College Applications in the Age of COVID-19

Guanyi Cao '21

One of the most important steps in our educational journey is selecting a college. It’s a heavy decision that can have long-lasting impacts on one’s life and future choices. Applying to college has always been one of the most difficult things students have to go through. The pandemic has only increased the uncertainties surrounding this time-consuming, confusing, and complicated process.


Here’s some quick advice for navigating it during the pandemic.


Choosing Colleges

It’s very important to find which college best fits your academic, social, and career needs. Don’t let the opinions of your peers and family become a heavy factor in which schools you want to apply to. Remember that in the end, it will be you that is going to the school and living there for the next four years — not your friends or family members.

Choosing a college is especially difficult this year as many campuses are closed to the public and traveling has become significantly harder (both for logistical and health reasons). Fortunately, there are other ways to explore schools.


Virtual tours

Many colleges have taken the initiative to develop virtual tours, which allow students to see the campus and buildings virtually. These can be found on the college’s website, and many schools even provide narration as you arrive at each landmark in the virtual tour.


Sign up for info sessions

These are amazing opportunities to engage with admissions officers and students that currently attend your prospective schools. Sign up slots are offered on the school’s website, and many have specific “workshops” or “panels” dedicated to certain schools within their campus. It’s an opportunity to get a feel for the culture of the school and to be able to directly ask admissions officers questions about the application process. You’ll find that they are super friendly, approachable, and eager to help.

By signing up for info sessions, schools that track demonstrated interest will also take note, which can improve your chances of getting accepted. Demonstrated interest means you are showing genuine interest in that school, which can be a factor that schools consider when deciding to admit you. It is important to remember that this only applies to schools that do track demonstrated interest.


Watch “a day in the life of a *insert college name* student” videos

Believe it or not, these videos—which can be found by a simple search on YouTube—are actually very helpful in learning more about the school’s culture, the student body, and activities or classes that are offered. Hearing and seeing it from a student that actually goes there makes it more tangible and relatable. It’s one of the best ways to help determine the school’s vibe, and whether you’ll be happy there.


Look up the worst things about that school

Another good thing about watching “a day in the life of…” videos is that students are typically going to be honest. They aren’t admission officers, so they have no inclination to sugarcoat or hide anything. Therefore, you are going to find out what things a student might dislike about that school. The worst things about a school are always overshadowed by the best things. However, they can often tell you more, and help you see past what schools want you to believe.

If you are able to get in contact with a student that goes to your prospective school, please remember to ask them what they dislike about their school, or to phrase it nicely, what they’d change about their school.


Email admissions offices

In almost every student’s mind, admissions officers are distant, intimidating figures that ultimately make the decision to admit or deny a student. A student’s future seemingly rests in their hands. This paints them in an unrealistic light; the prospect of emailing them or speaking to them is downright scary for many students.


However, remember that admission officers are just regular people. They would love to laugh at a good joke and would love even more to talk and to learn about you. They are very friendly and outgoing, so do not hesitate to reach out to them with any questions you have. Because of the pandemic and a high volume of emails, many admission officers are working from home, and it might take a while to receive a response. However, most respond within a week, if not sooner.


Financial Aid

Often overlooked by many students, financial aid is also an integral part of the college application process. If you don’t complete the necessary components, it could affect the processing of your application.


Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Fill this out ASAP. The FAFSA opened back in October and will stay open until June 30th. However, the sooner you fill it out, the sooner you can get your financial aid over with.

The FAFSA is what colleges can use to determine your financial need and how much aid they can give you. The application can be found online, and you will need your parents’ (and your own, if you file taxes) tax documents. There is an option to link your FAFSA application to the IRS to speed up the verification process. The whole thing takes approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, and a few days to process.


CSS Profile

Aside from the FAFSA, most schools also require the CSS Profile, which you can access through College Board. This is very similar to the FAFSA, but also contains specific questions required by each college. Again, you are going to need the necessary tax documents to fill this out. Like the FAFSA, there will be hints next to each question that can help you as you fill it out (such as definitions of certain tax terms, or where you can find the info on the tax forms).

Unfortunately, the CSS Profile comes with a fee. The cost to fill it out (for one college) is $25. For each additional school that you add, the fee is $16. You may also qualify for a fee waiver to get these costs waived; talk to your counselor to see if you do qualify. Typically, students that qualify for SAT fee waivers are automatically exempt from this fee.


IDOC College board

After your CSS Profile is processed, you can gain access to the IDOC. This is a secure service provided by College Board where you can upload the necessary tax documents required by each college, as verification. Processing can take several days (maybe even up to a week), so upload your documents ASAP when your portal becomes available to you.


Do your research!

Look into each school’s financial aid policies to determine which is most suitable to you. Also look into merit scholarships, if available. The best financial aid offered by colleges are “need blind” or “need-based” aid, where the school will meet 100% of your demonstrated financial need.


Overall Application Advice

There is no “perfect” way or specific method of getting into college — that’s not the point. Colleges care more about the person they’re admitting, and whether that person will be a good fit for their school. Remember to showcase yourself in the best way that you can — and be completely genuine.


1. Essays are super important

a. This is one part of your application that YOU have complete control over, and this is where you can showcase your personality, or anything that cannot be told from your extracurriculars and letters of recommendation.


2. Remember college admissions are holistic, meaning that they don’t take any one specific part more into consideration than another part — they look at the applicant as a whole.

a. Admission officers are very understanding. Include any info that would help them better understand your background and circumstances. Never leave them with an unanswered question that could affect their decision to admit you. Try to work these elements into the different parts of your application.


3. Most importantly, make sure your passion and intellectual curiosity show clearly in your application. Why do you belong at this school, and how can you contribute to this school?


Finally, just remember that schools (particularly selective schools) are looking to admit a well-rounded student body, NOT well-rounded students. They are looking for diverse perspectives and talents, not students that are well-rounded but mediocre in everything—which would make for a boring student body. So, please do not think that you must join twenty clubs and be the president of all of them and take all the AP courses offered at your school.

Follow your passion and excel in it. Do things that interest you, things that you want to do. That’s how you’ll stand out. Be yourself.