Students cross in front of the Biology Psychology building and Hornbake Library at University of Maryland, College Park.

Jeff Selingo is the smartest guy I know of when it comes to college admissions, and you can be sure that his advice is as up-to-date and well-researched as it gets. Here’s what he wrote after the release this September of his book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions:

Over the last month, I’ve led more than a half dozen virtual town halls on the admissions search during Covid-19. During every discussion, new issues and questions emerged about the process this cycle, but some of the same subjects kept coming up over and over again. So you don’t have to watch hours of video (although you can if you want—details below), here is some of what students and parents need to know about the most frequently asked questions about applying to college this year.

1. Stop worrying about getting a test score.

  • Although 400+ colleges, including some of the highest ranked campuses, suspended—or in some cases ended—their testing requirement, some families seem to be pulling out all the stops to get an SAT or ACT score.
  • Even if you don’t trust test-optional schools in a normal year, this isn’t a normal year. Take the University of Chicago, which before this year was the most selective college to have gone test optional. In a typical year, only 15 to 20 percent of applicants took advantage of the university’s optional policy, about the same proportion who were eventually admitted without scores. But this year officials expect they might not get scores from half of applicants.
  • While top colleges can certainly craft a class from half their pool, they won’t. Trust colleges on this one if they say they’re test optional in admissions.
  • That said, ask about financial aid, since many colleges also award their merit-aid based on test scores. Most colleges are dropping the requirement there, too, although it’s still early to know exactly how they’ll award that aid. 

Bottom line: For most applicants to most colleges, grades and test scores align, so a score this year won’t tell admissions officers any more than they already know from a transcript. What’s more, students tend to score higher the more often they take the tests. This year, it’s unlikely teenagers will be able to take the test more than once, meaning they won’t have their best score to submit anyway.

2. Control what you can.

  • Without test scores, those colleges where the ACT/SAT played a role in admissions—and it always played less of a role than many students and parents thought—will lean into other parts of the application where students have more control over their destiny anyway.
  • The high-school transcript is the most important piece of your application—yes, even more than test scores. While it’s too late to change your senior-year schedule, you can spend your time earning good grades in those classes.
  • Essays. One place where applicants can stand out this year is in their essay. I found during my year inside admissions most essays are unfortunately mind-numbingly similar. Teenagers often focus on the same things: overcoming an athletic injury, dealing with anxiety, depression, or their sexuality, or discovering themselves on a trip, with a fill-in-the-blank country such as Guatemala or Thailand (more on essays below).
  • Recommendations. Seniors might be worried that some of their teachers only got to know them during remote learning. That might be true of senior-year teachers, but most students have teachers to ask from previous years when they were in-person. This might also be the year to choose a teacher who may have had you more than one year in school to talk about your growth. Another tip from the book: also ask a teacher outside the subject you want to major in to show your breadth of interests.

Bottom line: Spend less time worrying about the ACT/SAT and more on your class work and completing your applications.

3. You don’t need to write about the pandemic.

  • Applicants should consider skipping the question added to the Common App and the Coalition App on how the coronavirus impacted them if the result wasn’t significant—a death in the family or a job loss—the University of Chicago’s dean of admission, James Nondorf, said during one of our recent virtual sessions.
  • Whatever you write there, other admissions deans told me they don’t want to read about seniors complaining that the end of high school was ruined for them by the pandemic. They already know that. You can turn a negative into a positive and write about what you were able to do because of the coronavirus.
  • There are no hard and fast rules on the Covid-19 question or essays in general, but during the year I spend embedded in the process, the essays that stuck out often did because the students wrote with an authentic voice that gave readers a sense of what the student saw, felt, or thought.

Bottom line: The best essays are honest slice-of-life stories, both entertaining and serious, that tell admissions officers something they don’t learn from another part of the application. They’re essays that aren’t trying to shoehorn 17 years into 650 words.

4. Early decision will be more important for colleges, but maybe not for you.

  • As the book explains, colleges pulled the lever harder than ever on early decision (ED) in the wake of the 2008 recession. They didn’t want to take a chance that they’d struggle to fill seats in the spring.
  • Schools that traditionally filled maybe a quarter to one-third of their classes through ED boosted that proportion to upward of half in the fall of 2008.
  • Expect colleges with robust early-admissions pools (basically selective colleges) to do the same this year. They don’t have much room to grow that part of the incoming class—after all they likely won’t admit 75% early—but they’ll up the numbers where they can.
  • ED has always advantaged colleges, but maybe more so this year since applicants can’t get to campuses to take tours and might be doing their senior year online, making it difficult to talk to counselors.

Bottom line: Advice about whether to apply ED hasn’t really changed from before the pandemic. If you know where you really want to go and are sure of the financial commitment required, then apply early. Otherwise, wait until the spring when you can compare financial-aid offers and might be able to visit a campus.

5. The effects of deferrals this year will be less than you think on the Class of 2021.

  • As seniors hear that anywhere from 4% to 20% of incoming students this fall deciding to delay the start of college, they’re worried those students will take their seat in next year’s freshman class.
  • One thing I learned in reporting my last book, There is Life After College, is that during a gap year, many students end up changing their mind about where they planned to go to school, and apply elsewhere. Perhaps the same thing will happen this year.
  • Plus, most colleges want to keep their overall enrollment and tuition income steady from year-to-year. A smaller sophomore class next fall will mean many colleges will go after transfer students, or most likely if they have the capacity, increase the size of their incoming class next fall. Remember, most colleges need the tuition revenue right now.

Bottom line: My advice is to stop worrying about deferrals. It’s one of those things you can’t control anyway.

Admissions in the Time of Covid, Class of 2021