grads in caps and gowns hugging

by Elizabeth Heaton, former admissions officer at University of Pennsylvania

What a crazy year! Students fully remote or attending high school in-person part-time via a hybrid model. Courses graded pass/fail. Standardized tests unavailable in many locations. Sports and other extracurricular activities postponed or cancelled. This was a difficult school year—and year—by anyone’s standards. For the class of 2021, those difficulties extended further to college admissions.

Though the U.S. is beginning its return to normalcy (whatever that means post-pandemic), we anticipate that this coming year will have similar challenges. With that in mind, here is some advice on how the class of 2022 can best approach what is shaping up to be another tough admissions cycle.

Start early. One positive resulting from closed campuses is that colleges offered more opportunities to engage remotely. Take advantage of these resources to start your research now, touring virtually and watching information sessions from your computer screen. There are two goals here: 1) Identify institutions you want to visit in person once campuses open up again; 2) Let colleges know of your interest. Many students this year are making their final school choice sight unseen. Some advanced planning for current juniors can help them avoid this fate.

Decide on standardized testing. Most important point first: if you can’t test safely, don’t test. Period. There are enough test optional choices for applicants to consider. This year we saw that, in general, students applying to larger state schools outside of California or to colleges that very reluctantly went test optional (we see you, University of Michigan and Georgetown), or applicants seeking merit money, benefitted from having test scores. In addition, many test optional policies did not extend to homeschooled students. On the other hand, both stellar test scores and no test scores seemed to have the least impact at both smaller schools and the most selective colleges. This made sense to us since most of those institutions are well versed in reviewing applications holistically; eliminating one element did not really change their process.

If you can test, should you? Great test scores can be a positive addition to applications. And remember that some schools are still requiring them. But if you are applying only to test optional or test free institutions, or if your scores do not match the rest of your academic performance, you can safely skip these.

Finalize a focused, balanced list. We’ve covered this in a few blog posts this year. Here’s a good place to start: The Importance of a Balanced College List in an Uncertain Year. The most successful seniors created good lists of eight to 12 schools with more safeties and matches than reaches. They were strategic. They didn’t use an early advantage on an extreme reach. They didn’t throw out a lot of extra applications “just to see.” They didn’t assume that simply eliminating weaker test scores automatically made them more competitive. They didn’t add any last-minute applications. Be like these students!

Make steady progress over the summer and early fall. You can win or lose the admissions “game” in the late stage of the process. Students who left their applications to the last minute, started essays a week before they were due, were not ready to apply early (see below for more), or added schools to their lists days before the deadline ended up with the fewest options. Conversely, those who followed the list guidelines from the previous section, made time for multiple essay drafts, completed their applications in early fall, and hit early deadlines fared the best. This is not new, pandemic-related advice. This approach always yields the best results.

Apply early. Let’s start with early decision (ED). ED can offer an advantage, especially at a reach school, but it is not an option for anyone who doesn’t have a true favorite or needs to compare financial aid packages. We would include Restrictive Early Action (REA), which only allows additional early action applications at other public or international institutions, here as well. Neither are of any use if not employed strategically. If you can do ED or REA, use that chip at a school where you are fundamentally competitive from an academic and extracurricular perspective, rather than at a reach where you hope ED or REA will make you that way. They won’t.

Don’t forget about the remaining early options, including early action, priority, and rolling. Hit all the early action and priority deadlines available to you at the colleges on your list. Doing that shows you are truly interested, offers more time for schools to read your applications, can often qualify you for merit scholarships, and gets you in the door before the crush of regular decision apps comes in. And the longer you wait on rolling decision schools, the more available slots fill up with other applicants. So get in there early!

College Application Prep 101

Written by Elizabeth Heaton
Elizabeth Heaton is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Before coming to College Coach, Beth worked as a senior admissions officer at University of Pennsylvania and an alumni admissions ambassador at Cornell University. Visit our website to learn more about Elizabeth Heaton.