School visits and SATs are (mostly) out. Pandemic essays and virtual tours are in. But there's a lot more to know about applying to college right now.
We talked to advisors, admissions officers, students, and parents about the process for the upcoming school year.
Below are their top tips and observations — and the changes you need to know about.
Most Schools Aren't Requiring Standardized Tests
Standardized tests are mostly cancelled.
Most schools don't want your scores.
At least temporarily.
For the moment, two-thirds of all U.S. 4-year colleges and universities have changed the rules for 2021 applicants, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
These schools are now either:
- "Test-optional" (meaning you can share your SAT/ACT scores but it's not required)
- "Test-blind" (meaning they're not considering them at all)
Meanwhile, more and more education leaders are viewing the SAT and ACT as unfair — some say racist — to begin with, since not all students have the same access to resources like private test prep.
The current testing situation means that some schools — which used to disqualify applicants for missing just one or two SAT questions — can now consider students that "we would have never looked at in the past," said Brandon Tuck, the interim admissions director at Cal Poly Pomona.
So aim high.
Consider applying to your dream schools (whatever that means to you) even if you don't think you'll get in.
Do not "self-select out," as the pros say, based on the average GPA and/or test scores of admitted students — especially now that standardized test scores aren't required at most places.
Note: Some institutions do still require them when applying for merit-based financial aid.
Yes, you will need to factor in application fees when thinking about which schools, and how many, to apply to.
But you can — and should — apply for fee waivers if your finances are tight.
There will be an option on each school's application.
Here's the fee waiver info page for the Common Application, as an example.
Some situations that would qualify you for a fee waiver:
- You qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
- You qualified for a fee waiver to take the SATs (if you took them).
- You are enrolled in a program that aids students from low-income families.
List Your Heroic And Topical Extracurriculars
Admissions officers say they'll take extra care putting applications into context — global pandemic, natural disasters, family hardships, radically altered high school experiences, and all.
Were your sports, internships, and other extracurriculars cut short and you wound up tutoring your cousins who were struggling with remote learning?
Schools want to know about that.
USC associate professor Julie Posselt studies inequities in higher education and hopes this pandemic will change what it means to be an outstanding applicant.
She said that students who "haven't had the opportunity to have great extracurriculars... can demonstrate worth on a different dimension."
And if you're a freshman or sophomore, don't wait to build up that experience — start now and get creative.
Fayelah Johnson with the College Bound program at Girls Inc. of Orange County said one student in the program, for example, recently started her own crochet business and is donating proceeds to Black Lives Matter and other organizations.
Write What You Know
Admissions officers won't know just by looking at your transcript that, say, you tried to get a good grade in calculus, but failed because you were taking care of three siblings while your essential worker parents were out making rent.
So tell them.
It's OK to write about the coronavirus in your college application.
Just keep the focus on how it's affected you, and how you persevered.
Since the pandemic has affected the entire country, you want to make sure your application is personal to your experience.
Some applications will have a specific section for addressing the pandemic.
The Common Application has one. The Coalition for College application has one. Or you could use one of your essay prompts.
Did you help out at home, or volunteer, or channel the energy typically spent socializing into recording an album?
That's where to mention it.
But also, you don't have to talk about the pandemic. What you did in the before times is still valuable.
What is crucial, though, is that you show your authentic self in your writing.
"Tell us who you are. Talk about what matters to you. If something matters to you desperately, tell us about that," said UC Irvine Undergraduate Admissions Director Dale Leaman.
Caltech Assistant VP for Enrollment Jarrid Whitney told us something similar. "We really want to hear the student's voice. We really do want to know what's important to them. We're not going to pass judgement on their political beliefs. We just want to know what their convictions are. What do they love in life? What are they scared of in life? What drives them?"
If You're On Time, You're Late
For the actual filling out of the forms, don't procrastinate, friends.
It takes longer than you think to input all your high school coursework and A-G requirements.
Repeat: Do not procrastinate.
Think about how many times your internet has cut out or been weird in your lifetime.
Or even just today, now that all the people in your household are on the internet all. the. time.
You don't want that to happen at 11:55 p.m. with a midnight deadline.
Some schools say that half to nearly all of their applications flood in during the last possible week.
