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Tips for Applying to College During The Pandemic

Author: Sahil Joshi is a senior at Winston Churchill High School. He is passionate about STEM and hopes to build a career in the biomedical field. He is part of the school’s volleyball and cross Country teams, plays the trumpet in his school band, volunteers at music charities for underprivileged kids, volunteers as a tech tutor to middle and elementary school students, loves trekking/nature & outdoor activities.

In this article, Sahil shares how Covid-19 has impacted the college application cycle, and shares his advice to students starting the college application process.

Standardized Tests

Millions of students have been unable to take the SAT, ACT or opt for a retake (to improve scores) as tests have been cancelled due to pandemic restrictions.

TIPS: If one has been lucky to take the tests and get ACT/SAT scores broadly equivalent or higher to their school GPA levels, one must consider submitting these to test optional schools, as it may give them an edge, especially in a year when submitting other academic achievements (e.g. SAT subject test) has been cancelled. Another important reason to submit these scores is that colleges may use them when deciding whom to offer academic scholarships to.

Unable to Visit Colleges In-Person

Most students have been unable to visit campus, meet students, talk to faculty on the campus, and this has deprived them the chance to get the critical first hand feel.

TIPS: Students must not despair.

1) Instead they must undertake virtual tours being offered by college websites.

2) Another option is to visit virtual fairs offered by organization such as as NACAC, Coalition of colleges

3) Tap into your network of upper classmen, family and friends, who know students that are attending the colleges you are researching and speak to them

4) Email/reach out to faculty and start getting to know the colleges better

Should One Apply to a Higher Number of Universities?

As there are so many uncertainties this year, students are stressed out about how many to apply to and which type of schools.


1) It may be wiser to apply to a few more than usual this year. Broaden your college list- apply to more safety, but also to more reach schools. In a typical year, it is common to see students to apply to 6-9 colleges, but this year it may not hurt to increase this a bit.

2) While no magic formula exists for deciding the college list, the key thing to consider is which are the best-fit colleges for each student. While factors like academic match, and college culture fit continue to be the same as before, factors that are have become more critical due to pandemic are geography (closer to home during pandemic), financial assistance (many families could see a shift in job status /income in pandemic), virtual teaching competency of the college, health management abilities during pandemic

STEM Students Unable to do Lab Research or Obtain Field Experience?

During the past two years most STEM students have been unable to find opportunities for in-person research experience, or shadowing doctors in person. Some who had started in–person lab research during freshman or sophomore years were unable to continue the same research in person during pandemic years. This has disappointed students greatly and they worry about how to deal with this.


1) Even if the research was only partially done in-person, do make it a point to highlight it in the college application, as it differentiates you.

2) Do not fret if the research or shadowing experience has been fully online. In-person experience is just a part of the entire research/shadowing process. Even with a virtual research experience, students must showcase many useful skills they would have picked - such as literature review, data analysis, lab meetings/discussions/working with professionals etc.

3) Discussions done with doctors virtually, exposure to virtual patient case studies, any discussions with patients over the phone, observations made watching medical procedure videos are all incredibly valuable and students must highlight these in order to demonstrate that they gained real world experience, which has impacted them positively, and helped them to grow.

Demonstrating Extracurricular Activities Done Online

Due to Covid, most afterschool clubs, volunteering, community service activities have been shut down, and some may have been converted to the online format. As they may not give the same sense of involvement or achievement, students may worry if being involved in online activities is adequate.


1) Students must realize that colleges continue to recognize and encourage such efforts, and students must continue to be involved in online activities of clubs and community service programs conducted in their schools.

2) If there are limited online options for such programs in school, students should seek out many similar programs outside school offered by NGOs, local counties, and private organizations.

3) If a student is not happy with what is available via school or outside school, they could set up an online activity, and invite other like-minded students to join. This is also a great way for a student to demonstrate initiative.

Dealing with Changing Acceptance Rates

Acceptance rates have been affected by many factors like liberalized admission policies of colleges, extended deadlines for colleges admission, deferred enrollment by some students from prior year class, and decision by many international students to not apply/defer.

TIPS: All the above factors have added to the uncertainties, but it has been observed that broadly things have worked out for students who carefully pick out colleges which are their best fit, take care to highlight their uniqueness and passion in the college application, and make appropriate effort to stay connected with colleges they apply to. In consideration of likely changes in acceptance rates, students have broadened their college list, and applied to more safety and target colleges.

Financial Assistance and Scholarships

Covid has hurt financial status of all colleges. Colleges have been hurt with lower revenues due to enrollment, and higher expenses due to investment in technology (virtual education), healthcare facilities to deal with the pandemic on campus, and other Covid related expenses. Even colleges with big endowments have been hurt and some smaller colleges have even shut down. This may mean lower scholarships and financial aid, or shift of aid /scholarships to the most needy /Covid impacted families.

TIPS: Students should reach out early to their top colleges immediately after getting admitted and seek out financial aid/scholarships. Students and families must make realistic assessments of their chance to get such aid and should be mentally prepared to move on to their next best choice of college, in case their top choice college takes long to confirm aid.

Recommendation Letters

In the absence of standardized tests for many colleges, and the uncertainties with admissions during Covid, recommendation letters have become even more critical.


1) It is critical to stay in touch with teachers and counselors regularly. Early on identify the subject teachers who you think are most likely to give you a good recommendation letter, and reach out to them (ideally it is best to approach teachers in the spring of Junior year, but if not, at least 1 month before college applications).

2) Throughout junior year, attend extra help sessions, office hours for the teacher you have identified- it gives them a chance to get to know you better and this will be hugely important when they write a recommendation.

3) Email teachers with questions that demonstrate your intellectual curiosity.

4) Share papers or essays you write on the subject matter and seek guidance from teachers. This clearly displays high level of academic interest and involvement.

5) Participate in class discussions.

6) If participating in subject related competitions, seek guidance from your teachers while you prep for such competitions.

7) Update your teacher and counselor with academic achievements, awards won at competitions, and even awards from extracurricular activities. Do share experiences from community service and extracurricular activities as it gives them a chance to get to know different aspects about your personality.

8) Many schools ask students to submit a formal packet of information about the student’s achievements and interests. Students should submit this on time and follow up with the teacher and counselor for any additional requirements.

9) If some schools don’t have this practice, students can take the initiative and check if the counselor and recommending teacher would like such a summary about the student, which can be an easy reference for teachers while drafting recommendation letters.

To sum up, the pandemic has certainly brought in more uncertainties in the college admissions process, and rules of the game seemed to have blurred. But one of the best ways to succeed when life gets blurry is to refocus and continue ones efforts with renewed vigor. Hope some of tips we shared help to sharpen the focus!

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