Lessons From Applying to College During a Pandemic

The pandemic altered college admission planning for many students across the country. Here's a look at what one student learned throughout the process in 2020.

Ah, college: a chance to learn new things, meet new people, and explore new places. Like many high schoolers, I spent years looking forward to applying to college, eager with anticipation. From practicing essay writing to studying for AP exams, I did everything I could to maximize my chances of getting into the college of my choice. As 2019 gave way to 2020, I felt pretty on track to complete my college applications. Then the coronavirus hit and my plans, like so many others’, fell apart. But there’s a lot that I can take away from the experience, so here are some of the lessons I learned while applying to college during the pandemic.

A lesson on being flexible and starting early

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, my college application experience was very different from what I thought it would be. More than anything, I learned the importance of being flexible and open minded when unexpected situations occur—and the importance of preparing early. As colleges changed their admission approach in response to COVID-19 restrictions, I utilized new resources and opportunities to adapt my college search process to the digital environment.

The situation also demonstrated to me the value of starting my college application process earlier rather than later. Even though the pandemic shut down many important elements of the college search and application process, like visiting colleges and taking standardized tests, I was fortunate I had started doing many of these things earlier in my high school years before the pandemic emerged. It goes to show that it’s never too early to start thinking about your future goals.

Related: 8 Advantages of Starting Your College Search Early 

A lesson in accessible resources

An oft-cited piece of college application advice is that students should try to visit their colleges of interest. This allows you to get a feel for the campus and the atmosphere of its community, talk to students outside the context of an admission event, and demonstrate your interest to the admission staff. Previously, many colleges put on admission events that were only available in person as a way of assessing applicants’ demonstrated interest. They reasoned that if an applicant was truly interested in their school, they would likely put in the time, planning, energy, and money to travel to campus for these events.

Although visiting campus is valuable, not every student has the luxury to do this. Once the pandemic began, many colleges took steps to protect the health of students and staff by barring in-person college visits and canceling in-person activities. Enter: new online experiences!

The importance of digital resources

Although I couldn’t visit some of the colleges I wanted to apply to in person, I was still able to get a feel for these colleges by making use of the new digital resources and opportunities that emerged. While in-person college visits weren’t an option last year, most colleges pivoted quickly and offered a breadth of virtual opportunities to learn more about their schools. I attended dozens of virtual alumni panels, faculty discussions, campus tours, and student information sessions. Virtual events aren’t equivalent to on-campus experiences, of course, but these online experiences helped inform my college choices. 

My colleges of interest offered a number of virtual “get to know us” events, so I was able to gather more information from admission offices, faculty, and students than my travel budget would have allowed anyway. Additionally, I was able to squeeze college information sessions into my summer job schedule. The pandemic similarly shifted college interviews from traditional in-person meetings to online video calls. As colleges pivoted, I adapted and enjoyed the opportunities to meet with college interviewers from across the country anywhere I could secure an internet connection. The best part is that these online elements of the college search process are likely here to stay, which opens up more opportunities for many different students.

A lesson on finding ways to connect

When I visited colleges in the months prior to the pandemic, I made a point to reach out to professors whose work I found interesting and tried to meet with them during my time on campus. I wanted to learn about the programs I was interested in beyond just what was covered on an admission tour or website. I also spoke with college students about their college experiences so I could get a candid perspective of the college environment outside of a planned admission Q&A session.

Even though the pandemic prevented me from physically traveling to colleges, I was still able to do both of these things. Instead of meeting with professors and faculty in person, I met with them via video conference. Instead of speaking with current students walking around campus, I consulted college review sites like College Confidential, met with alumni virtually, and looked at assessments provided by college application guides such as Fiske Guide to Colleges. There are more ways to connect with people and learn about your schools than ever before, so take advantage and get creative.

Related: Connecting With Colleges During the COVID-10 Outbreak

A lesson in working outside your comfort zone

College visits weren’t the only thing the pandemic shut down—many high schools also shifted completely online. With online schooling, I was no longer able to simply walk down the hallway if I wanted to ask my teacher for a recommendation letter or discuss my college list with my school counselor. Instead, I attended my teachers’ online office hours and communicated with my counselor via email.

At first it was a bit awkward to meet with my counselor and teachers through a screen instead of in person. At times, it felt like there wasn’t as much of a “connection” when meeting over the internet as there was when meeting in person—but everyone was very welcoming and easy to talk to as we all adapted to our new normal. Soon enough, the digital environment grew to feel natural. So don’t be afraid to ask for a Zoom meeting with a teacher or counselor if you have questions or just want to catch up. They are there to help you, in person and virtually!

A lesson in being prepared for anything

Many standardized testing opportunities were also cancelled last year, leaving applicants unable to take the SAT or ACT. Taking a standard test inherently comes with its own pressures, but taking it with a mask and the foreboding sense that a virus is lurking adds a completely different dimension to the experience. Even when College Board opened a single date for SAT testing in September 2020, testers had to be aware that they wouldn’t be able to retake the test to improve their scores, increasing the pressure to do well. Testers in previous years could take the test two, three, or even more times until they got the score they wanted. But in 2020, testers didn’t get that opportunity.

I had taken the SAT prior to the pandemic and decided that taking it again wasn’t worth the risk to my health. One of my friends, who had his heart set on Boston University, spent his summer break devoted almost solely to anxiously preparing for the SAT because he knew whatever score he got would be the one he had to submit. Had he tested earlier, he would have been able to do other things, including complete other parts of his college applications or simply relaxing. It’s worth noting that many colleges have gone test-optional in light of the pandemic, so if you can’t get an SAT score, that won’t prevent you from applying. Even so, many college experts recommend taking the test if you have the opportunity. Be sure to research all your options and keep informed on the latest news and policies, which always seem to be changing.  

Related: Video: How to Prepare for Your Senior Year of High School

Take these lessons with you

What should you take away from this? Keep an open mind and prepare in advance. There’s no one “right” way to go about your college search. If your original plan for college application season gets derailed, try a new approach. By remaining open minded, you’re more likely to notice and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. As the old adage goes, when one door closes, another opens.

A note for high school underclassmen: college applications might be due your senior year, but that doesn’t mean you should start the college search process your senior year. Start exploring colleges as early as the summer before sophomore year. Research college programs, find interesting faculty, and attend events to get a better feel for the colleges that interest you. Decide which standardized tests, if any, you plan to take and register for the exams. The earlier you start, the less stressful it’ll feel when deadlines are looming. Plus, if something unexpected comes up later (like a global pandemic), you won’t be left scrambling to take care of quite so much in your application process since you’ll be ahead! When you feel that tug of procrastination, remember the more work you do now, the less you’ll have to do later.

Stay informed and on track in your college search during the pandemic with our COVID-19 student resources page.

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About Whitman Ochiai

Whitman Ochiai is the creator of The Money Ed Podcast Series, a podcast series for young people to promote financial literacy. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Amazon Music, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Whitman is a senior at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), where he’s the Editor-in-Chief for TJ’s Podcast Network and President of TJ’s Financial Literacy Club, and he’s a proud member of the Cornell Class of 2025. Whitman resides in Northern Virginia with his parents and younger sister Sophie. In his free time, Whitman enjoys tutoring unrepresented middle school students via the program LIFT, singing Italian opera, and golfing.


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