COVID-19 Information for College Applicants

We know the college application process is even more stressful during this pandemic, and we created this page to share updated information with students and families. We also encourage visiting the National Association of College Admissions Counselors for the most updated information on how universities are adapting to COVID-19. If you have questions or would like to set up a consultation to learn about working with us, please contact us!

(Most of this information is relevant to students in the Class of 2021. Recently graduated seniors should skip to the last few sections for information specific to the Class of 2020.)

Grades for the Spring 2020 Semester

Some students were frustrated with their school’s decision to use Pass/Fail grades for the Spring semester, fearing it would negatively affect their college applications. Colleges recognize that this is an unprecedented time for high school students and almost all applicants are dealing with upheaval now. If your school chose to use Pass/Fail, it will not be held against you in any way! Admissions officers have already been reassuring students that applications will be read in context and compared with those of students who are dealing with similar circumstances. Remember, even if your school used Pass/Fail, you can ask your recommenders to discuss your second semester performance in the class, and can also add your own explanation to the additional comments, describing how well you did in second semester. Also bear in mind that your Fall grades will be even more important as you are applying to colleges that do use the Fall grades. 

Changes to SAT/ACT Test Structure and Dates

The SAT: The next scheduled SAT is August 29. The College Board has also added an additional test date in September. This means there will be an SAT available every month between August and December, and the College Board is working to expand test center capacity. Registration for these tests is already open, and many test centers have already filled up. At this point, it is not yet known whether test centers will be able to operate safely, and we expect the College Board to announce test center closures a few weeks in advance of each test. You can find more details on the College Board’s website here.

The ACT: The next available ACT is July 18. ACT has added 4 new dates to their normally scheduled Fall test sessions, and also made the 2 Sunday tests open to all students. Registration for the Fall dates will be available in late June, but the exact date is yet to be announced. ACT will announce test center closures in late June as well. You can find more details on the ACT’s website here.

At-Home Testing: In early June, the College Board announced that it will NOT have an at-home, computer-based version of the SAT available for Fall of 2020. The ACT is in the process of developing a computer-based version of its test, slated to be available in the Fall. The computer-based version of the ACT will only be available at select test centers, which will be announced at the end of June. ACT has indicated that students may be able to take the computer-based version of their test at home, but the viability of this remains uncertain. It is predicted however that many colleges will not accept test scores from an at-home version of the test. 

For rising seniors planning to apply Early Action or Early Decision, the following test dates will have scores back by the EA/ED deadlines of November 1: August, September and October SAT; September ACT. Many colleges may also accept later test dates in light of so many cancelled tests – expect the policies to be announced in August. 

SAT/ACT Testing Requirements: What if you can’t test?

Despite the best efforts of the testing agencies, opportunities for students to take the SAT or ACT before the application deadlines may prove to be limited. If social-distancing requirements in the Fall prevent schools from operating as test centers, future test sessions may be cancelled as well, leaving very few options for students who have not yet taken a test. Because of this, a growing number of colleges have announced that they will be test-optional for the Fall 2020 application season. (This group includes the Universities of California (UC), which has dropped the test score requirement for all future years as well.) Some colleges have gone test-blind for Fall 2020 (will not review test scores at all), including the California State Universities (CSU). You can find a full list of test-optional and test-blind schools here

If cancellations continue to the point where most students simply can’t test in the Fall, it is unlikely that any colleges will require test scores. For this reason, we advise students to make their best efforts to take the SAT or ACT as planned, but not to stress if they aren’t able to test.

We also suspect some schools will also allow students to submit their PSAT scores as an optional part of their college applications, but there is limited information at this time.

Subject Tests

The limited number of available test dates may make it harder to take Subject Tests, especially for Class of 2021 students hoping to take/retake the SAT. The Subject Tests will not be available on the added September 26 testing date. 

Already, there are very few schools that require or recommend the Subject Tests, and more schools will be dropping these requirements/recommendations this year in light of the cancellation of testing dates. Subject Tests should be a low priority for most students. However, if you have the SAT squared away, AND you expect to apply to an elite school or a STEM major at a top-ranked school, you may want to consider taking Subject Tests (data shows that many accepted students do submit scores). Note that if you do not take Subject Tests, your AP test scores will be even more important.

