Road Map for April: Juniors

This is a long post, folks. Juniors have a unique set of challenges in this year’s college admissions cycle.  Be aware, however, that everyone in the Class of 2021 is in the same boat and colleges are prepared to be flexible in this unprecedented year.

First Things First

You’re hearing a lot of this—take care of yourself, physically and emotionally.  With respect to school and college, that means give yourself what you need, including a break.  I’m hearing wildly different reports from students on their workload depending on what schools they go to. You should try to do what is asked of you as much as you can, but also know that colleges will be forgiving.


When I advise students in a typical year, the basic outline looks something like this:

  • Spring: standardized testing, campus visits and starting a college list, requesting recommendations before the end of school, start the Common App and any other applications you’re likely to use
  • Summer: visits, refining your list, lots of work on the Common App, Coalition App and essays
  • Fall: Early Decision and Early Action deadlines, financial aid forms
  • Winter: ED & EA notifications, Regular Decision deadlines
  • Spring: RD notifications, admitted student visits, May 1 deposit

Obviously this year we’re making adjustments.


  • Testing is delayed for most students. The College Board and ACT will be doing everything in their power to provide opportunities to test once students can be in groups again, but many students will have fewer sittings than they normally would have.  In response, even more colleges are going test-optional than the steady trickle we’ve seen over the last year. For some it will be just for this class and for some it’s permanent, but either way will offer more choices for the Class of 2021. FairTest keeps a list of test-optional schools; the “temporary” schools are not on this list, but I understand there will be a separate list posted shortly for those.
  • The College Board’s shift to remote testing for AP exams opens the possibility that completely new ways of taking the SAT may be offered.  Both companies (ACT and SAT) have been experimenting with electronic testing for years, and testing by appointment at test centers is a possibility, rather than offering the same test to everyone on the same day. We’ll see, but what’s clear is they have to do something; this is their core business.
  • Speaking of AP exams, most colleges that accept AP scores for credit are expected to maintain their policies this year. However, students may not want to skip intro classes in college on the basis of this year’s scores because the exams are covering less material. In other words, if you get a 5 on your Chemistry AP exam this year and your college ultimately gives you credit for it, you may still want to take the intro class instead of going to a higher level of chemistry to make sure you’re fully prepared for the more advanced class.


  • The spring visit and college fair season has been replaced with virtual tours and information sessions. Take advantage of these, generally listed at each college’s website, or at sites like YouVisit and CampusReel that have tours of multiple schools in one place.  If you’re serious about a college, be sure to be part of whatever the admissions office offers directly, like getting on their social media and email lists, because this is a way for colleges to gauge demonstrated interest without those other opportunities.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to connect with students and faculty through the admissions office, or through other connections like your school counselor or an IECA member. Alumni can be helpful too, especially if they are active and have connections to current or recent students at their alma mater.
  • Summer and fall tours and fall college fairs will, we hope, still happen. Plan ahead for these by putting fairs on your calendar and blocking out time for fall visits, ideally on days that you don’t have school but colleges are in session. Professional development days are great for this.
  • As I mentioned in my March 11 post, check out campus newspapers online. Students are generally the ones creating the content for these publications, so they can give you an authentic feel for campus life, what students are interested in and what they care about. And go back to issues from the fall semester to get a perspective on “normal” times.

College List

  • We’re not sure what the impact of this crisis will be on the incoming freshman college class, and it will likely be different for different colleges. We may see students staying closer to home or choosing less expensive schools, which could make in-state public universities more popular. We could also see substantial numbers of 2020 graduates delaying enrollment, either for financial reasons or because they have reservations about starting college in a time of uncertainty. (See my post here on gap years.) If they then plan to enroll in 2021, either because they deferred admission or are planning to reapply, it’s unclear how that might affect the Class of 2021.
  • This lack of clarity means colleges’ models will be less accurate this year and statistics on the entering class may be less helpful as you try to figure out how competitive you might be next year for a particular school.  (In other words, Naviance may be less helpful.) Until we know more, I’ll be recommending a different mix of reaches, targets and likelies for the Class of ’21, and we’ll be having additional discussions about affordability. (More on this below.) This means you may have more schools on your list overall since admissions will be less predictable. That doesn’t mean students should apply to 20 schools; I generally say most students are in good shape with 6-10, so I’ll probably be saying 8-12 this year.  But it means doing your research to identify a range of great-fit options to include.  I’ll also be keeping tabs on information coming from admissions offices about what they’re anticipating, and these are good questions to ask at information sessions, fairs and rep visits when they resume.
  • Colleges have different reasons to use binding Early Decision plans, but they all relate to certainty–they want to admit students they know will enroll.  We may see more colleges using this tool, and we may also see adjusted timelines for Early Decision applications to allow students more time to visit before making that commitment.  Some colleges also have a second ED round after their first one, and we may see more of that.

