Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Juniors, Applying to College? Be Ready

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the oddest years in college admissions is just about over, with most students finding a great place for next fall, most colleges knowing what institutional flexibility is really all about, and most school counselors both exhausted, and wondering—“can it get any worse?”

The answer is Probably Not, But. Vaccination rates in most states are on track to find college campuses open for mostly business as usual in the fall. That’s good news for this year’s juniors, who will likely be in a better place to visit college campuses in person, meet with college reps who will actually come to their high school, and write an essay about COVID in past tense.

The worst may be over, but it doesn’t mean college applications are back to pre-COVID status. Here’s what juniors should be ready for as they get ready to build their futures:

Changing Test Policies Most colleges that were test-optional with admissions this year are staying test optional next year, which puts students in the driver’s seat when it comes to SAT and ACT tests. But some schools have already changed their policy for next year, some making tests even more optional, some going back to where things were. Make sure you know what the policy will be for next year at your colleges. Admissions websites should have the latest news. If they don’t, call the admissions office.

Admissions Policies Last year, many colleges weren’t sure just how they would read no-test college applications, so they couldn’t tell students how the process would go. A year’s worth of application reading should have solved that, so if you want to know how a college is going to read your application, and what matters most, ask them—and if they hem and haw too much, ask them again in a month.

Percentage of Non-Test Admits Many colleges were test optional this year, but more than a few of them admitted far more students who submitted test scores than students who didn’t. It’s great if a school is test optional, unless they only admitted 4 test optional students. It’s unlikely they will share their percentages with you unless you ask—so, ask.

Percentage of Early Admits Several colleges decided to admit a lot—and I mean, a lot—of students through Early Action and Early Decision programs, hoping that a large number of early admits would make a rocky year smoother. It’s likely the trend will continue next year, so students would be wise to consider applying Early Action if they can, since that only means you hear back sooner from the college. Early Decision is still a firm commitment to attend—more like getting married than dating—so proceed with caution with any ED application. And remember, it’s still easier to get admitted to Rolling Decision schools if you apply in September than in January—so don’t let the deadline fool you.

Apply for Aid Early This year’s seniors are still sewing up their financial arrangements, a trend that only has a little to do with COVID. This may continue next year, but it’s still, and always, wise to file for aid early—as in, October.

Write Essays About COVID and… Many colleges requiring essays this year asked students to write one about the effect of COVID on their lives, and one about another topic. Even if colleges don’t specify what to write on next year, consider a COVID/non-COVID essay approach if you have to write more than one essay. Yes, it was an historic year, and reflection is good—but so is anticipation. Write about both—and if they don’t require a COVID essay, don’t feel required to write one.


  1. Sage, current, useful advice...many thanks, Patrick. Alan

  2. Sound, useful advice. Thanks.

  3. Great work on this. Spot on. The ED and EA was so clear in all our data. Will be sending this out to all our rising senior families.

  4. Sound observations and equally sound advice. All of this underscores the info in our junior parent meeting next week. Glad to know we are in sync with you! Thank you!