AP Exams

AP exams are done for the year! The exams were at-home, 45-minute, free-response exams this year. A small percentage of students experienced difficulties in uploading their responses, and had to schedule a make-up test. For the make-up tests, students will be allowed to email their responses, rather than upload them. 

In spite of the changes, the AP exams are still an important part of the admissions process. Given the difficulty many students are facing taking the SAT, ACT and Subject Tests, AP exam scores are likely to be more important than ever.  Admissions officers will rely on them as a firm data point to validate your grade in the corresponding class. Furthermore, most colleges will still be accepting this year’s exam scores for credit. 

If you have questions about AP exams, contact your AP teacher, or your high school’s AP testing coordinator.

Extracurricular Activities + Summer Plans

College admissions officers understand that you are no longer attending school clubs or doing in-person community service or work, however they will expect you to stay engaged! Younger students can use this time to begin to explore new activities, older students should consider activities related to intended major(s), while focusing on activities that demonstrate initiative and make an impact. We recommend you continue virtual engagement with any clubs that you were part of prior to your school closure and pursue activities that you can do on your own.

Many summer programs are offering adapted online versions of their usual in-person programming (UCLA Pre-College Summer Institute, University of Notre Dame Summer Scholars, and Stanford Summer High School Programs are just a few). Students can also take online courses, either hosted by universities offering online courses for high school students (including Brown, Cornell, Purdue, Emory, and Tufts) or through an online platform (like Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, Udacity, or Udemy). Also consider taking an online summer class through your local community college! Other opportunities include independent projects, major-related research (either through finding a mentor to work with or through a program like Pioneer Academics and Horizon Academic), virtual or community volunteering, etc.

We also encourage all students to help your family and your community in whatever way you can during this pandemic – some options include tutoring children virtually through TeensGive and Ideas to Act for the Common Good During Coronavirus. Being able to articulate how you spent your time during this pandemic will be more important than ever on your application as grades and test scores will be less relevant. Refer to On My Way’s blog for more summer ideas, and also check out TeenLife’s guide to online summer programs!

Teacher Recommendations

If you are a rising senior, we recommend asking your teachers about letters of recommendation as soon as possible, if you haven’t already! We suggest asking them by email and offering to speak with them by phone, Skype, or Zoom, if they’d like to discuss your college plans in more detail. This is yet another reason to continue to be an engaged and contributing member of your classes. Many high schools have specific forms that they require students to provide to teachers if they are requesting recommendations, but reach out if you would like a copy of On My Way’s teacher recommendation request form or Brag Sheet. Teacher recommendations should be formally requested beginning in August, when the Common Application opens for the next application cycle. 

Colleges Visits and Research

Since most college campuses will remain closed throughout the summer, we encourage students to thoroughly research the colleges they are considering online. You can begin by exploring sites like BigFuture, Niche and YouVisit to get a sense of colleges that might appeal to you. If you already have a college list, thoroughly review each college’s website. Do they have programs in your area(s) of interest?  What are their required courses and electives? Do they offer assistance with securing internships? What kinds of clubs are available on campus? What are their housing options and requirements? What opportunities are there for undergraduate research, sports, community service, or Greek life?

Most colleges are now offering virtual tours and virtual information events for prospective students – we recommend getting on the mailing list of any college you are considering, in order to learn about upcoming events. 

NACAC will be hosting their annual college fairs virtually in September and October – see here for more information.

Our work with students in their junior year is designed to help students navigate the complicated process of exploring colleges; please contact us if you would like more guidance in this area!

Demonstrated Interest

Many colleges track demonstrated interest to gauge whether you are serious about attending, and use this information as they are making admissions decisions. Although you currently can’t demonstrate your interest by visiting, you can do the following:

  • Sign up for a college’s mailing list.
  • Open any emails the college sends you (many colleges track this data) and click through the links they include.
  • Attend any virtual info sessions or 3D tours offered by schools.
  • Reach out to admissions offices to find out if admissions officers will be visiting your area this fall.
  • Connect with faculty members.
  • Connect via social media (yes, they track this) such as Tik Tok, SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook.

