A high school senior's guide to college applications during the coronavirus

Lauren Ford

May 19, 2020

Five things high school seniors need to do to apply for college now

If you’re a high school senior, you’ve probably been watching a lot of your classmates post about the college or university they’re planning to attend. If you’d like to go to college but haven’t applied yet – or even chosen one yet – don’t worry. You’re not alone … especially now. The COVID-19 pandemic has trashed lots of people’s plans, and colleges and universities will be happy to look at your application, no matter when you apply.

You may also be worried about how you can submit a strong application that impresses colleges when your grades may have suffered and you haven’t been able to participate in sports, clubs, jobs, or other activities.

Your concern is understandable. But remember that virtually every other college applicant is in the same boat. Every college admissions counselor understands what’s happening right now. Guaranteed.

And fortunately, there’s still plenty you can do to prepare for college while you’re social distancing.

It’s worth noting that most of the ideas below rely on internet access. But the unfortunate reality is that many people aren’t lucky enough to have great broadband at their fingertips. If you’re one of those people, ask around your community.

Many libraries and other not-for-profit organizations, though closed, are offering free WiFi hot spots in their parking lots. Illinois public WiFi sites are mapped out online; other states have done the same. And some companies like Comcast are offering free internet access to qualifying customers.

#1: Connect with the colleges and universities you may want to attend.

In many states you won’t be allowed to visit schools in person, so you need to demonstrate your interest in other ways—lots of colleges look for signs of “demonstrated interest” when they evaluate applications. How can you do that?

All of this will help you show your interest, which is great, but it will also help you make smart choices about which schools are best for you. Plus, you’ll be able to write a thoughtful answer if you need to respond to an essay question like, “Why this college?”

And if you have questions that aren’t addressed in the college’s materials … don’t hesitate to call or email an admissions counselor.

Remember, COVID-19 has thrown us all into uncharted territory. Admissions counselors are just like the rest of us, learning as they go, and they want to help you figure things out. Let them know if you need something! They’d love to hear from you.

#2: Study for the SAT or ACT.

Thanks to cancelled test dates, you’ve scored some bonus practice time if you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT yet. Aim to spend 15 to 30 minutes each day on Khan Academy’s practice site. Twenty hours of practice on Khan Academy can boost your score by an average of 115 points. You can find Khan Academy’s free test prep materials on the College Board website.

Some colleges have opted to drop their SAT and ACT testing requirements entirely – or have gone “test optional” -- because of the coronavirus, but plenty of schools still require them. To stay on top of test date information, visit the College Board (SAT) and ACT websites. And if you’re planning to take any AP tests, you may be able to take them at home this year before May 22.

#3: Create your own independent study program.

Hopefully you’ve been staying on top of your school assignments—despite senioritis—but taking things a step further this summer can help you stand out from your classmates. You can pursue college-level programming through Coursera, MIT’s open courseware, Yale’s open courses, and others. Be sure to describe any and all of this work on your application.

You can also use this approach to connect you with the colleges on your list (see #1 above)—just ask your admissions counselor if it’s possible to sit in on an online class.

#4: Find creative ways to substitute for extracurricular activities.

This year you probably weren’t able to join the clubs, play the sports, or work the jobs you were planning on before social distancing trapped you at home. But there’s still stuff you can do when your homework (or the academic year) is finished. Polish your college application by getting involved and helping out in your community.

You could post workout or training routines on YouTube to help your baseball teammates stay in shape or help younger children with their homework via FaceTime sessions. If you originally planned to work on weekends at your local library, start a blog instead and review a new book every few days.

If you want to go for an eSports scholarship, you might even justify your increased screen time by improving your rank on games college teams look for, like Overwatch, Fortnite, League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But whatever you end up doing, be sure to include the activities that matter to you most on your application.

#5: Frontload the Common App.

Chances are good that at least some of your colleges will use the Common Application. You can complete several areas of that application right now. They’ll focus primarily on demographics and background, so they aren’t difficult—but they do take time. You might as well get them out of the way now (you can change them later if you need to) so that you don’t need to rush through them later when you could be (finally!) hanging out with friends. It wouldn’t hurt to check out the Common App’s essay prompts either.

Some final tips

Above all, try to stay healthy. Follow the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We’ll get through the coronavirus pandemic eventually.

In the meantime, feel free to check out the resources that North Central College has pulled together. They’re free to everyone, regardless of whether you have any interest in or connection to the school. Visit