The college search and application process can be stressful under normal circumstances, but in the spring of 2020, it became even more complicated due to COVID-19. High school classes switched to an online platform with uncertain grading practices, extracurriculars ended, college visits ceased to happen, standardized test dates were canceled, and AP exams went online. Colleges are trying to adapt their application requirements to accommodate the Class of 2021; however, navigating all of the information and expectations has become complicated. Here are a few things that high school juniors can do now to prepare for college applications.

Continue to develop your extracurricular profile

The stay-at-home mandate complicated a student’s ability to participate in clubs, concerts, competitions, jobs, and athletics. Junior year is a pivotal year to exhibit leadership skills, demonstrate curiosity, and stand out for college admission. However, it has been challenging for students to do just that, and to set themselves apart while quarantined from home. 

College admission officers understand that social distancing has impacted the ability to stay involved; however, there is still uncertainty on how they will evaluate students under these circumstances. While you could argue that the playing field has leveled, students can rise to the occasion to set themselves apart during self-quarantine and COVID-19. Students should consider ways that they can continue to develop their academic and extracurricular interests creatively. Clubs can meet virtually, and students can remotely volunteer for area non-profits and national organizations. There are endless opportunities for online learning to hone skills and explore academic interests in depth. Start by exploring Summer Discovery, Capital Debate, Omprakash and TeenLife for ideas.

Ask Teachers for Letters of Recommendations

Now is a great time to talk to teachers about their willingness to write a letter of recommendation. Colleges prefer letters from 11th grade core classes, such as math, science, history, English, or a foreign language. A letter of recommendation should be from a teacher who can talk about a student’s contribution to the classroom over time. It can also address academic growth or overcoming a hurdle. It could even be a teacher who has seen a student’s extra effort in the days of online learning.

Colleges typically do not want letters of recommendation from family friends or alumni, as they might not know the student in the classroom context. Sometimes other letters of recommendation are allowed, from principals, coaches, pastors, club advisors, etc. but this is up to each college and would not replace a core teacher recommendation.  

Understand the Changes in Standardized Testing

It is important to stay abreast of changing policies regarding registration and test dates carefully. Students should check the college’s admissions website to review updates to their standardized testing policy and information regarding Subject Tests, which can be used in the admissions process and for direct-entry admission to specific majors.

Each day the list of colleges going test-optional for the Class of 2021 grows. In the past week, Princeton University, University of Virginia, Western Washington University, and Dartmouth College have joined the ranks of the University of Washington and the University of California system in going test-optional. Yet, test-optional does not equate test-blind. Therefore, students should prepare for and take at least one SAT or ACT. Not all colleges have decided to go test-optional, so it would be shortsighted not to prepare, as it would eliminate a student’s ability to apply to a college that still requires it. Even at test-optional schools, strong test results reinforce or enhance a student’s academic profile and could influence merit scholarship awards. Scores could also continue to be a requirement for direct-entry admission into competitive majors, such as business, computer science, nursing, or engineering.

Prep for Standardized Tests   The first step to test prep is to determine if the SAT or ACT is better suited to your strengths. Most test prep companies will offer students the opportunity to take both as practice tests and then run a diagnostic to determine which of the two is best to pursue. Colleges aren’t expecting students to take both; each is accepted equally. Once you know which test you want to take, you can easily complete one-on-one test prep from home. Today there are endless resources and opportunities to pursue test prep virtually, with companies that are locally-based like Berkshire Test Prep in Issaquah or with a nationally-based company like ArborBridge.