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What Has Changed in College Admissions During the Pandemic, and What Hasn't

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life for pretty much everyone on the planet. For high school students, college admission is still on their minds. Read on to see what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the world of college admissions.

5 Things That Have Changed During the Pandemic:

  1. Taking the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests might not be necessary. Each college is creating its own policy regarding standardized testing for the upcoming admissions cycle. Many have test optional policies in place, albeit temporary policies. Students should check each school’s website for the most updated information. Should you skip over taking the test if all the colleges on your list have test optional policies? This will vary based on your individual circumstances, so consult your college counselor about the best plan. The short answer from me is, if taking these tests during the pandemic might affect the health, safety, or emotional wellbeing of you or your family, then take this off your plate. If not, you may still want to take this opportunity to show colleges your aptitude.

  2. This summer is going to look different than the one you planned, and that’s okay. Both of the following statements are true: (1) You should not be sitting on the couch all day at home, and (2) you do not need to recreate the packed, exciting summer you had planned originally. Get out your calendar and block off the time that you’re able to spend on activities and enrichment, and add what you can do virtually: online coursework (including free MOOCs), virtual volunteering (tutoring, transcription, mask-making, etc.), creative pursuits, mindful activities, and personal fitness are all still on the table. Maybe some of your clubs could be meeting online after all. Most importantly, make time for wellness, self-care, and family.

  3. You might have more academic flexibility, if you ask for it. School counselors are varyingly restrictive or flexible, depending on your school, its population, and its policies. Many schools do not allow students to take courses at community colleges or from outside providers if the course is offered in-house at the school… even if the course is full or creates a schedule conflict. However, during the pandemic, flexibility is the new word, and those restrictive policies may not be in practice right now. Consider finding an online for-credit course this summer from your local community college, Johns Hopkins CTY, or an accredited online provider and asking your school counselor if they’ll put it on your transcript. This can even be a great way to blaze ahead in your math or foreign language sequence, which is often very hard to do outside of your school.

  4. There’s a new COVID-19 essay prompt on the Common App this year. It’s totally optional, and not every student should write the essay. They want to know how the pandemic affected you uniquely, as in, more than the way it’s affected all of us. If a parent is an essential worker, if you did not have internet access at home, if closed libraries meant no access to books, or if you experienced some other individual problem, that goes in this space to explain the circumstances. This dedicated space gives students a great reason not to write their personal statement about the pandemic, if they weren’t on the fence already.

  5. You should be preparing for “pandemic learning” in the fall. I know this is unpopular to say when so much is still unknown. However, your school (public, private, boarding, whatever) is currently preparing for a variety of CDC guidelines that could be issued by August. They are considering multiple scenarios, including hybrid plans and cohort plans and emergency plans where in-person classes stop suddenly again. Whatever your school decides, you should be emotionally ready for it when the time comes.

5 Things That Have Not Changed During the Pandemic:

  1. Time management is a student’s first survival skill. When you’re taking online coursework, you have to sharpen and practice these skills. (Before the pandemic, I only recommended online courses to about 20% of my students, the ones I thought had strong enough time management skills to succeed.) The goal isn’t just to finish the work on time, but it’s also to learn and retain all the material, including what isn’t covered due to current circumstances. You need this material for senior year, and you probably need it for college. If time management is your weakness, start practicing accountability by writing your tasks and goals in a planner, including specific times you plan to do things.

  2. You need to be reading books. Colleges want students that read. Employers for competitive jobs want employees who read. Followers want leaders who read, even if they don’t know it. As a student, reading a variety of challenging texts regularly is part of your job, and it should be part of your identity. Embrace this and find the fun in reading. Don’t know where to start? Consider joining College Torch’s free online book club for high school or middle school students.

  3. You should write “brag sheets” for all the teachers writing you recommendations. This was a good idea before the pandemic, as your teachers are overloaded with these recommendations and it can be tempting to recycle material or fill in a template. Support your teachers by giving them a resource with stories, examples, and work from class. This semester, your teachers were very distracted and worked with you behind a computer screen. Turn this into an opportunity by writing them a brag sheet that shows how you engaged with the course content during virtual learning.

  4. Start essays early. The summer is a great time to work on the UC Personal Insight Questions (if you’re applying to any of the University of California campuses) and the Common App personal statement. Regardless of the pandemic, you don’t want to be writing first drafts of these essays in the fall, with so much else going on. Not to mention, all the college-specific supplement prompts that will start piling up in August!

  5. It will be as difficult as ever for the class of 2021 to earn acceptances to their dream colleges. More students than usual from the class of 2020 have chosen to defer their enrollment to next year, which means they’ve de facto taken those spots from the class of 2021.

Want to make sure you have a strong college plan and don't miss any of the important milestones? Download my completely free College Admission Timeline below!

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents are able to join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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