"I would not do that this year," said Jessica Wagoner, senior associate vice president of enrollment at Cal Poly Pomona.
You can't walk around campuses but you can virtually visit virtually all of them.
While that might feel like a relief to some and a loss for others, you can't argue with the price tag.
It also makes visiting schools more accessible to everyone.
True, you're probably not going to get the same kind of vibe like you would in person (which can make it harder to figure out which one suits you best).
But Zoom information sessions and digital tours are available.
So schedule those.
Also, seek out people who have gone to the schools you're thinking about.
Ask them about it.
They might be in your community.
They're definitely on social media.
Resources | Where To Get Help
Don't go it alone. Seek out help from college advisors, guidance counselors, and financial aid experts.
They are available through the school and there are also free online resources.
All will be busy, so advocate for yourself and stay proactive.
Here are some places to start —
- Free college counseling for L.A. students: Scholar Match
- Free digital college advisor: Get Schooled
- Applying to college: Let's Go To College California
- CSU-specific: Eligibility Index and GPA Calculator
- Paying for college: Let's Go To College California
- Researching colleges by cost, location, majors, and diversity: College Board's BigFuture
- Finding colleges & calculating costs: Better Make Room
- Scholarship search: Career One Stop
- Financial aid workshops for L.A. County students: L.A. Cash For College
- FAFSA: 2021-22 forms for the Free Application For Student Financial Aid became available on Oct. 1. Your application can and should be turned in as soon as possible. FAFSA makes $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and other aid available to students — but you have to apply. Make sure you have what you need on hand when you do.
Specifics For Southern California Schools
University of Southern California
- Test-optional for 2021-2022 academic year (that includes if you're applying for a merit scholarship).
- Accepts the Common Application where you can share, in 250 words, how the pandemic has affected you personally and academically.
- Dean of Admissions Tim Brunold said "we're going to be understanding that we might see some different things on a student's activity list, or we might see a transcript full of pass, no pass."
- Will not consider standardized test scores for students applying to enter in the next two years.
- Caltech says in lieu of standardized tests, it will more heavily weigh a student's academic preparedness, especially in math and science (read more about what they expect).
- Accepts the Common App and Coalition for College app, both of which include a question about how the pandemic affected you.
California State University
- CSU schools will not take into consideration SAT or ACT scores when determining eligibility through the spring 2022 semester.
- CSU schools will accept a grade of "pass" or "credit" as fulfillment of A-G courses required for admission (read more for full CSU requirements).
- Many CSU schools will give priority to local high school students.
- CSU will also take into consideration whether you've been in the military, are the first in your family to go to college, or have been in foster care, among other factors.
- If you make a mistake on your application, appeal! You can find the appeals process for each CSU school on their individual websites.
- Double check that the application system has properly accounted for your A-G course requirements. The online system will give you a warning if your inputted A-G coursework is incomplete so you can fix it.
University of California
- UC schools are "test optional" for students applying for fall 2021 through fall 2022, meaning you can submit SAT/ACT scores if you have them, but your application will still be fully considered if you don't. HOWEVER, test scores may help if you're applying for certain scholarships, and some campuses recommend taking SAT subject tests if you're applying for certain competitive majors.
- UC schools use what's known as comprehensive review to evaluate students. That means admissions reviewers are not just looking at grades and test scores, they are evaluating the whole student, including special talents and leadership skills. Here's a full list of factors UC schools consider; and here is the full list of requirements for consideration.
- The UC application does not have a specific section to talk about the pandemic. But you can use one of the personal insight question prompts to address it.
- Here's how UC Irvine's Leaman sums up what they're looking for: "We're all looking for fantastic students who are going to change the world."
You Are More Than This
In conclusion, as much as humanly possible, try to stay calm.
I know, I know. But try.
Give yourself a break.
Admissions officers say they will, too.
It's an incredibly rough and stressful time.
Also, don't lose perspective.
USC's Posselt said, "What I tell [my son] is that 'your worth is not determined by where you are admitted to college.' In America we've developed this obsession with college ... college is just one part of life, and what you make of your life is a lot more than that."
Image Credit (top): Illustration by Lisa Brenner/LAist | Images by Andre Hunter/Unsplash, Ed Robertson/Unsplash
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