College planning is complicated enough in normal times, but when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered campuses nationwide and put standardized testing on hold, the college search process became even more challenging. And with the likelihood that we’ll continue to see the pandemic’s impact for the foreseeable future, it’s important for students to be aware of all the changes and adjustments to college admission. Here’s what high school upperclassmen should know for their college search and application process.
Plan on doing a lot of online research
Instead of relying on campus visits and open houses, you’ll need to depend on in-depth web research and virtual services. Scott Gibney, owner of Gibney College Solutions, advises juniors to “research colleges online on a regular basis to understand a school backwards and forwards.” That includes the school’s mission, academic programs, and campus response to the coronavirus.
The good news is, “Schools have responded to the pandemic by making many more services available remotely that weren’t online in previous years,” says Elizabeth Heaton, Vice President of Bright Horizons College Coach. Services include online tours, information sessions, and live group chats or one-on-one messaging with admission officers. Texas Christian University, for example, offers scheduled Zoom webinars for admission and academic sessions and student-to-student virtual panels. College websites have also added sections dedicated to coronavirus updates, FAQs, and virtual resources. “Scheduling these things that you can do right from your home will be important for this year’s juniors,” Heaton says. And a silver lining: students who maybe couldn’t afford to go on in-person visits will benefit greatly.
Look beyond standard campus resources
Check with your counselor’s office to learn if there are any former students from your high school who attend colleges you’re interested in, Gibney suggests. “Reach out to them, call them, ask them about their experience.” Also consider contacting recent college alums on LinkedIn or ask a college’s admission office to connect you with a student in your department of interest. But those aren’t your only options: read the school newspaper and other campus publications online, or follow a school or specific department on social media. The internet provides a lot of great ways to help you get to know a school without setting foot on campus.
Research standardized test policies
College experts usually recommend that students take the ACT or SAT in the second half of their junior year when they’ve gained more academic knowledge. Whether you take a standardized test this year is a decision each individual student should make based on what you think is best. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more than 1,500 schools have waived standardized test requirements—some permanently and others temporarily—due to the coronavirus. Test-optional means you can submit a score if you want, but your chance of admission won’t be hurt if you don’t. However, many schools still require scores, so be sure to research the policies at your colleges of interest. Also research whether scholarships you want to apply for depend on test scores. Some schools offer automatic scholarships based on grades or test scores and may post a scholarship rubric on their website.
Planning for your standardized tests
Explore sample SAT and ACT questions online to see which test suits you and your learning style better—then schedule a test date well ahead of college application season. According to the College Board, SAT testing centers will likely offer fewer seats and may experience last-minute closures. Subject Tests are also available, though several language tests won’t be available until June 2021. The College Board has posted a schedule of this year’s Subject Tests, along with a sketched-out schedule for 2021–2022; check their website often for updates. Similarly, the ACT will hold in-person paper testing. Three new national test sessions were added for September and October to address students' needs for scores.
While there’s currently no plan to offer the SAT online, the ACT hopes to offer online testing sometime in 2021. But for fall 2020, students who want to take the ACT should look for locations near them to sit for a traditional paper test. In areas hard hit by COVID-19, the ACT is working to develop “pop-up” test sites at local high schools and hotels to accommodate more students on existing national test dates. Keep an eye on the ACT website for updates; the key will be flexibility. “I think this coming year, the best chance to test might be in the spring and summer and the following fall,” Heaton says.
Be sure to plan study prep in advance with free test prep resources such as Khan Academy or by forming your own virtual study group. “If you do take the test online, treat it like you would a regular in-person test,” Gibney says. “Get up early, get dressed, and eat breakfast.”
Strategize in-person campus visits
Your ability to visit campuses in person this year will vary by institution, and things will likely evolve, so look for regular updates from your colleges of interest. If you’re able to visit early on, do it. With the unpredictability of coronavirus closures, “be prepared to jump on opportunities as they present themselves,” Heaton says. Families might end up visiting fewer colleges, likely only those within close driving distance, or even saving in-person visits for Admitted Students Day during the spring of senior year.
If you do get the opportunity to visit in person this year, learn all you can online in advance so your visit is targeted. It’s possible schools won’t hold live information sessions due to social distancing limitations. Maximize your experience by planning other appointments while on campus, such as with a specific department, the career center, or student disability services. If campuses aren’t conducting official tours, you may be able to take a self-guided tour if visitors are still allowed on campus. Print a map from the school website and explore. Alternatively, if you can’t visit the schools you really like, substitute by visiting colleges near where you live. “Use those experiences to try to figure out what you like,” Heaton says. Depending on where you live, you could explore a big urban campus, a small suburban school, or a big school in a rural area.
Find alternatives to extracurriculars
Most students are in the same boat right now with extracurriculars, as most school activities have been canceled this year. Experts say the larger question colleges will ask is how students spent their time during the pandemic. If the coronavirus has affected your family directly—illness, job loss, or frontline job stress—then focusing on your well-being is more important than extracurriculars, Heaton says. The Common Application recently introduced a new optional question that provides students the opportunity to share how the pandemic has majorly impacted their lives. This is the place to share hardship, but there’s no need to answer if you feel it doesn’t apply to you.
For students wanting to pursue interests, consider exploring new ones or finding different ways to participate in activities you were involved in before. Depth is more important than breadth, Gibney says. Focus on one or two deeper interests. Can you initiate a food drive for the local food bank, deliver groceries to local senior citizens, or make masks for local organizations? Consider taking a free class through Coursera or EdX to learn coding skills or increase foreign language abilities. The opportunities are available; you just have to look for them. Heaton recommends tracking activities, such as books you’re reading, academic explorations, or journaling. Come application time, it will help you remember how you spent your time.
Do your affordability homework
The hard truth is many families must talk about how much parents can contribute financially to college costs, depending on projected job stability. Students might want to build a larger college list for maximum flexibility, Heaton recommends. Starting at community college and transferring to an in-state university is one possible path to ease financial strain. Or research colleges that meet 100% of need and run the school’s net price calculator to predict your financial aid package—but be aware these schools are competitive. Also, research schools where your grades and test scores land in the top 25% for the possibility of greater merit aid. Tools to get started include College Navigator, US Department of Education’s College Scorecard, and Naviance if your school uses it.
Most colleges are making budgets cuts, with some struggling financially because of coronavirus impacts, so assessing a college’s financial health is important. It won’t be easy to pin down. Look for clues like declining enrollment trends, aggressive tuition discounts, size of endowments, and signs of innovation. Round up articles from various sources to get a really good picture of the colleges that will best be able to aid you financially.
Related: How to Figure Out Your College Costs
Bottom line: You’ll need to be flexible this year, but your college dreams are still very much in reach. Focus on what you can control, plan ahead, and be prepared to pivot if needed.