How to Apply (and Get in) to College During a Pandemic

college application

Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and Founder of IvyWise, on navigating college applications

Applying to colleges is never easy, but this year has brought extra challenges for graduating seniors and younger students alike. Common stressors over extracurriculars and summer internships are even more fraught as many students continue to live their lives entirely online.

Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of the college counseling company IvyWise, walked us through strategies for students and parents to follow as they begin the dreaded process. She talked to us about common misconceptions and mistakes applicants make, the pros and cons of virtual visits, and how students can bolster their applications this summer.

Katie Couric Media: The pandemic has affected the college application process in a number of ways. Can you share the three biggest challenges students are facing this year?

Dr. Kat Cohen: The first is unforeseen changes. Students have had to practice resilience and adaptability while navigating many changes out of their control, like having their standardized tests canceled and building relationships with teachers and classmates virtually.

Second, students have had to virtually visit colleges to build their balanced college list. Many students find it more challenging to gain perspective on a potential college through a virtual tour or information session compared to in-person programming.

Finally, nearly every student has had to creatively pivot their extracurricular activities to virtual formats as in-person activities have been paused indefinitely.

Tell us what you mean by pivoting extracurriculars. How can students show their experience beyond the classroom to colleges?

Admissions officers completely understand that students had interruptions to their regular extracurricular activities and will not hold this against them. However, they will look for students who got creative with their extracurricular activities during COVID-19 to explore their interests from home.

Students can design independent projects, virtually volunteer, create a new remote club, or enroll in online supplementary courses. For example, one student was passionate about fine arts and acting. When in-person activities went on pause, she pivoted her focus to create a virtual student-driven drama production. She fundraised for a local drama troupe that was forced to put productions on pause and worked with a project mentor to write her own professional script.

Top universities have always put an emphasis on applicants having a well-rounded resume. What are colleges looking for in applicants today?

This is actually a very common misconception! Rather than looking to build a class of well-rounded students, admissions officers aim to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists. These are students who have identified particular areas of interest and explored them through their classes and extracurricular activities. Students should be deeply involved in just a few activities they authentically enjoy and pursue over all four years of high school.

What about summer break? What do you recommend high school students focus on this summer?

Students should be spending their summer breaks in meaningful ways to continue to develop their interests. For example, many colleges offer summer programs for high school students and are either operating them in a fully remote or socially distanced in-person format this summer. Additionally, students can consider taking online courses or MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] through Coursera or EdX.

Let’s talk testing. Many schools have opted for test-optional applications. How is this changing the playing field?

U.S. admissions officers have traditionally reviewed applications holistically, taking more into consideration than just the numbers like standardized test scores and grades. So far this season, we are seeing that college admissions have become even more holistic, and we expect this to continue as colleges place a heavier focus on soft factors such as essays, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.

More than 1,000 schools had adopted test-optional policies well before COVID-19, often because they believe that this change will help increase access for low-income and first-generation students.

While test-optional policies do provide more access to certain students, the policies have also contributed to dramatic increases in application numbers. Most elite schools are not expanding their class sizes, so the process is becoming even more competitive.

Do you recommend that students still include standardized tests in their applications when applying for test-optional schools?

As of March 2021, over half of the four-year colleges in the U.S. have announced test-optional policies for the upcoming admissions cycle. After evaluating which schools on their list are test-optional, students should ask themselves if their applicant profile might benefit from a test score and if their transcript reflects their true ability. Some students might benefit from taking a standardized test to demonstrate their potential to achieve in college.

That being said, students applying to test-optional colleges should only submit scores if it will strengthen their application — that is, if their score is stronger than the average score for that college, which they can find on most college’s websites.

Students should not feel pressured to test if they do not feel safe doing so, as they should prioritize their personal health and safety.

College visits have been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic. What are some ways students can get to know the schools they’re applying to without visiting in person?

Nearly all colleges are only offering information sessions and tours in virtual formats for the foreseeable future. While it can be more difficult to get that “gut check” on a school through a screen, students can now “visit” more schools than in the past. Students should attend as many virtual visits as possible since they are low risk, but high reward. Students should also research potential colleges by watching online courses, connecting with friends who attend, following the school’s social media pages, reading student publications like the newspaper, and using external websites like Niche and Unigo.

What is the biggest mistake you see students make during this process?

Many students do not start the college prep process early enough! Most wait until junior year when really they should be exploring their interests and laying a strong academic foundation from 9th grade on. Starting the process early allows students to spread out their college prep, rather than cram it into one year, and gain a better understanding of what they are looking for in a college so they can focus on fit when building their college list.

A second mistake is that many students automatically gravitate toward a handful of the “name brand” schools, but there are over 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.! Rankings are general and there is no single best school for every student. Rather, students need to create their own rankings to find the best fits for their own criteria by researching factors like academics, majors, size, location, and activities. By starting the process early, students can identify which colleges will best match their specific interests and provide an environment that aligns with their preferences.

What about parents? Do you have any advice for the nervous parents who have kids going through this process?

Many parents go into the college application process with the mindset that “we” are applying to college. It’s important for parents to remember that their child is the one applying, and the student should be the one driving the process as parents provide support along the way. When parents attempt to take over the process for their children, it causes more stress for everyone in the family.

Dr. Kat Cohen is one of the leading independent university admissions counselors in the world. Cohen is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, a comprehensive educational consulting company—with expertise in admissions counseling, college and high school student counseling, tutoring and test preparation, and school research—that works with students globally in over 40 countries to help them get into the schools of their choice. IvyWise is comprised of a team of former Deans and Directors of Admission from the most selective universities.