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  • Michelle Silbernagel

Preparing for College Admissions During a Pandemic

Focus on What You Know

Juniors and Sophomores are likely feeling a little lost at sea. Requirements and expectations are constantly changing. Standardized test cancelations. AP exam changes. One week it’s online-ungraded, optional learning; the next it’s online, graded continuous learning.


The guidance on how to adapt in response is often delayed as things “get figured out” both in terms of how to handle high school right now and how to prepare for college admissions. So much is out of our control. It’s unsettling. And we know all too well that uncertainty creates stress. Within the realm of “high school,” one way to gain a foothold and reduce anxiety is to focus on what we know and what we can control.

Step 1: Stay Informed

Check out the COVID-19 College Resources page for links to update pages - especially in terms of SAT & ACT test date updates.


AP students, your teachers will provide more information, but here is a great overview of what to expect by Compass Education Group.


Step 2: Find an Anchor

Figure out what is most important right now and hone in. To paraphrase Oprah, What do we know for sure?

  • We know that classes and learning will continue.

  • We know that AP Exams will take place.

  • We know that most colleges are test-optional for 2021 applicants, including our own flagship university, UW.


Based on what we know, the top priorities I see for most students, juniors in particular, as they continue forward in preparation for the college admissions process are their current classes, SAT/ACT testing considerations, and extracurricular activities. I'll break it down.


Current Classes

What we know: The transcript and a student’s grades are the most important part of the college application. Students are expected to continue learning and the latest word is those efforts will be graded. It remains to be seen as to whether the final class grade will be Pass/Fall. OSPI is expected to provide the District with additional guidance on April 17th. While students will be offered some grace for this semester during the college admissions review process, encourage your teen to take advantage of this opportunity to stay engaged and participate in the online opportunities provided. Everyone involved recognizes this is uncharted territory and may be challenging in the online format.

Students should not be afraid to ask for help from teachers. In fact, I bet teachers would love to hear from students, to get some feedback, so it’s not all one-way communication.

How to engage: Show Initiative Students can create virtual study groups. Sometimes kids are hesitant to do this if they feel they don’t know their classmates well. But they can reach out to the teacher and ask for help coordinating some small study groups.


How to engage: Show Some Love

This is a great opportunity for students to connect with teachers in ways they hadn’t previously. When students email their teachers about schoolwork, they can also ask about their teacher personally. Does she have small kids? Is she having to juggle parenting, homeschooling and teaching online? Or ask about how he likes his new, super-short commute.


Teens can share what they’ve been doing. Spend some time connecting. Teachers are people too. And having a relationship beyond the course subject matter can only be of benefit when it comes time for asking for those college letters of recommendation.


A note about AP Classes (if applicable). Several colleges have said they will grant credit for these exams in the same manner as they did B.C. Keep in mind that the exams, though shorter, will not be easier. And while the entire AP course curriculum will not be tested on the exam (this chart defines what will be tested), teachers will teach the entire course curriculum, in addition to providing exam review, so that students are prepared for the next level of learning next year.

ACT/SAT Testing Considerations

What we know: Until COVID-19, these tests were the second key element of the college application. ACT and SAT test date availability are both moving targets, making them difficult to plan for. I am not holding my breath that the June tests will happen (at least not on-site). Everyone, testing organizations included, is pivoting. Colleges are going test-optional (see this ever-growing list), and testing is going online (the AP Exams for one and I’d bet money that both the College Board and ACT have plans underway to at least pilot test full online testing).

But what should juniors do in the meantime?

Let’s review what we know.


  • We know that a solid test score will help a student’s application.

  • We know that the absence of a test score will not “harm a student's application. Here is what our own flagship university, the UW, says.

Not submitting an SAT or ACT will not harm any applicant in the review process.


What don’t we know for sure?

If the June (or any summer) tests will take place. The tricky thing about ACT and SAT prep is that it is tough to make progress and maintain knowledge when the test date is a moving target. Most kids plan their study strategy by backing out the prep timeline from the test date so the content is fresh and top of mind on test day. Formal test prep courses are structured similarly. Since the June dates are up in the air, it may be hard for kids to focus. If kids have the bandwidth right now -- they can continue their review and prep with the multitude of free resources. Taking practice tests can help keep the knowledge fresh. That said, extra stress related prep is not necessary and certainly not helpful right now. And it is one of the main reasons so many colleges have dropped the requirement for the 2021 admissions cycle -- they want to ease stress for high school students at a time of profound social and economic upheaval. If the tests do happen in June and your teen is registered, there is little drawback to taking the test. Given the current test-optional policy at most colleges, students usually aren't required to report the score (some of the most selective colleges may, however). In the short term, energy is better spent on what we know. The safe bet is there will be other testing options this summer and in the fall for which your teen can prepare for more strategically. That said, if your kiddo is super motivated to prep, test and get it done at the first available moment, then, by all means, have them go all in. They’ll have another data point for their application. Sophomores can take advantage of the numerous free practice tests available and compare their performance on the ACT versus the SAT to see if they do demonstrably better on one or the other or if they just prefer one or the other. Then they’ll be all set to put a strategy in place once everything stabilizes. So what do we know? We know these are unprecedented times and colleges will be flexible. We know that colleges, in the absence of test scores and grades, will look for other ways to learn about the awesomeness of your teen. This is not a pass to “slack off” but an opportunity for students to continue to persevere, to continue to engage in their environment no matter what it is. It’s an opportunity for teens to pause, pivot and explore new interests - without the pressure to “perform.” Stay tuned for next week's post about about this very topic.

Note: You may finish reading this with still more questions than when you began - especially about what test-optional really means. (Hint: It does not mean that it will be easier for students who do not test to get into college.) Jon Boeckenstedt, the Vice Provost at Oregon State, a huge advocate of the test-optional policy and a well-respected voice in college admission, wrote a blog post about just that.



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© Touchstone College Advising 2020

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