College Application Advice

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many students struggling. Under these extreme circumstances, it can be hard for students to think about college, especially with the constantly changing application requirements and pandemic restrictions. I, however, am well-versed in the extreme; applying to fifteen colleges is insane by normal standards, but submitting that many applications and portfolios during a pandemic was nearly impossible. Luckily for me, my application decisions are finally coming out this month, so looking back on my experience, here are my tips for application season.

First off, know your deadlines.

Even though I’ve been working on my applications since October and November, my last deadlines passed in the beginning of January. Every college has a different deadline and application requirements, so it’s important to choose your application path and keep track of your requirements. When applying to colleges, there are three routes available: Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision. Early Decision is binding, which means that if you apply this way, you are bound by contract to attend that school and withdraw your other applications if you are accepted. For that reason, you can only apply for Early Decision to one school. Personally, I would not recommend applying for Early Decision unless you are certain you would go to your dream school if accepted. 

Early Action applicants are given their decisions at an earlier date than Regular Decision applicants. While Early Action decisions can be a final acceptance or declination, sometimes an applicant is deferred to the Regular Decision pool of applicants. Traditionally, Early Action is when you submit to an earlier application deadline than Regular Decision, and you hear your results sooner. Some colleges may have multiple deadlines for Early Action and Regular Decision; for example, I applied to the second wave of Regular Decision in January at the same time as the second Early Action wave. Early Action applicants get priority over the Regular Decision students simply because their applications are reviewed before the regular pool. 

As for deadlines, the earliest are Early Decision and Early Action, which are usually in November or December. Depending on the schools you apply to, the latest deadline will range from January to February, but you definitely won’t have to submit anything before November 1. 

That being said, you should start working on your applications in October or even September, in the most extreme case. As I applied to fifteen schools this year, I am definitely an extreme case; the best way to keep track of all of your deadlines is to make a list or spreadsheet. Over the course of my application season, I had two online spreadsheets and a list of my deadlines taped to the fridge. The first was for ranking all of the colleges I was looking to apply to and my preliminary research for said colleges. The second spreadsheet was much smaller and entailed all my deadlines with the requirements hyperlinked. 

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I hyperlinked the pages that I used to my spreadsheet so I would have easy access to the information when I compared the schools later. Looking forward to my acceptances this month, I’ll also advise you to keep track of your portals, acceptance decisions, and financial aid or scholarships in a separate spreadsheet. If spreadsheets aren’t your thing –or if that’s just a lot of work for you to put together– keep all of the information you need in one place like a journal or Google Doc.

Every college will have a section on their website for undergraduate admissions, and often they have different essay or portfolio requirements. If you know your major is going to be in fine arts or writing, you may have to submit a portfolio to display your work. The school will have you submit your work to a program called Slideroom, which is linked to the Common App. This is only necessary to get into a program within the university, such as an art, journalism, or film program, and your submission to these schools will usually not factor into your admission to the university itself.

Applications are usually submitted with the Common Application, but even then, most schools will require an additional 200-500 word essay along with the usual Common App essay. This coming year, it is unknown whether standardized testing such as SATs will be required again, but policies vary from school to school so it is something to keep an eye out for. Because most schools will require extra questions without required standardized testing scores, you should start working on applications early so you aren’t blindsided by another short answer question or essay the day before the deadline. Give yourself plenty of time and stay organized so you have the best chance at an acceptance.

Choosing your colleges during the pandemic can be challenging.

I spent all summer doing virtual tours and deciding what schools I would apply to, so I had a head start when application submissions opened; however, I also knew what my major was going to be. When I started looking for colleges, I already knew I wanted to double major in Journalism and Film & Television Production, so that definitely shaped my experience. If you are still undecided, that’s perfectly fine, but you may feel overwhelmed because you have no criteria to narrow down which colleges are best for you. When deciding what colleges to apply to, consider their location and campus, atmosphere, price, acceptance rate, and available programs. 

The location of a college defines many of the experiences you will have there. For example, a college in a city has a very different feel from a rural campus. Most of the colleges I applied to are in cities; for example, New York University (NYU) and Northeastern University are right in the middle of cities. The buildings on campus blend into the rest of the city, often with outside organizations nearby, so attending these colleges would be like living in New York City or Boston. Sometimes, colleges in cities have closed campuses, such as Fordham University in New York. Traditional campuses are more distinct, all-encompassing, and sometimes rural. The UCONN Storrs campus is a good example of a traditional college campus, though much larger than most. As someone who has toured many schools, including some when my brother was applying and the pandemic had not happened yet, every college has a distinct culture; how you feel about a college has a lot to do with its location, whether it’s close or far from home, or the atmosphere surrounding it. 

Currently, it’s hard to visit college campuses in person. Because of the pandemic, many campuses are closed for tours, which means it can be hard to get a sense of what the campus is like. Virtual tours are a great way to view college campuses; all of the colleges I applied to had a virtual tour of some kind, and most of them used a program called YouVisit. YouVisit is a program that lets you see a 360 panoramic view of the buildings and spots on campus the university elected to show. Usually, there is a narration by a student and explanations of each spot on the tour, which makes the experience comparable to an in-person tour. Although many main hubs of the school are covered such as libraries, schools, and important landmarks, some schools may not include dorm rooms and the inside of classrooms electing only to show the lobbies or outside of the building. The virtual tours can not give a sense of the surrounding area of the campus; I also recommend visiting their social media pages. Overall, virtual tours are easily accessible from a simple Google search and are informative, though there is no substitute for an in-person tour.  

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During the pandemic, it’s also important to consider how the school handles COVID-19 guidelines for daily life as a student there. State schools will follow the state mandates guidelines, but private schools are allowed to create their own. Although private schools often follow the state guidelines as well, it’s important to look into their policies before applying or enrolling. There will also be some aspects the administration cannot entirely control despite their policies, such as parties; this plays into the college’s overall atmosphere and although this should not be a total dealbreaker, it’s important to follow the pandemic guidelines safely. 

This past year has been stressful enough for students with the pandemic, but for juniors and seniors planning their future at college can feel overwhelming. Even though you may feel as though you’re going into this process blindly, just know that there are plenty of ways to find the information about colleges you would get on a normal tour online. The pandemic may restrict your experiences when touring colleges, but it does not have to hinder your entire selection process.