7 Tip for High Schoolers Applying to College During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This year’s college-going students have studied, sacrificed, and stayed the course, only to be met with a pandemic that has made the 2020 college application process a million times more confusing.

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Even before the pandemic, our nation’s teenagers, particularly first-generation and limited-income students of color, faced a series of roadblocks on their way to college. Today, many first-generation students are pushing forward and towards the upcoming college application deadlines despite the lack of reliable computers, timely financial aid advice, or consistent mental health counseling to navigate the pandemic’s stressors.

Before COVID-19, many high schoolers had plans to celebrate birthdays, family reunions, movie dates, or weekend parties. Since the pandemic, many young folks have lost loved ones, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Given the COVID-craziness, should high school seniors pause on their college dreams until there is more clarity on what will happen beyond the pandemic? Would it make financial sense to take on student loans only to enroll in online classes? How concern should students be about moving away from home for college next fall, where there might be a chance of contracting COVID-19?

Before I share seven tips for making this year’s college application process successful, I want to encourage every high school senior to “keep your head up and your heart hopeful.” Know that, yes, your college dreams are still possible, despite the chaos and challenges of COVID-19.

1. Complete the FAFSA Immediately

Make time this week to complete one of the primary sources of financial supports, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (also known as the FAFSA). The FAFSA provides more than $120 billion in grants, work-study, and loans each year to help pay for college or career school. You do not need to wait until you have applied to college before completing the FAFSA.

Completing the FAFSA is essential because you will have the opportunity to access free money like the Pell Grant and your state government’s scholarships. Also, by completing the FAFSA, you might be eligible for a paid job on or near campus, as well as student loans such as Perkins Loans and Stafford Loans. Overall, upon completing the FAFSA, you could qualify for up to $30,000/year in financial aid.

Don’t delay. The early bird gets the worm, especially in financial aid, specifically this year, with the number of individuals seeking financial assistance for college. Financial aid, like grants, is given on a first-come-first-served basis.

If your home computer is not functioning, no worries. Ask your college advisor, a family member, or a friend to print a PDF version of the FAFSA. Please print multiple copies in case you or your parent make errors and need a fresh copy. Once the paper copy is filled out and checked for accuracy, mail the application to the FAFSA mailing address listed on the printed application.

If you’re unable to print copies, please call the following number and ask the FAFSA representative for paper copies to be mailed to your home address: 1–800–4-FED-AID.

2. Most Colleges Have Made Testing Optional

Most of our country’s colleges are now test-optional, meaning those colleges do not require students to take an entrance test like the SAT or ACT. Check here for a list of colleges NOT requiring the test. If your state, region, or community has arranged a testing option, I encourage you to take the SAT exam. It will not hurt your admissions chances to submit test scores if those scores are at or above the median range for colleges where you plan to submit the Common Application. If you plan to submit your SAT scores, make sure you practice for the SAT exam using the Khan Academy. Do not go into this exam without taking at least one practice exam.

If this is your first or fifth time taking the SAT, you likely already know that the total SAT score range is 400–1600 (i.e., 200–800 for the Math section and 200–800 for the combined reading/writing section).

Deciding whether your score is a “good score” depends on where you want to go for college and the picture your college application paints about you.

A high- or low-test score does not necessarily guarantee that you will be accepted or denied from your dream college. Keep in mind that your SAT score is one of several components of your college application. Colleges also look at grades, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, personal essays, volunteer engagements, and a few other factors. You can score 1600 on the SAT but still not be admitted into any college of your choice. On the other hand, you could score 1100 and have a decent chance of being accepted into many top-tier colleges.

3. Create A List of Colleges to Apply

Choosing a college that is the best for you financially, socially, and academically is not a piece of cake. I wish it were, but it’s not. There are more than 3,800 colleges in the US, and not all of them are right for you. Some do not have the best graduating rates, and others do not provide enough financial aid. Many of them are places where most students choose not to return after the first year, and tons of colleges do not have the type of campus culture or resources that would be best for your personality and career plans.

If you’re a graduating high school senior who is planning to wait until 2021 to start sorting through those 3800 plus colleges, then you could be making a huge mistake. And here’s why: finding the best college where you will thrive takes time, research, and patience. Plus, don’t forget that you also need to make time to take a virtual campus tour, given that many college campuses are not hosting in-person campus tours.

The college application process is the time to focus on YOU. I want you to focus on who you are, what you want, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there.

The first thing to think about when you’re choosing a college is YOU.

Think about your values, your gifts, and your strengths. A big part of knowing yourself is knowing what you want to learn and study.

I am encouraging you to get some advice from friends, family, teachers, and counselors but the main point: you should choose colleges that feel right for you, based on a close consideration of your interests, goals, and needs.

