With the pandemic continuing to affect our lives, it's understandable that families with high school students - especially seniors - have many questions about this year's college admission application process. So, without further ado, here's a new round of "Ask a College Counselor" questions and answers specific to the 2020-2021 application cycle!
Question: Applying to college during a pandemic - what's different this year? Should I/my high school senior consider deferring this whole process for a year?
Answer: It’s definitely going to be a weird cycle for everyone involved! In terms of the greatest differences, I’d say that the biggest change is the massive amount of schools that are going test-optional for this cycle. Personally, I am absolutely *thrilled* by this development, since I have never been a fan of standardized testing, and I truly hope that many of these institutions KEEP this test-optional policy for future application cycles. That said, I know that some schools have already announced that their test-optional policy will only be in effect THIS CYCLE, which is one reason why it’s not a good idea to defer. Another pandemic change is the increased accessibility via the web of many more admission officers. Since they will not be traveling this fall per usual, they are very eager to engage with high school seniors via virtual info. sessions, and one-on-one Zoom meetings. I think that this is great, since students don’t have to necessarily compete for the attention of an admission officer in a cafeteria, and can engage directly with admission officers in a more meaningful way (which only helps in the application process). There’s also a new COVID essay to the Common App, but it’s not required (and, contrary to the usual practice of assuming that “if it’s optional, it’s actually required!”, this essay is truly optional). In my opinion, I don’t think it’s a good idea to defer applying this cycle for a whole host of reasons (for example, pandemic or not, I always advise my students who want to take a gap year to apply to schools while a senior in high school since the process is so much harder to do when the student is NOT in high school - one can always choose to defer after being accepted). Specific to THIS year, I think it will be a positive year for seniors, since admission officers will likely be extra lenient and flexible this cycle due to the pandemic. Since literally everyone in the world has been affected by the pandemic, the admission officers are going to HAVE to be more flexible and will HAVE to truly take holistic approaches to evaluating candidates (I have seen schools pay lip service to the idea of a holistic evaluation when they actually rely mostly on numbers at least for an initial screening of applicants). After all, Admission Committees will likely have NO testing to use, and they will need to reformulate their GPA calculations to account for the predominant pass/fail or “everyone gets an A” grading policy across the nation from this spring.
Question: Since so many schools have gone test-optional for this cycle, should I/my student take the SAT/ACT if there's a chance to do so this fall?
Answer: This is a decision that only the family can make, and it depends on everyone’s health situation. In my opinion, I would rather have my students apply test-optional and NOT take either exam, since I’m very concerned about the safety of testing centers (for ex. there were students in Oklahoma who took the ACT in July and tested positive for COVID after that). No test is worth risking a student’s health! However, that’s my viewpoint, and I completely respect and will support a family’s decision on whether or not a student will take a standardized exam.
Question: It seemed like there were colleges and universities closing their doors even BEFORE the pandemic started. What about now? How can a family know that their high school senior is applying to a school that is financially stable?
Answer: While the advent of COVID-19 has certainly increased the financial pressure felt by many higher education institutions, most schools with robust endowments will likely survive the current pandemic. Will there be more colleges and universities either closing forever or merging with wealthier institutions? Yes, I have no doubt that this will continue happening, since I see the pandemic as foregrounding and accelerating existing problems at these institutions. This is why I encourage families to check out the financial health "grades" for colleges and universities that Forbes Magazine publishes every year (while the 2020 edition is not out yet, the 2019 grades should still prove useful). I also find it helpful to find out a school's Moody Rating to get a sense of its financial health (note that you will need to set up a free account in order to access their information).
Have a question about this year's college admission application process? Send it to me, Dr. Vitols, at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.