Letters of Recommendation

  • Many of you are getting a crash course in academic independence, which usually comes in the transition to college. I hope you’re developing the time management skills and self-direction you will need to take charge of your learning and continue to be successful even without daily in-person classes.  If you are able to step up and impress your teachers with your response to the current challenges, that can be great content for them to put in a recommendation. As my colleague Paul Rivas says, keep your teachers happy!  And make your requests by the end of the school year.  Giving teachers more notice is considerate and allows them to manage their letter-writing workload.

Time on your hands?

  • Most of your organized extracurricular activities are not happening right now.  This does not necessarily mean you have extra time—many of my students have more schoolwork now than ever—but if you do, use it well.  Are you able to read for pleasure? Play music? Do artwork or yoga and meditation? Maybe you can find a creative way to keep one of your clubs going, or do some remote volunteering. Anything you do that shows initiative and demonstrates what you value is something you can share on applications this fall.
  • It’s also a good time to get started on your Common Application and/or Coalition Application.  This is something I always suggest in spring, even though it doesn’t need to be polished just yet. Some sections are simple and others take more thought, but it’s something you can work on over time.  If you need some guidance, I’m offering Zoom workshops on both the Common App and the Coalition App; check here for upcoming dates or contact me to set up a one-on-one or group session that fits your schedule.
  • People are asking me if juniors should be working on college essays and I have a few thoughts. First, don’t do this at the expense of other priorities.  If you do have time, however, go ahead and start, perhaps with some brainstorming and/or journaling.  Most of us are learning a lot about ourselves during this experience of staying at home, including our strengths, challenges, and values. These are exactly the kinds of things that colleges want to hear about in essays, so use this time for reflection. I am also scheduling  Zoom workshops on college essays, so check my calendar for upcoming dates or email me to schedule your own group or individual session.

Financial Aid

  • There are two main financial aid forms. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal aid, and all colleges use it to allocate their own need-based resources. Another couple hundred schools also use the CSS Profile, which is a bit more detailed.  Both of these applications open on October 1, but you can use the FAFSA4caster now to get an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is the number the federal formula says you can write a check for to pay for the first year. There are a lot more steps in estimating your aid, but this is a good starting point.
  • There is a two-year lag in financial aid information, so students who will graduate and go to college in 2021 will be providing 2019 financial information on these forms. (These are the taxes you’d normally be filing by April 15 but now have until July to finish.) If your financial situation is changing now, be prepared to explain changes that will not be reflected in 2019 taxes. A letter to each financial aid office is appropriate, with supporting documentation.  And do this up front in the fall—don’t wait until you have an aid offer that doesn’t meet your needs. If you have relevant information, share it.
  • Because most colleges cannot meet the full need of every student, be sure to include financial safety schools on your list, those where you know you can afford to go. That’s especially important at a time when colleges’ endowments are suffering and they’re also trying to meet increased needs among their current students.
  • Finally, get everyone on the same page. If you are expecting help from grandparents, this is the time to ask what they are truly able to offer.  And if you have not discussed how much your family is able to pay, how much you’re expected to work, and how much it makes sense to borrow, have those conversation now so you can factor these questions into your search. It’s much easier than waiting for all the admission offers to come in and then realizing your dream school is not an option.

Big Picture Summary

  • There is uncertainty and unpredictability for everyone, including other students and colleges themselves.
  • The Class of 2021 will not bear the brunt of this. We will know more when you apply and a lot more when you are ready to enroll.
  • Circumstances will change, policies will change, and colleges do not have answers yet, so we’ll all have to be patient as things shake out.
  • How are you handling these challenges? Colleges will be forgiving, but it’s also a time to grow and demonstrate what you are capable of.