As you plan to submit college applications to at least 8–10 colleges using the Common Application, you may consider start by asking the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What makes you unique?
  • What do you like, dislike, or believe?
  • What interests you?
  • Where am I going?
  • What type of future do you see for yourself?
  • What kind of dream career fits who you are, your personality, and your abilities?
  • How am I going to get there?
  • What can you do now to start making your plans and dreams a reality?

After you have reflected on your desires and wants in a college, be sure also to consider the following criteria when vetting a college:

  • Cost: How much does the program cost (including tuition, commuting, and books)? What types of scholarships and other financial assistance does the college offer?
  • Requirements: What kinds of classes, in addition to the hands-on training, do you need to earn a degree? Can any of the courses you took in high school be applied to these requirements?
  • Credentials: Is the college licensed by the state? Is it accredited? If yes, by whom?
  • Faculty: What teaching approaches do they use? What are their qualifications?
  • Classes: What are the classes like? How big are the classes?
  • Student body: How much hands-on training is there? What are the internship opportunities?

Applying to too many colleges is not the best strategy, even if you use the Common Application. Not only is it too time-consuming to write those supplemental essays, but you may not have enough time to properly research tons of schools to determine which ones are the best fit. Many colleges are concerned about their yield, which is basically the percentage of admitted students who enroll.

Colleges want a high yield, so they want to admit students who they believe will actually attend.

If you’re applying to, let’s say, 20 colleges, do you really know that much about them? Could you realistically convey why you want to go there and what you can contribute to the campus? And even if you do get into all these colleges, will you really know the differences between them?

Chances are, when a student is juggling too many different acceptances, they are really not that informed on why they wanted to go there in the first place.

Casting too wide of a net can lead to too many options with little insight into many of them.

Applying to way too many colleges can leave you overwhelmed with sorting through. However, applying to too few colleges can leave you without many options at all. I have known students who only wanted to complete one college application because they fell in love with one school. They only want to complete one college application without considering whether or not they really have a chance of getting in. And if you try this approach, know that this is a great way to end up empty-handed.

But I get it, and I understand that it can be easy to become laser-focused by focusing on that one “dream” college. If you do, in the end, you can come up short if you don’t consider other schools that are just as great for you.

The short answer is — between 8–10. For many students, 8–10 is a manageable amount because it allows you to easily spread out your application timeline without feeling overwhelmed or bogged down with the research and the multiple supplemental essays.

You want to have a mixture of safeties, good matches, and reaches. Let me now explain what those are.

Safety schools are colleges that you feel you have an excellent chance of getting into because your academic record far exceeds the college’s requirements. You want to apply to two to three safeties.

Good matches are colleges where your academic record matches the college’s requirements, in which case, you may have a good chance of getting accepted. You want to have three to four good matches on your college list.

You want to have three to four reaches, which are colleges where the college requirements exceed your academic record, and these are schools that would be more of a challenge to get into. Getting in is not a sure thing, but it’s realistic enough to be worth the effort of applying.

4. Take Virtual College Tours

Although on-campus visits are unlikely this year to find colleges that “feel right,” there are virtual options for you to explore your college possibilities. Check if your colleges of interest are offering on-campus tours. If not, most colleges offer virtual tours and interactive campus maps right there on their website.

There are two other websites to check out: e-campus tours and YouVisit. These websites provide virtual college tours that you might find helpful.

Also, be bold about using social media to reach out to current college students to get the “real scoop” about the colleges on your list.

5. Ask for Help

You don’t have to go through this college application process alone. Your school counselor and teachers may be able to guide you in choosing the “best fit” colleges. There will be more than one school that’s right for you. You can also reach out to me at quinton@scholarnavigator.org.

6. Find Creative Ways to Stay Involved

Colleges are looking to know about students’ extracurricular activities. Pursue virtual activities to showcase your interests and skills creatively. If you want to be a future educator or a tech entrepreneur, seek out virtual clubs or college-level classes that allow you to build new skills.

7. Listen, Love, and Let Go

This pandemic is stressful. At times, I have felt everything from frustration to sadness. Still, you and I are not alone in navigating a cycle of emotions during these uncertain times. Knowing this, there are times when we need to pause and pay attention to our emotional needs. For example, if you are not having the best day, you may need to rest for a few hours or for that entire day before completing your scholarships or college essays instead of pushing yourself to work harder.

Next, continue to love yourself during this very challenging moment. Remember that you are not applying to college from home. Instead, you are dealing with the stress of a pandemic while applying to college.

Finally, no matter what happens, continue to do your best. If you don’t get into your dream college, be prepared to let go and move forward with other colleges on your list.

Until next week

Do you have additional thoughts or insights to share? If so, comments publicly or drop an email at quinton@scholarnavigator.org with the title of this article as the subject line.

Founder of Scholar Navigator, LLC — an education consultancy focused on getting students ‘to and through’ college.

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