LOS ANGELES — About three million students are entering their senior year of high school right now, most of whom will graduate and go on to colleges and universities that are already beginning to accept applications for the Fall of 2021. Applying to college has always been a fraught and complicated process, as students scramble to write essays and gather letters of recommendation and secure their top possible scores on standardized tests, while their parents worry about paying for it.

COVID adds another layer of complexity, with many of the tools schools rely upon to make their admissions decisions thrown into flux. Not only do they have to consider inconsistent transcripts from the different grading strategies schools implemented as a result of distance learning during the Spring 2020 semester, but also the effects this has had on students ability to participate in extracurricular activities or connect with teachers who can recommend them.

What You Need To Know

  • More than 1,400 colleges and universities are "test optional" for Fall 2021 applicants, including the University of California

  • Students will have an opportunity to explain how their transcript has been affected by COVID

  • College tours have gone virtual

  • The pandemic is expected to be a popular personal essay topic

“The application review process will absolutely be different,” said Seth Allen, vice president for strategy and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College. Allen was part of a webinar the nonprofit College Board held Thursday with various admissions officers and college counselors about applying to higher education institutions during a pandemic. “We know that we’re going to, in most cases, be working with less information than we’ve had in the past," he added. "And because of that, we’re going to have to change the nature of our review.”

The good news is that what schools are looking for in prospective students has not changed, Allen said. And neither has much of the application process.

“Students will still have to complete the college application for admission,” said Nikki Danos, director of college counseling at Forest Ridge School in Bellevue, Wash. “They still have to write a personal statement or essay. Many colleges also require letters of recommendation, and transcripts will still have a big role.”

So what will be different?

How colleges and universities are handling inconsistent high school transcripts

Some schools, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, froze grades on the date they switched to at-home learning. Others switched to a pass-fail system, assigned all A's, or even declined to give grades, making the task for admissions departments more of an apples-to-oranges comparison between students than apples-to-apples.

Danos said that colleges are asking high schools about how they handled grading during the pandemic. Students will also have an opportunity to explain how COVID affected their schooling.

More schools are "test optional"

Schools aren’t the only places that have closed because of COVID. A lot of the testing centers that administer the SAT and ACT standardized tests used to determine admissions have also been closed and canceled testing dates.

“The College Board has encouraged flexibility for things like "test optional" or to accept scores as late as possible, understanding that students who take a test might not have had as many opportunities as they would have in the past,” said Connie Betterton, vice president of higher education for the College Board, which administers the SAT.

In March, in an effort to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, the University of California temporarily suspended its standardized test requirement for Fall 2021 applicants, effectively making the nine campuses in its system test-optional for the year. The University of California has since extended its "test optional" policy through 2022. For freshmen applying for the 2023 and 2024 academic years, UC will be "test blind," meaning that SAT and ACT scores will not be used to make admissions decisions for California residents. 

About 1,450 accredited four-year colleges are now "test optional," but Danos said, “The onus is on the student to figure out what the 'test optional' policies are – if 'test optional' really means 'test optional' and you will not be disadvantaged if you can’t or don’t submit a test score.”

Last week, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a list of about 400 colleges and universities that have signed on to an association statement affirming that students will not be penalized if they choose not to submit a standardized test score for admission in Fall 2021. Locally, those colleges include CalTech, Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, Pepperdine University, the University of Southern California, and all UCs.

Extracurricular activities have been interrupted or changed

With schools closed, so are many popular after-school programs students rely on to demonstrate their outside interests on college applications. Sports, band, theater. Most of it has been suspended.

“We know students have had to stop doing things they’ve traditionally been involved in and pick up new activities, so we’ll have to contextualize what that means,” Allen said.

Teachers may not know students well enough to provide letters of recommendation

Without face-to-face contact, students and teachers have been hampered in their ability to truly know one another. 

“They’ve had less time with you in the classroom,” Allen said. “Teachers you would’ve asked would’ve known you in the classroom, so it will be different.”

The pandemic has affected everyone, but it may not be the right topic for a personal essay

“We know that any time there’s a large national or international world event like the pandemic that one’s own life is put in the context of this big, all-encompassing issue everyone has faced. That tends to be the thing that students want to talk about and discuss in their personal essays,” said Allen, who anticipates a lot more similarity in the essays Pomona College will be seeing this year.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to write about, Allen said, especially if a student’s experience was especially impactful. 

But if there are other things that provide more insight into a student’s character, Allen suggested they “resist the urge to do what everyone else is doing and write about what you might have written about before COVID hit.”

Virtual college tours

One of the key tools students and their families have traditionally used to decide on a college is currently unavailable: the campus tour. College campuses throughout the country were closed throughout the spring and summer, and that will remain the case for many schools heading into fall. So what’s an aspiring college kid to do?

“There are so many other ways for students to learn about our different colleges and for us as universities to make those contacts with you individually,” said Vern Granger, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Connecticut.

A lot of colleges have switched to virtual tours of their campuses and online information sessions about how to begin the application process or apply for financial aid. Many of them are also providing one-on-one engagement opportunities through phone calls, emails, and live chats, Granger said.

Financial aid could be even more need-based

Tuition averages $10,440 at in-state four-year public schools, and is $36,880 at private universities, according to the College Board. For many families, the question is the same now as it was before the COVID pandemic: how to pay for it?

“We know without a doubt that families are experiencing great hardships, whether they’re health hardships or financial, with one or two family members losing jobs, and students not being able to work those summer jobs that they have in the past to be able to support themselves,” Granger said, adding that the University of Connecticut is looking at increasing its need-based financial aid.

Granger encouraged families to make themselves aware of available scholarships and their deadlines, and to begin the process of gathering supporting documents early. He also advised that families apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form as soon as it becomes available October 1.

FAFSA remains the main form that universities and colleges use to determine financial aid awards for students, he said.

“Affordability has been important for so many years,” Granger said. “We know it’s taken on added importance over the past few months. Colleges and universities are putting a lot of time and attention to try and deal with that and ensure that our students will be able to afford to come.”