Incoming Seniors – How to Approach College Admissions This Year

You’re probably tired of seeing the word “unprecedented” by now, so let’s just say that this year’s college admissions season is going to be weird. It’ll be weird for college admissions officers. It’ll be weird for high school counselors. And most of all, it’ll be weird for students.

For years, you’ve followed a roadmap to college, diligently checking off the items on your college admissions to-do list. But now the rules have changed.

It’s okay to be angry and frustrated about the fact that all of your carefully wrought plans have been ruined. By all means, take the time to grieve the opportunities that you’ve lost. And when you’re done, put on your can-do boots and get ready to face those college applications.


Test scores still matter—but with a great big asterisk.

A lot of schools have temporarily gone test optional because of Covid-19. For those who were unable to hit their score goals before the pandemic forced test date cancellations and who cannot retest this fall, that’s definitely good news: You won’t be penalized for not having a stellar SAT or ACT score.

On the flip side, having a strong SAT or ACT score will set you apart from the crowd, making a high SAT or ACT score even more beneficial than usual.

If you hit your score goals already, AWESOME. You’re good to go.

If you didn’t, you have two choices:

  • If it is within your ability to do so, then it is to your advantage to prep for the SAT/ACT and register for one of the remaining test dates. Both the College Board and ACT have added test dates to try to make up for the cancelled dates earlier in the year. Now is the time to hit the prep books and boost those scores!
  • If you cannot find an available test center or do not feel safe taking the test, limit yourself to test optional schools and forgo test scores. This option may not hurt you, but it also will not improve your application in the way that a good test score would.


You cannot control how your school chose to address the pandemic. Maybe you finished the semester pass/fail. Maybe you got lower grades than you would have because of distance learning interruptions. What’s done is done, and there is no point worrying about it now.

College admission officers know that last semester was awful for everybody. They, too, had to adapt to stay-at-home orders and uncertainty. And many of them have announced intentions to bring that empathy to the admissions process this year.

At most colleges, your grades before the pandemic and how you approach your academics now that you’ve had time to prepare for the weirdness of pandemic life will carry greater weight than your grades from last semester.


Whether your school is starting the year in the classroom or online, get ready to make this semester count! How you approach your classes this semester will carry great weight with college admissions counselors because it will offer perspective on your resilience in the face of challenges. Recommendation letters from teachers who can attest to your renewed passion for learning, a mid-year report card with high grades, and a challenging course schedule will all go a long way towards showing admissions officers that nothing can stop you from learning.


Most of your usual extracurricular activities may be on hold—after all, it’s pretty tough to play soccer on Zoom—but that doesn’t let you off the hook when it comes to college admissions. Instead of looking at this as the end of your extracurricular involvement, look at it as an opportunity to get creative (and, incidentally, to show off your creativity to colleges). Take the initiative to translate some of your favorite extracurriculars online. Collaborate with your debate coach to host an online debate tournament. Publish the school newspaper online. Do peer tutoring online. Look for virtual or socially-distanced volunteer opportunities. The possibilities are endless!


Since this will be a unique (see how we didn’t say “unprecedented”?) college admissions season, you should hedge your bets. We’ve often written about the importance of applying to a well-rounded list of safety, target, and reach schools—that advice is even more valuable than usual.

In some ways, this admission season may offer advantages—such as by suspending certain testing requirements. But there’s also reason to suspect that it may be even more competitive than usual. Many students from the class of 2020 opted to defer their freshman year, meaning that some portion of next year’s freshman class is likely already filled. Translation: there are fewer spots to be filled this application season.

Don’t be disheartened—just be prepared. Make sure your college list includes a number of safety and target schools so that you have plenty of options available to you once your college decisions arrive.


Under normal circumstances, the ranking of college admissions factors usually goes like this:

  1. Grades and course rigor
  2. ACT/SAT scores
  3. Essay

This year, test scores will be much less important because so many colleges have gone test optional. What’s more, while grades and course rigor will still be a huge factor in admission decisions, one of the most relevant semesters (spring of your junior year) will be a flawed data point because of the interruptions from school closures.

Since those factors are now flawed, the importance of the essay becomes magnified.

Get an early start on your essays, and check out some of our best essay resources for help.


More than 315 college admission deans signed on to a collective statement announcing the traits admissions deans value most in students during this time. Among those traits:

  • The ability to cope with stress in a healthy way through self-care
  • Meaningful contributions to others
  • Dedication to family

Notice the common theme in this list: Be a genuinely caring person who helps others through difficult times.


Everyone is in the same quarantine boat, so you’re definitely not alone. You will be compared with other students who also had interrupted junior years and lost opportunities.

What matters most is not what happened over the last half a year. What matters most is how you approach what comes next. So use this time wisely—reframe this challenge as an opportunity to shine.


  • Welcome to high school! Bookmark this post and check back when you’re a Senior.
  • Hello, sophomores! Bookmark this post and check back when you’re a Senior.

Check our our article for JUNIORS!

  • Continue implementing your college roadmap for grades, standardized tests, and extracurriculars.
  • Get started on your college essays – they take more time than most students realize.
  • Finalize your college list and get a good mix of safety, target, and dream schools. Make sure you know each school’s current policies regarding standardized tests as well as all application deadlines.
  • If you don’t already have the score you need, register for the SAT or ACT this fall and get good test prep underway.