An Expert’s 5 Tips On Acing College Apps This Fall

A guide for the parents of Class of 2021 amid this “new normal”

Katie Couric
Wake-Up Call


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Dr. Kat Cohen, Founder and CEO of IvyWise, offers some advice for parents on how to prepare their kids for applying for college amid this “new normal.”

I have been asked a lot lately; “It will be easier to get into college this fall, right?” Yes, many colleges are still scrambling to fill seats for the incoming freshman class because students have changed their plans due to Covid-19. This pandemic has wreaked financial havoc on colleges and universities. And with many colleges going test-optional and the hope they will bump up enrollment for this fall’s applicants to make up lost tuition, it’s tempting to infer that — my chance at an Ivy just increased tenfold!

But no, I don’t believe that, at least for more competitive colleges, it will be significantly easier to get in for rising seniors. I read applications at Yale and I know first-hand that these prestigious schools could fill their first-year class two or three times over with applicants from the “deny” pile. There is only so much space on campus and raising admission rates would significantly impact college rankings, which arguably could be more financially adverse for colleges.

So the better question, in my opinion, is: “Will it be easier to apply?” Even before Covid-19, applying to college was a murky process. Yes, colleges have made a concerted effort to assure students that the circumstances they’re facing now will not be held against them when applying. But the reality is the college admissions process is slow to change, and the metrics that students were previously able to gauge their “chances” against, are blurrier than ever. So how do you prepare for an uncertain college admissions process? Alleviate as much stress as possible through thoughtful prep.

Make a Game Plan That Focuses on Academics First

It’s going to be hard to plan for college applications in the fall if you’re not even sure what the fall itself is going to look like. Decisions about in-person/virtual instruction vary from state to state and even school to school. Stay informed on what your student’s school plans to do this fall and adjust accordingly. What resources do you need in order to ensure your child is successful in an online environment? If the instruction is in-person, are you comfortable with it? If not, are there alternatives? What resources do you need to ensure your child is safe at school? On top of that, how will your student mentally handle this year? These are all questions that need to be considered as part of this “new normal,” while also addressing common roadblocks like “senioritis” that can still persist — and even be exacerbated — during these times. Students need a solid foundation for senior year before they can really find success in the college admissions process.

Reexamine the College List

Covid-19 dramatically altered plans for tens of thousands of students who applied to college last fall. And it will significantly impact this year’s applicants. Generally, it will be harder for students across the country (and the globe!) to apply with all the information that classes before have benefitted from.

Draw up a game plan for applying this fall and make adjustments. How does your student’s academic profile align with the school’s standards? Will their SAT or ACT score matter? And look at how your other needs have changed. In some ways, location is becoming more important than ever — is the school in an area where the virus is under control? If the virus persists and a vaccine isn’t ready by next fall, do you feel comfortable with the precautions that the school and city have taken? College isn’t one-size-fits-all. Figure out what will work best for your student and put together a plan of action.

Start College Apps Early

You want to make sure that your student isn’t overwhelmed with college applications. Senior year already puts immense pressure on students. And with the possibility of another virtual year, coupled with the loss of “typical” high school experiences, students will be more stressed than ever. Some of that pressure can be eliminated by starting early on the basics of college applications. Set up a Common App account and fill out the easy, biographical info. Then move on to meatier sections like activities. Getting these simple tasks out of the way early clears the way for students to spend more time crafting their essays and refining their college lists. It lifts a small yet significant burden, freeing up some mental space for students to emotionally deal with the reality of another atypical school year and to creatively address more complex parts of the application.

Rethink Testing

It’s simple: not every student applying to college this fall will have the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT. While the ACT has chosen to power through and offer test dates this summer, it has been a mess and most test centers have stayed closed. The College Board hasn’t offered the SAT at all testing centers since December 2019. Most colleges have responded by going “test-optional” for this admissions cycle — meaning they will allow students to apply without these test scores. But test-optional isn’t “test blind.” They will still consider scores if you send them.

Others have said they will accept applications without SAT or ACT scores but will expect students to supply them before enrolling. Families need to ask themselves: What is best for my child considering all of our unique circumstances? Sit down and look at your student’s college list and determine the testing policy for each school and whether it’s realistic (or safe!) for your student to test this fall. If not, and your student has already taken the SAT or ACT, they need to determine if they want to apply with that score or not. If testing just isn’t possible, or you don’t feel safe, then don’t. But understand it may affect your college list if schools are still expecting those scores at some point.

Get on Board with Virtual Tours

I get it. Kids and parents alike are Zoom’d out. One of the most exciting parts of this process is actually visiting schools. Nothing beats getting to see a campus first-hand. For many, that’s how they knew that a particular university is where they belonged. The reality right now is that for a lot of students, those visits just won’t be possible. “Visiting” a school virtually can be deeply frustrating and demotivating.

There is every reason to think most, if not all, college visits will still be online through 2021. Set those expectations now. How can you make the most of them? Can you wait to visit after acceptances come in? Now is the time to have these conversations so students can make peace internally.

The only certainty this fall is the simple fact that kids are resilient. There will be setbacks despite your best efforts, but teens will adapt. Trust in their resilience, help and guide them when you can, and keep an open mind.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.



Katie Couric
Wake-Up Call

Founder, Katie Couric Media. Newscaster: Wake-Up Call. Podcaster: Next Question. Doc filmmaker. @SU2C founder.