The COVID-19 pandemic may change some parts of the college search permanently. Here's how to navigate the process as a family.

By Lisa Milbrand
October 12, 2020
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This year began with a lot of plans. Tours of three universities on my daughter's shortlist. An exciting summer program at her top-choice college. Prepping for her first official run at the SATs.

Then COVID came and wiped the calendar clean—and left us (and every other parent we know) wondering how to choose a college and how to stand out from the crowd, when everything seems to be shifting on a daily basis.

The good news: College admissions staff know exactly what you're going through—because they're going through it, too. "Colleges know that students and families have been greatly impacted by COVID," says Terry Knaus, executive director of the Higher Education Consultants Association. "Because of that, they'll be taking a closer look at each student's admission application and their individual circumstances."

Many of the things that made a strong application for college admission remain the same, but they'll likely put greater emphasis on some aspects than they would in the past. So here's how to help your child get into their perfect college in the time of COVID, step by step.

1. Research to find the right schools.

The best chance of acceptance comes when you find the right match to your teen's personality and interests. With many schools limiting or canceling prospective student tours, you'll need to look for ways to connect virtually.

It may not be exactly the same as being there in person, but schools have put a lot of work into helping prospective students get a sense of their vibe and their offerings, even if it's through Zoom chats and virtual tours. And bonus: No need to travel to see the schools of your dreams!

"Admissions offices have done an outstanding job pivoting to the virtual recruitment world," Knaus says. "This includes an abundance of tours, webinars, chats, college fairs, high school visits. Colleges are anxious to showcase their institutions and connect with students and families."

In fact, you might even get a better chance at getting an in-depth look at a prospective school—including the chance to sit in on virtual classes or extracurricular activity meetings, or to chat in-depth with a current student.

2. Encourage kids to keep their courseload challenging—and grades high.

Schoolwork and grades will be more important than ever for the current high school juniors and seniors. "High school performance has been and will continue to be the most significant factor for many universities, and the movement to being test-optional will likely accentuate factors associated with high school performance," says David Kuskowski, associate vice president of enrollment management at Clemson University. So keeping the GPA high is absolutely essential.

And teens' choice of courses may be under even more scrutiny now. "Under the current situation, it's possible the school to which you're applying may not only place more weight on other parts of the application, such as the GPA, but examine the courses you've taken with more granularity than usual," says Anthony E. Jones, M.Ed., associate provost/assistant vice president of enrollment management at Howard University.

3. Decide what to do about testing.

More than 1,600 schools have opted to go test-optional for fall 2021, and some may make that change permanent—especially as the pandemic has impacted many ACT and SAT testing sites. "Test leniency is here to stay," says Robina Schepp, vice president for enrollment and placement at Pace University. "We went test-optional prior to the pandemic as did many others. COVID-19 accelerated that trend." But if your child has their eyes set on some of the most competitive schools in the country, some admissions experts say it might be worth masking up to take the SATs. "As long as you're allowed to put in scores, they will choose students with strong test scores over those who don't submit scores," says Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach.

4. Get creative with extracurricular activities.

Many schools have started trying to bring programs online for their high schoolers, so make sure that your student is finding ways to continue with their current activities or even expand into new ones—as many activities have gone virtual, it's been easier than ever to take part in new programs. "There are amazing online extracurricular activities out there," says Victoria Turner Turco, founder of Turner Educational Advising, LLC. "These opportunities extend beyond their backyards and are happening around the country—and the world. In fact, some of these activities have proven more interesting than the plans students had originally made for themselves."

5. Help teens focus on their essays.

"One of the areas that will be more important than ever this year is the application essay," Knaus says. "This essay gives the admissions office the opportunity to hear the student's individual voice and who they are as a person outside of their classes, grades, and clubs— what they can share about themselves that's not already answered on the application."

6. Seek out good recommendations.

Have your student pick teachers who know them best to help make the strongest case for admission. "Admissions representatives might emphasize letters of recommendation this year," Turner Turco says. "It's important that students select teachers who know them well and can speak about them in detail."

7. Don't be afraid to acknowledge the pandemic.

Some schools have optional essay questions on their applications, and this year, students can write a message about how coronavirus has impacted their lives. Even if it's optional, you should consider it essential. "You should never treat any optional essay as optional—including the COVID essay," Taylor says.

8. Apply to a few extra schools.

With everything in flux, it wouldn't hurt to add a few additional schools to your mix. "I'd suggest that they cast a slightly wider net than usual, given that so many things are up in the air," Turner Turco says. "That would mean adding a few more 'reach' and 'safety' schools to their lists—we just aren't sure which way this will go in the long run!"

9. Apply early for school and for financial aid.

This year, more than ever, it's essential to get your applications for school and financial aid done early, to get the best chance of nabbing the spot (and the extra aid). "Doing things early really matters," Schapp says. "The more selective the institution, the more it matters. It also helps to have an early FAFSA as there are often funds that are only available to early filers."

Keep in mind that financial aid may not be as available as you might hope, with so many families facing financial difficulty due to the pandemic. "Institutions have two primary alternatives to help finance a student's education: cash scholarships or discounted tuition rates," Jones says." In most cases, institutions are not experiencing a windfall in donor support, which means schools could be limited to the donor-funded scholarships on hand to support the needs of its students. The alternative is to further discount the tuition, but there is a breakeven point when doing so—a point many schools have already passed, making it difficult to offer more assistance under the current climate."

10. Understand how deferrals may affect the chances of getting in.

Due to the pandemic, there were more deferrals than usual in some of the most competitive schools in the country—and so some spots in the class of 2025 are already accounted for. "They have already announced that they have no intention of expanding the class, so those students will take away spots from this year's seniors," Taylor says. "There used to be a line—every year, every college said this was our most competitive class, it was the toughest year ever. But that was just because they were getting better and better at getting more students to apply to lower their admission rates. But this year really will be the toughest year ever."

11. Remember that fit is the most important thing.

While the competition to get into the Ivy Leagues or other top schools is always fierce, they may not be the best fit (or the best choice) for your child. "One of the most essential things to consider when making your school choice that often goes forgotten is cultural alignment and fit," Jones says. "Examine a school's mission and value statements when determining whether it's right for you. The euphoric experience of being admitted to your dream school can dissolve into an abysmal failure if there is not an agreement between that school's culture and values and your own."

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