Everything you need to know about applying to college in the age of COVID-19

This college application season, students and parents must be ready to adapt like never before as the coronavirus pandemic impacts colleges and universities across the United States. Here, Bari Norman, co-founder and head counselor at Expert Admissions, answers important questions about applying to colleges for the 2020-2021 academic year.

What does “test-optional” mean? Are they REALLY optional?

Test-optional really does mean optional and more than 70 percent of colleges are test-optional for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. However, it is also true that if you are able to test and can earn a score that’s at least within the range of the schools you’re applying to or, better yet, at the higher end of the range or above it, you should test. So it can be true that tests are both optional and also encouraged, if possible. Colleges really do understand that some students have not been able to test due to COVID disruptions, so you won’t be penalized for no scores. Submitting “good scores” (whatever that means at a particular college) can be helpful, though.

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How will financial aid be affected? What’s your advice to students applying for financial aid?

Financial aid will be impacted differently depending on the school and its own financial situation. A very small number will be able to increase aid, some will have a lower financial aid budget given decreases in enrollment and revenue this year (and an increase in expenses), and others will find creative ways to make it work, like shifting dollars from merit-based aid to need-based aid. For students applying for financial aid, know whether each school is need-blind or need-aware in their admissions process. If they’re need-blind, it means they don’t take into consideration whether you’re applying for financial aid as part of the admissions decision-making process. If they’re need-aware, it means they do need to take into account whether or not you need financial aid when making your admissions decision. In any year that can mean that an otherwise qualified applicant gets turned away; this year, we’re likely to see more of that. If financial aid is an important consideration for you, I recommend not applying Early Decision (so you can see and compare offers from different colleges) and making sure you do a deep dive into schools’ policies, as even schools that technically meet 100 percent of demonstrated need can offer aid packages that are loan-heavy and ultimately untenable.

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Is there anyone who might have an advantage in college admissions this year that they wouldn’t otherwise have? In other news, is there good news for anyone?

Students who do well in school but aren’t good standardized test takers got good news this year. At test-optional schools, scores are optional for everyone (not only for those affected by testing center closures