College Admissions and Coronavirus: Advice for High School Juniors

March 19, 2020

“What should I do now that college tours are canceled?”

“How will I demonstrate interest in my prospective colleges?”

“Will I be able to take the SAT, ACT, and AP/IB tests?”

“Will my summer program still proceed as scheduled?”

“How will COVID-19 impact my extracurricular activities?”

These are the most common questions we have received thus far from parents of 11th graders. Hopefully the answers that follow will help to lessen your anxiety in these highly unusual and fretful times.

No college tour or visits from college reps
The pre-coronavirus plans you made to visit college campuses over spring break are, of course, no longer on the table—and even if your prospective college happens to be among those still open—the risk simply isn’t worth the reward. In lieu of actually stepping foot on campus and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells that sometimes sway our hearts, there are plenty of ways you can research schools, some of which can actually be more instructive toward locating a “good fit” school than experiencing it in the flesh.

Pick up a few college guides and dive right into them. Our list of the Best College Guidebooks can be a good starting point. Collectively, these guidebooks should get your mind churning about the following factors that, in reality, should actually be driving your college choice more than anything gleaned from a campus visit.

  • Cost– What’s the total cost-of-attendance for four years? How does each college compare when evaluating financial aid packages? What will the potential costs/debt look like if you’re aiming for graduate school?
  • Strengths in desired fields– Which colleges offer strong majors in your desired fields? Students should research course offerings, access to faculty, research opportunities, and recent graduate job placement.
  • Career services– Students should pay special attention to the offerings provided through career services. How does this department assist with internships and job placement? Which companies are recruiting on campus and how often are career fairs offered to students?
  • Outcomes– Graduation rates, job placement, graduate/professional school placement, and average amount of debt.
  • Alumni networks– How strong is the school’s alumni network? An active and generous alumni network can assist undergraduates with access to industry pipelines, jobs, internships, and general networking.
  • Social and extracurricular activities– We tell students to pay particular attention to clubs and organizations, extracurricular activities, athletics, and the characteristics of the nearby town/city. Make sure that these offerings align with your interests and desires.

Many of these areas can be explored in-depth right in our free Dataverse, which makes it very easy to compare institutions by a wide variety of metrics, offerings, and outcomes.

“How can I demonstrate interest?”
Presently, 37% of colleges and universities value something called demonstrated interest, the steps a student has taken to indicate to a school that, if admitted, they are likely to enroll. Schools like American University, Syracuse University, and Dickinson College view demonstrated interest as “very important” when making admissions decisions. Bates College, Lehigh University, and Boston University all consider it “important,” and Barnard College, Connecticut College, and Fordham University all “consider” it in making admissions decisions. (Click here for an extensive list of schools).

Visiting campus, registering for a tour, or meeting face-to-face with an admissions rep at the university or when they are traveling to your area are textbook ways to demonstrate interest, methods that, thanks to coronavirus are now off the table. No need to worry on this front—with all students/schools facing the same challenges, interest can be sufficiently conveyed by the following means:

  • Complete an online information form.
  • Connect with the school on social media.
  • Email the admissions officer assigned to your area.
  • Start researching the academic and extracurricular opportunities that appeal most to you about each prospective school. This will help you show sincere interest when it comes time to write your “Why this College?” essay.

The College Board announced the cancellation of the March 14th test administration in 25 countries but not sweepingly across the United States. Still, they noted that they were “receiving a high number of test center cancellations due to COVID-19.” While not being able to sit for the March test at many locations likely came as an unpleasant surprise for your teen, you can reassure them they will still have plenty of chances to take the exam, and other bright students around the country are all in the same boat. Unfortunately, as of yesterday, the May 2nd SAT administration has officially been cancelled as well. The hope would be that by June 6th, the era of “social distancing” will be in the rearview mirror. Looking ahead to the 2020-21 school year, there are also test dates of August 29th and October 3rd, both of which will have results back by the time EA and ED applications are reviewed by colleges.

