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3 Tips for HS Seniors Applying to College in the Pandemic

Aug 20, 2020

Selecting a college has long been a stressful process for high school seniors and their families.  The Class of 2021 also has the added stress of applying during the pandemic. It may sound a little strange, but high school seniors may be able to use the disruption to their advantage.

Here are three tips to encourage students to think outside the box and make a great college choice.

Tip 1:   Take Advantage of More Test Optional Colleges

COVID hit the College Board (SAT) and the ACT with fury causing exams to be canceled throughout the summer. In response to that significant kink in the application process, many colleges have waived their standardized test requirements for the Class of ’21. 

This development may be a boon for poor test performers and those unable to afford tutors to boost scores.  Now more than 1,400 colleges are on this regularly updated list of test optional colleges, which is maintained by  This year may be a unique opportunity to apply to a great college without taking those dreaded exams. Be sure to double check with colleges on your list to ensure that you know their current requirements.

But, don’t be fooled. 

Test Optional colleges are not necessarily easier to get into; they just use other measures to ensure students have the capacity to be successful. Test Optional colleges often apply greater weight to a student’s high school academic performance and their full application than those who use SAT and ACT scores as a filter. Some schools may request students to submit additional supplemental writing statements along with their personal statement to gain a holistic view of the applicant. Students should use this space to highlight any unique attributes not shown on their transcript.

For students with above average scores, this year’s process and outcome may not be very different from years past.  Others who now find their dream college on the test optional list may benefit and be pleasantly surprised to find an Acceptance Letter rather than a Rejection in their in-box.

Tip 2: Think twice before applying Early Decision

What is early Decision?  In addition to their regular admissions cycle, some colleges offer students an opportunity to apply “Early Decision” (a.k.a. ED).  Early Decision is a binding commitment to attend that college.  Students are only permitted to apply ED to one college.  According to this 2018 report, private colleges and the most selective colleges (those admitting less than 50% of applicants) are the most likely to offer Early Decision applications.

Why do students apply ED?  They believe they have a better chance of admission. ED admissions rates are often higher than admission rates for Early Action and general admission. The trade-off for better odds of admission may be expensive. Early Decision is a binding commitment that often, if not usually, arrives before the college’s offer of financial aid.  Accepting an Early Decision admission is much like agreeing to buy a car without knowing the price. 

Why not apply ED?  ED applicants give away their ability to compare financial aid awards.  For most of the college process, students are at the mercy of the college to accept them.  All of that changes once a student has more than one Acceptance Letter in hand. The power shifts at that moment. Colleges are now at the mercy of that student to select that college.  Students have the leverage to find the best fit financially, academically, and socially.  After evaluating multiple financial aid packages, students may then appeal to their first-choice college for more financial aid. 

For students who can afford the college of their dreams and do not want to shop, ED may be advantageous. For just about everyone else, ED is questionable in a “normal” year and likely not the best strategy this year either.

Tip 3:  Shop around

Each year colleges and universities have one goal: to admit a class that is well-rounded and produces the largest possible net tuition revenue.  In addition to scholars and athletes, colleges recruit students with many varied talents or sometimes simply based on where a student lives.

In year’s past, colleges had a marketing process to identify and reach students consistently. COVID fundamentally disrupted the typical college processes and may have ultimately shifted some power to students. With their economic models fundamentally threatened, colleges need students, perhaps more than students need any particular college. This creates a unique opportunity for students to shop around and truly find the school which will benefit them across the board, academically, socially and financially.

Generally, why could COVID create an opportunity for the Class of ‘21?

Colleges are businesses. Their current business model is a mess.

In addition to the profound disruptions starting in March, many continue to be challenged and already are changing their plans for the fall semester.

Colleges across the country have lost a lot of money.  According this ABC news report:

  • The University of Michigan anticipates losses between $400 million to $1 billion
  • California’s college system lost over $500 million in March alone
  • Cancelling the college basketball tournament resulted in $375 million of lost revenue

In addition, many colleges heavily depended on full paying foreign students. These schools will suffer significant losses as travel bans continue to reduce the number of foreign students entering the US for the 2020-21 school year.  This CBS report noted that the University of Connecticut projected a loss of between to 25% and 75% of foreign students with a budget impact of up to $70 million. Crimson’s report notes that in 2018-19, nearly 1.1 million students from other countries were studying in the United States. Eleven colleges and universities normally have more than 10,000 foreign students on campus. Losing a large number of these students will have a dramatic impact on next year’s budget.

Finally, smaller colleges that were already on the brink of closing before the pandemic are now under even more financial pressure.  Some predict hundreds of colleges will be forced to merge or close.

All of this bad news for colleges may be good news for the high school class of 2021.


As COVID continues to wreak havoc on many different aspects of our lives, high school seniors have an opportunity to use the disruption to their advantage. They should reconsider their strategy for taking standardized tests and when to apply. It would be wise to keep college options open for as long as possible.  There are more developments to come regarding COVID’s effect on this year’s admission cycle. For more on how the COVID  has changed the college process, listen to John Hupalo’s discussion with Bob Brooks, host of the Prudent Money radio show.