8 Tips for the 2020-21 College Application Process

Fallout from this year’s application season is starting to take shape, and it’s becoming clear that applying to college next year will be more difficult and nuanced. 

Strategies to make your applications stand out

The Test Optional Trap

Yes, schools are increasingly going test optional next year—including the UCs, but that only complicates the process for most applicants. First, “test optional” does not mean “test blind.” Schools that are test blind will not look at scores at all, so all applicants are on equal footing. Test optional schools will still look at scores if you send them, but they will not count against you if you don’t submit them. The problem is that students who test well will send in their scores and will get the first round of slots, leaving fewer to fill with students who admissions officers see as a bit of a gamble who do not submit their scores.

Also, if you want to apply for merit aid, you will probably need to submit scores regardless. Fairtest has a comprehensive list of test-optional schools.So, most students should still probably take the ACT or the SAT for this application cycle.


Next, some current seniors who have been accepted to college for the 2020-21 year are deferring or taking gap years because they don’t want to take online classes. What does this mean for next year’s applicants? Some predict up to 10% fewer available spots.

Loss of Extracurriculars

The third challenge is that with school closures in the spring of this year, many students did not have the opportunity to engage in activities that could add heft to their applications. Athletes lost chances to show their prowess, club presidents lost valuable time demonstrating their leadership, and performers were not able to showcase their abilities. With pass/fail grades this spring, extracurriculars will become even more important, so the loss of spring activities is just that: a loss.

8 Steps You Can Take:

1.Be proactive.

2. Even during COVID-19, stay active, passionate, and curious. Write an Op-ed for your local paper. Submit to writing contests. Take an online summer class or free MOOC (Massive open online courses–Harvard has many that are free this summer). Volunteer to do some virtual work for a local organization. Write and produce a podcast or blog with your friends. Write a play. Learn a new skill. Help elderly neighbors.

3. Do test prep (Khan Academy offers online, free lessons) and sign up to take the ACT or SAT. Wait to see your scores before you send them to schools.  

4. Start the writing portions of the application. With fewer data points, the personal essay, the UC Personal Insight Questions, and supplement questions will become increasingly important. The Common Application essay questions will not change this year, so they are available now and the summer is the perfect time to work on these. Make sure your responses are compelling, demonstrate something beyond your GPA and testing capabilities, and illustrate your writing skills. Be authentic.

5. Take a rigorous class schedule senior year; your first quarter (if you are applying Early Decision or Action) and first semester grades (if you are applying Regular Decision) will undergo more scrutiny and hold more weight than usual, since for most, the junior year was interrupted.

6. Be judicious in asking for your letters of recommendation. Approach teachers who know you well, can fill in the blanks in your application, and who can talk about your academic strengths and leadership with details and anecdotes.

7. Use your counselor and ask for help if you need it.

8. Start the process early, proofread every part of your application, and meet deadlines.