Encourage your student to use any days/weeks that they have off from school to continue prepping for the exam. We recommend fully utilizing the Khan Academy’s cost-free SAT prep courses. Practice may not make a perfect 1600, but it is likely to have a positive impact on your child’s performance. In fact, a study released by the College Board found that just 20 hours of targeted practice through Khan Academy resulted in an average score gain of 115 points.

The ACT decided on Monday that they “have rescheduled its April 4 national test date to June 13 across the U.S. in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). All students registered for the April 4 test date will receive an email from ACT in the next few days informing them of the postponement and instructions for free rescheduling to June 13 or a future national test date.” In the interim, students can take advantage of the ACT’s free study resources through the ACT Academy.

Colleges Going Test-Optional?

On the March 19th, Case Western Reserve University announced that they would be dropping the SAT/ACT requirement for fall 2021 because of the cancellations caused by the coronavirus. To see a selective university with a 27% acceptance rate take this step makes us believe that additional prominent schools will likely follow CWRU’s lead.

AP Exams
In the College Board’s own words: “The AP Program is developing resources to help schools support student learning during extended closures, as well as a solution that would allow students to test at home, depending on the situation in May. Additional information will be posted by March 20.”

SAT Subject Tests
The May 2nd test date for SAT Subject Tests, which many 11th graders elect to take after completing a relevant course, has officially been canceled by the College Board. They “will provide future additional SAT testing opportunities for students as soon as possible in place of canceled administrations. We’ll be as flexible as possible to give students the best chance to show their skills and stay on the path to college.” Additionally, they “have not yet canceled the June 6, 2020 SAT administration and will continue to assess its status, with the health and safety of students and educators as our top priority.”

Summer Programs
Most students have submitted their applications to summer programs by this time and some have already received their acceptances. Will these programs still be offered? Unfortunately, it is impossible to definitively know the answer to that question right now, but there is certainly reason for optimism that large group gatherings may be okay by the summer. If they are not, our conversations with our summer program colleagues suggest that some programs will be shifted online, while others, like language immersion programs are highly likely to be cancelled. Experiential and lab-based programs will also have more difficulty shifting to an online format and are at an increased risk for outright cancellation.

We recommend having a solid backup plan in the event that your summer program is cancelled. Preferably, this backup plan will be local or online. For example, if you were planning on attending a residential pre-med summer program in another city/state, work on lining up a local opportunity such as volunteering at a nearby hospital or taking a pre-med related course online.

Extracurricular Involvement
Some students are worrying about how this break in extracurricular activities will look down the road on their college applications. We can assure you that no one is going to judge you for this prolonged period of inactivity. The nation is dealing with the worst health crisis of our lifetime and all teens in your cohort are facing the same circumstances. If you are an athlete or member of a club that only meets face-to-face, there is nothing to be done at this present time. If you are into something like chess, computer programming, or Esports, you will, of course, be able to make productive use of these homebound weeks/months. Otherwise, this could be an opportunity to take up a new hobby, read great works of literature, complete an independent study of a topic you find interesting, or dive into some other solitary endeavor that you may have never otherwise had the free time to pursue.

Final Thoughts for All Students and Parents

Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, believes that Americans may not be able to gather in large groups for another eight weeks or more. As such, this may be a challenging time emotionally for your teen, especially if they enjoy learning and are deeply involved socially and in extracurricular activities at their high school. The sudden cessation of normal everyday activities and routines is bound to be immensely upsetting for all human beings living in affected countries. Isolation, home confinement, and boredom will undoubtedly hit all of us, young and old, to some degree throughout the spring. As parents ourselves, the best thing we can do is ensure that our kids are still learning, feeling productive, and meeting goals, even during this surreal, unprecedented, and yet-to-be-defined period of time. We should remind the young people in our lives (and ourselves) that life will eventually return to normal and that all the exciting things in life—like applying to and attending college—are still on the horizon.