most students have not been able to take the standardized tests and many schools didn't have second-semester, junior year grades. That means essays are more important than ever, Schiller said.
What really matters, he said, is content related to a student’s experiences that show they possess traits that make them more likely to be successful in college and beyond.
“The purpose of your application is to prove you're going to be successful in college and beyond,” he said. “The proof, a lot of times, is within five traits that colleges look for in applicants: drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences. You want to make sure those are coming across in your applications on your activities list or your resume. The essay is the biggest piece of that.”
He offered three tips for writing a great essay.
“Just understanding your audience is the single most important thing. Number two is identifying content that actually relates to that, and number three is presenting that content in a clear, concise and structured way that makes it really easy for your admissions officer to get into the accept mindset.”
While you’ll need to spend time polishing your common application essay, don’t overlook supplemental essays required by some schools.
Students don't place enough emphasis and focus on them, said Schiller. “They'll write the supplemental essay the day of the deadline and spend a very small amount of time on it. And guess what? If the school was asking for that information, they actually really care about that information. While it may only be tied to that specific school, it's just as important for that school as the common application.
“Why do you want to attend this school? Too many people are very surface level with that. Spend a few hours doing research on the school and understand why the school is a good fit for you, and you are a good fit for the school.”
One challenge some students will face is writing about activities, since so many of them came to a halt in early 2020.
“The things that they were involved in outside of the classroom were put on pause in March or April and a lot of them are still on pause,” said Heaton.
“Students have to find other ways to engage, assuming that they haven't been significantly impacted by the pandemic.
I've seen students set up meetings that are happening over Zoom for their student organization. It's not like you can't still put out the school newspaper just because you're not in school. All of that stuff can happen remotely. A lot of students have done a great job of pivoting from what they intended to do to what they're now doing. It may not look like what you wanted it to, and it may not be as intensive as what you wanted it to, but it's something.
COVID-19 Changed Everything and Colleges Know It
“I can't say this enough: the colleges do understand. They see the world, they live in it with you, and they know that things have really changed.”
One of the resources offered by College Coach is a weekly podcast called “Getting In: A College Coach Conversation,” co-hosted by Heaton.
“We've done a lot to address questions related to COVID that have come up because what's interesting is that, while it feels like everything is different and has changed, a lot of the process remains the same. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the stuff you still need to do and then addressing the changes that have been brought on by COVID and how you handle those.”
Of course, once you’ve been accepted into a great school, you have to figure out how to pay for it.
“The number one concern most families have is how to most efficiently and cost-effectively pay for college costs without using expensive student loans,” said Sam Mikhail, president and CEO of SMARTTRACK College Funding. “People need to understand that you can get money from many colleges and universities, even if a family has decent assets or they consider themselves higher income. Working with a qualified college funding expert could save you money in multiple ways.”
He recommended that students keep an open mind and consider all their options.
“Your dream school may not be the school you end up at. It might be that your second choice school or your third choice school gives you a fantastic offer you just can't simply walk away from.”
Good luck with your applications!
Resources for College Applicants
Online courses and tutoring
TutorEye: interactive online tutoring
Signet Education: personalized academic tutoring, standardized test prep and admissions consulting
Skooli: a dynamic online tutoring space
Major selection and career exploration
Pre-College Summer Programs: attend a summer program in your intended major before you commit to that major.
Career Key: take a personality assessment to find best fit career options
FindMino.com: exploring careers the new way
College Confidential: forums about admissions chances, financial aid, standardized testing and school life
CampusReel: Q&A videos made by college students
Common App: information about and applications for more than 900 colleges
WOW Writing Workshop: application essay coaching
Prompt: college admissions essay feedback provider
College admissions advising
Bright Horizons College Coach: national college admissions advising provider
ThreeEQ: college admissions, leadership, and life success coaching
College funding and scholarships
SMARTTRACK College Funding: financial advice for families on how to pay for college
Support in College
College Living Experience: support for young adults with learning differences