Applying to college is always stressful. For the class of 2021, the coronavirus pandemic complicates the situation. Here are some insights about the impact of Covid on college applications

  • Test Optional v. Test Blind

A growing number of schools, including all 8 Ivy League universities and Stanford, are test optional for the class of 2021. This policy shift reflects the fact that the SAT and the ACT are inaccessible for many test takers, due to coronavirus related safety concerns, and colleges don’t want to penalize students who can’t sit for the exams. However, there is an important distinction between test optional (where students can decide whether or not to submit scores) and test blind, which means that the college won’t look at scores from any applicants, and therefore won’t consider them as part of the admissions process. The vast majority of schools are test optional for next year.

However, historically, most colleges have relied on test scores. The Committees are trained to consider these scores as indicators of merit and aptitude, and might well have trouble shifting the paradigm. What does this mean for 2021 applicants?  If your scores don’t reflect your potential, or you are unable to take the exam, absolutely apply to your target schools without submitting tests. However, it’s still important to be realistic about your candidacy, so think carefully about whether or not applying without scores puts you at a disadvantage in the pool.

  • School Research & Demonstrated Interest

Many families didn’t have the chance to visit schools before campuses shut down. Luckily, colleges have adapted by moving information sessions and tours online. Definitely attend these virtual events, and supplement your research by connecting with students and alums (ask your high school for contacts or sign up for online chats, where offered.) The Fiske Guide is a great overview resource, and sites like youvisit are also helpful. Finally, keep in mind that colleges are paying attention to who registers and attends virtual events. They will likely use this data to track “demonstrated interest,” which is a factor in admissions at many programs, so please be sure to interact with the schools that you are applying to.

  • School Lists

Because so much is unknown this year, your school list might be longer than it would have been in years past. In addition to reaches and more accessible schools, you want to have a robust group of targets that are in the middle in terms of selectivity relative to your profile – schools where you have an approximately 50/50 chance of getting in, based on historical data. (Keeping in mind that data never tells the whole story, and is even less likely to be predictive this year.) Without test scores the landscape shifts even more – my advice is to create a diversified school list.

  • Early Decision

Early decision deadlines one and two, which allow students to commit to attending one school if they get in, usually help people get into college. The admit rates are sometimes double, compared to regular decision. Despite the fact that you might not have been able to visit all of your target schools, definitely consider using this chip. It’s notable that Princeton eliminated this option for the class of 2021, so keep on track of the news to see if other schools follow.

  • Extracurriculars & Transcripts

If test scores are de-emphasized in the admissions process, other components will become more important. However, colleges understand that your junior spring won’t look the same. Sports, concerts, plays, math competitions, etc. were cancelled more often than not. Most grades are pass/fail, or reflect a different type of academic achievement. My best advice is not to worry about this, colleges understand that your trajectory was altered. As always, it’s also completely ok not to have dramatic summer activities or enrichment programs – especially this summer. Admissions committees will understand.

  • Essays and Interviews

It’s important to control what you can, and the essays are your best opportunity to share your story with the committee, in your own words. When interviews are offered they are another good avenue to present your candidacy. I always emphasize the importance of the essays – as a former Dartmouth admissions officer, I can assure you that they are read and make a difference. This year, more than ever, make sure that your essays truly capture your voice and personality.

  • Changing Landscape, Including Deferred Admits From the Class of 2020

The world is changing quickly, including the college admissions world. There are so many dynamics at play, including the fact that many students from the class of 2020 have deferred admission and claimed spots in the class of 2025. I do not think that this will make a material difference in what is already a super competitive process – and again, I urge you to control what you can. Make a smart school list, interact with your target programs, interview when you can and write the best possible essays.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than 20 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 97% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.