COVID-19 in College Essays

The Common Application has announced an added section where applicants can specifically discuss the impact COVID-19 had on their lives. This was a welcome addition, as it will allow students to tell admissions officers about COVID-related changes and adjustments, while keeping the rest of the application focused on everything else – their life before the pandemic, who they are as a person, their plans for the future, etc. For this reason, in most cases we will NOT be recommending that students write their entire personal essays about COVID life! 

Here is an excellent blog with tips for how to approach the COVID-19 section of the Common Application.

Application Deadlines

We predict that some early decision and early action dates will be pushed back to accommodate students who are taking standardized testing later in the application cycle. Some colleges, however, have already determined that they will not be offering any early decision or early action options. For those schools that will offer early decision options, applying in the early round this fall will likely be more beneficial that it previously was. Top students who do not need financial aid will likely be very sought after by schools who offer binding early decision.

Gap Year

Many current seniors are considering requesting a gap year in light of the current uncertainties. After all, who would be excited about starting college online, from home? If you are considering a gap year, note that it MUST be approved by the college you have enrolled at, and some colleges will only be granting a limited number of gap years due to increased requests. Furthermore, it is critical for gap year students to spend this time productively and be realistic about what will be possible (many traditional gap years would include international service trips which are unlikely to be available in the near term). 

Here is another viewpoint to consider, offered by the admissions staff of Bowdoin College:

“For current seniors who are considering deferring or taking a gap years: consider that you are part of history and have been chosen to be a part of the incoming class during the pandemic and there is something to be said of joining in order to “bond with the squad”; note that there are no guarantees that there will not be another disruption next year (or the year after that) so how long do you want to postpone your college career? And know that the current remote teaching is the clunkiest that it will ever be – teachers and schools had to adjust quickly this year – by next fall, with more planning, remote learning will be much smoother.”

We think this is very sound advice, and in most cases are counseling our seniors to start college as planned in the Fall, making their peace with whatever the circumstances turn out to be. We have also seen announcements from an increasing number of colleges that say tuition will be reduced appropriately if classes are virtual. 

For current juniors considering a gap year, we recommend applying to colleges during senior year, as planned, and deciding in the Spring whether to take a gap year. Read more about potential gap year ideas here or here.

The Upcoming Fall Semester, and Beyond

Although we wish we had a crystal ball, the reality is that it’s currently impossible to know exactly what the Fall semester will look like on college campuses. Although every college is furiously planning for a variety of scenarios, everything will depend on the trajectory of COVID-19 and the regulations of the state and county in which the college is located. 

The California State University (CSU) system has announced that classes on all campuses will be taught entirely online in the Fall; no specific announcement has been made by the UC system. The messaging from most other colleges is that their preference is to bring students to campus as soon as it’s safe to do so – and more colleges will announce specific plans in the month of July. Of course, everything depends on the trajectory of COVID-19 and the local health regulations. 

Colleges that do allow students to come to campus are likely to adapt their Fall schedules (starting later in the Fall, having staggered start dates, having hybrid semesters with some in-person and some online courses, etc). It is also likely that dorm space will be limited at large universities, classes will need to be smaller to allow for social-distancing, and large gatherings will not be allowed. The one certainty is that Fall semester will not look the same as it did before, and everything could change at any time.

Because of this, some current seniors are already deferring their enrollment to Spring semester or starting at a local community college with the intent of transferring. This may have reverberations which affect admissions for the Class of 2021 and even beyond, but there is currently not enough information to make definitive assessments or predictions. If enough students defer admission to a particular school, it may limit the number of spaces for students applying in the following year. Additionally, if colleges face severe tuition shortfalls in addition to already diminished endowments and refunds in housing that they have already endured, they are likely to prioritize full-pay students during admissions. Everything is a prediction at this point, and we are working hard to keep up with the changes in order to better advise our students in Class of 2021 and beyond.

It is not easy to be approaching college applications during COVID-19, but remember that we are all in this together! The current generation of high school students will be defined by this experience, much like the generations that started college during WWII. When you find yourself feeling stressed, remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE, and there is plenty of support available to you as the world navigates this crisis day-by-day.