What’s Ahead for College Admissions

COVID-19 has turned the world of college admissions on its head. This year’s seniors face an unprecedented admissions landscape: most colleges have temporarily adopted test optional policies, and an unusually high number of deferrals has left fewer spaces available at some top colleges.

But what about next year, or the year after that?

Making Predictions

There are two likely outcomes for college admissions in 2021 and beyond.

The first possibility—and the one everyone certainly hopes for—is a return to normal. If the unexpected school interruptions of last year aren’t repeated and if SAT and ACT test dates become more widely available, we can expect most colleges to shift back to their usual admissions practices. Most of the schools that temporarily adopted test optional policies would return to their usual test policies, and grades would once more reign supreme in terms of college admissions factors.

The second possibility—far less attractive—is that COVID-19 continues to impact schools’ ability to fairly grade their students (as happened in the spring of 2020, when many schools had to revert to pass/fail standards) or the availability of the SAT and ACT.

What We KNOW Will Stay the Same

No matter what happens, we know that colleges will continue to practice what is known as a holistic review process. Colleges don’t just look at raw data to decide who gets in and who doesn’t—if admissions were as simple as that, then colleges would simply let a computer algorithm do the work rather than staffing entire departments dedicated to the admissions process. So, what you do outside of your classes, how you express your ideals and aspirations in your essays, and the insights shared in recommendation letters will all continue to play a big role in admission decisions.

Good grades in challenging courses will continue to reign supreme. Taking tough classes shows that you have intellectual curiosity, a desire to learn and grow, and the ability to rise to a challenge. Getting good grades in those classes shows a strong work ethic and academic skill.

What Might Change

The biggest question mark in college admissions is the role that SAT and ACT scores will play in the coming years.

Most selective schools have indicated that they intend to return to requiring test scores for admission as soon as it becomes safe to do so. Some other schools have suggested that they are open to reconsidering their test policies permanently, depending on how this first test optional admission season goes.

Post-pandemic, there may be more test optional schools out there, but it is likely that most colleges will return to requiring the SAT or ACT for admission.

But this raises an even bigger question: When will “post-pandemic” be? No one knows for sure.

What You Should Do Now

The uncertainty that looms ahead can make it easy to just wait and see what happens—but the wisest students are those who take smart steps towards admission at their dream colleges while everyone else is still waiting around. Here are things you should be doing to set yourself up for college admissions success (pandemic or no pandemic).

Focus on Great Grades in Tough Classes

Whether you’re doing online learning or in-person learning, your grades count! Be proactive about asking for help when you need it, and hone those study skills to make sure you excel in every class.

Stay Involved in Extracurriculars

Particularly if your school has opted for digital learning, this one is easier said than done. But even if your school has gone virtual—perhaps even especially if your school has gone virtual—it’s important to find ways to continue to pursue your passions and develop your interests.

Start Your Test Prep Early

Don’t count on colleges remaining test optional—maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Even if you apply only to test optional schools, good SAT or ACT scores still boost your chances for admission. And thanks to COVID-19, it’s possible that you may have fewer test dates available in which to meet your score goals—which means that you need to be ready to crush it your first time out of the gate.

Think About Your Essays

Your application essays might be months or years away, but it’s a great idea to give them thought now. Keep a file on your computer where you stash projects or essays that you’re particularly proud of. In that file, start a journal where you write down problems you’ve solved, things you’ve accomplished, or moments of leadership. These steps will make finding the perfect essay topic easier when the time comes.

Always Be Prepared

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Colleges are dedicated to ensuring that hurdles created by the pandemic won’t unfairly hurt students’ college admission chances—but the students with the biggest competitive edge will be those students who excelled in the face of those hurdles.


Assume you’ll need SAT/ACT scores when you apply to college — odds are good that most schools will return to requiring the tests!

Prep for the PSAT and other standardized tests

Explore extracurricular options with an eye towards continuing your extracurriculars virtually if need be

Enroll in tough classes and build the study skills necessary to succeed!

Assume you’ll need SAT/ACT scores when you apply to college — odds are good that most schools will return to requiring the tests!

Take the PSAT 10 if your school offers it — this is a great chance to calibrate your prep for the PSAT/NMSQT next year

Start to narrow down your extracurriculars to focus on the ones you’re most passionate about

Continue to earn great grades in rigorous classes

Prep for the SAT/ACT — the schools you apply to might extend test optional policies, but it’s better to be safe than sorry

Continue to earn great grades in rigorous classes

Create backup plans for your extracurriculars in case there is a return to virtual schooling

Your best chance to bolster your applications is your college essay — start early and get plenty of help to craft an essay that truly makes your application shine

If you didn’t have the opportunity to meet your score goals for the SAT/ACT, don’t worry — most colleges went temporarily test optional this year