December College Search Guide

Harvard University. | Courtesy photo

The road to college

By May S. Ruiz

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way learning is delivered not only for elementary and high schools but for colleges and universities as well. On the other hand, the college admissions process itself has remained the same even as some components that go into the students’ application have been eliminated. Schools cancelled all sports and extra-curricular activities this school year so admissions officers will not be looking for student involvement in those. What could possibly have a major impact on the future of college admissions is that universities will not be putting much weight on the SAT or ACT because most communities were unable to host testing. And that could be the beginning of the end of standardized testing.

However, this wouldn’t be an entirely new development. In fact, last year I included this very topic in light of the 10-campus UC system and 23-campus Cal State system going test-optional because they were convinced that performance on the SAT and ACT is so strongly influenced by family income, parent’s education, and race that using them for high stakes admissions decisions is wrong.

That is certainly bad news for the multibillion-dollar college prep industry and among the dissenters to universities’ dropping the SAT and ACT tests is the College Board, which owns and administers the SAT. Any change to what has been standard in the college application process will upend the existing method and it’s safe to presume that it would take a while before everyone can agree to one solution.                   

It also means that the only components of students’ applications are the personal essay and their GPA. As I have consistently preached to students, and parents who are helping and guiding them through the process, high schoolers should make sure they are getting good grades in all their subjects. And, during this COVID-19 admission cycle and the shift that is currently taking shape, the student’s GPA is the one constant that admissions officers are closely looking at. It reflects not merely what they’ve learned in the classroom but is an indicator of how well prepared they are to tackle the rigors of college and a predictor of their success when they get in.

Their personal essay is the other component that has taken on a greater significance. Admissions officers will be expecting to hear how students managed their time, how they completed their coursework, what challenges they encountered, and how they overcame those. 

While admissions officers will not expect applicants to have done any extra-curricular activities, they will be interested to know how students spent their time outside of remote learning. So I hope your children found virtual volunteer work or earned online certificates to put on their resume.        

You and your children should ask admissions officers how colleges and campuses will be holding their classes in the fall and how equipped they are to handle COVID-19 cases if the virus isn’t totally eliminated by then.

Additionally, you should check if the college or university your children are interested in attending will survive the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of small colleges were already experiencing financial hardships before now; the pandemic could either cause a decline in the quality of education they provide, or hasten their demise. It would be unfortunate if, two years into their college course, the university closes and your children have to find another school.       

Courtesy photo


What a relief it must be for your ninth grader — he or she has survived the first semester of high school during this stressful time. While your children’s thoughts may be all about Christmas holiday, this would be a good time to evaluate their progress. Remind them that while first semester grades don’t show on the final transcript, these are barometers of their academic strengths and weaknesses. Encourage them to use the winter break to plan how to improve where needed and how to build on their successes going into the second semester.


Now is the time to look at their interests to determine what college course they might be suited for. Based on their aptitude and grades, they will have to start planning on their course options for 11th grade. They can also start researching which colleges offer the course they might want to pursue.


This is an all-important year for your 11th grader and it is one of the busiest of their high school career. Your children should be able to successfully balance their academic courses and what virtual extra-curricular activity they found. Hopefully, college counselors have met with you and your children on Zoom, and have given you an overview of the college application process. Your children (and you) should already have been to at least one virtual College Fair and have met with a few admissions officers via Zoom.


While kids all around are excited about the Christmas holidays, your high school senior is sweating over his or her personal essay or feverishly writing all the supplemental essays colleges require with their application for the regular decision or the second early decision (ED II) round.  

This is a crucial time for seniors. They need as much encouragement as elbow room to get their applications ready for sending. Your children should be in constant communication with the school counselor to ensure that all transcripts, teacher recommendations, and supplemental material are sent to all the colleges to which they are applying. They should be on top of application deadlines for all the schools — they’re not all the same — to which they plan to apply.    

If your 12th grader applied through Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED), he or she must also be nervously waiting to hear from the college. And I’m sure your child would be ecstatic to receive an acceptance letter from his or her first choice. An ED means your child is legally bound to matriculate to that university, and his or her college search is over. Whew! If your child is accepted to a school through EA, he or she can either accept that offer or still go on to apply to other schools.

Accepting an EA offer relieves your children of pressure so they can enjoy the Christmas holidays, but it doesn’t give them leverage if they are qualified for scholarships. The best scenario is to apply and get accepted to several colleges so your children can get to pick the best financial offer or scholarship.

If your children are fortunate enough to have heard from their school, and have been offered admission, it would be mindful of them not to brag about their acceptance. Some of his or her classmates may have applied to the same school and are hoping for admission. The university to which your child was accepted might be his or her classmate’s first choice. It would be very hurtful to then boast that he or she has been accepted but is not planning on attending that college.

On the other hand, if your children have been deferred on the EA or ED round, there are some things they can do to enhance their chances during the regular round. They can send any updates on any significant changes since they sent their application — a letter from a counselor about their first semester work or a letter from a senior teacher. They can also send in their first semester grades, especially if they have received some As in the meantime.  

Your children can also write a strong letter of interest and intent — all colleges and universities are concerned about their yield. If they are assured that your child will matriculate if accepted, they will look at him or her in a more favorable light (that is, if your child fits the profile they are looking for). This is one reason most colleges have instituted the ED II — they are assured that the applicant will matriculate if accepted. At the same time, it’s disheartening for applicants who aren’t applying for ED II as there will be far fewer slots available making the regular round more competitive than it already is.     

Provide encouragement to your children if they have been deferred — the school isn’t rejecting them, they have just been put in the pool for the regular round. Remember that these admissions officers have thousands of applications to read. They wouldn’t want to go through your children’s application again if they weren’t interested in the first place, they would have just outright rejected them. 

Your children should research all available scholarships, and start completing the FAFSA.

Some useful websites are: CollegeXpress; Fastweb, Free Application for Federal Student Aid, National Merit Scholarship, Scholarships360; Student Aid on the Web.

December 3, 2020

About Author

May S. Ruiz May S. Ruiz was born in the Philippines. Her mother, a school teacher, and her father, the press liaison officer for American Embassy in Manila, instilled in their children the importance of getting a good education. Appreciation for books and the arts, and experiencing various cultures have been her lifelong pursuits. After college she immigrated to the U.S., where she met her husband. They have a daughter who has the same passion for learning and literature, and being a responsible global citizen.

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