What you need to know about college applications, financial aid and more amid pandemic

With so much focus being on the big debate of remote learning vs. in-person, parents of some high school seniors are working hard to make sure precious time isn’t lost when it comes to other back-to-school matters like the college admissions process.

HOUSTON – With so much focus being on the big debate of remote learning vs. in-person, parents of some high school seniors are working hard to make sure precious time isn’t lost when it comes to other back-to-school matters like the college admissions process.

There are standardized tests. College applications. Financial aid. And deadlines, deadlines, deadlines.

“The anxiety is high. This is not normal…this is not normal,” said Stephanie Rogers.

Her daughter Hilary is a senior at Glenda Dawson High School in the Pearland Independent School District.

Hilary Rogers is usually active in extracurricular activities, but now her days are filled with remote learning.

“Before COVID, I danced on my school’s drill team, I played piano, and I’m a member of Jack and Jill. It’s weird not being able to go to school and see people,” she said.

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Hilary Rogers on the day she was installed as South Belt Houston Teen President of Jack and Jill of America, Inc.

Willie Brown echoes this sentiment. He’s a senior at Strake Jesuit High School and says the “new normal” is anything but. With COVID-19 safety protocols at the forefront of all gatherings, his entire senior year experience has been altered.

I was actually one of the co-presidents of one of our clubs at Strake Jesuit, as well as being one of the members of the track team, the football team, and wrestling before COVID," he said. “There’s just so much that now, thinking on it, you just wouldn’t even think about just how much it’s changed.”

Advice from college experts

So, if you’re a parent of a Class of 2021 student, just what should you be doing right now?

Standardized tests

Traditionally, SAT and ACT testing have been the benchmark for college entrance.

But according to Ibrahim Firat, of Firat Education, some colleges and universities had already begun making the shift to what’s referred to as “testing optional." Now with the pandemic, more have joined the list.

Firat says admissions advisors are looking at the whole student, instead of just their test scores.

“So if you’re solid with you GPA, curriculum rigor, class rank, resume, the recommendation letters and college essays, you’re at a huge advantage because institutions that may have been a barrier to you because of your lower SAT or ACT scores, otherwise,” he said.

Fairtest has a list of 1550 colleges and universities from around the country that are “test optional” or “test flexible.”

“If you’ve have not taken an SAT, ACT because they’ve been getting canceled, don’t sweat it. Focus on the factors you can control," Firat said.

Those factors, he added, include writing a dynamic college essay. Firat says think outside-of-the-box when it comes to your topics.

Helped a family member fight COVID-19? Or did any special volunteerism during the pandemic? This is the time to show it off.

Financial aid

ProjectGRAD Houston is a free resource for parents and students which helps them with college and career prep. The organization is now offering virtual appointments to assist students and parents to make sure they are prepared for the college experience, including how to pay for college.

“The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA, opens on October 1st. Any student that is planning to go to college next year, or is even thinking of going to college next year, should apply for the FAFSA,” said Adriana Wilson, with ProjectGrad.

The FAFSA form is used to determine eligibility for grants, aid and scholarships.

While the application window opens up on Oct. 1, Wilson says parents and students can visit the site now and create an account.

She also suggests parents gather their 2019 tax documents in preparation to apply. If the student also worked and filed taxes, their tax filing should be collected too.

If there was a significant drop in income because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson says schools are also taking that into consideration.

“Once you get into a school, you’ll talk to the school about how those things have changed, and be able to make those adjustments to reflect your actual income at this point, or at the time that you enter school," she said.

Check and update your college list

Due to COVID-19, many colleges and universities have made changes to their admissions deadlines and important dates. The experts suggest that you need to make sure you’re informed about the school’s most up-to-date deadlines and information. Don’t rely on old information or deadlines.

Wilson also stresses that if parents or students don’t understand any step of the college admissions process, they should either reach out to someone at their teen’s school, the university of their choice and also consult with services available in the community.

Other important resources

The Common App: Through this app, you can apply to hundreds of colleges and universities and find all you need to apply to college, research financial aid and scholarships, and get advice from counselors, advisors and mentors.

Texas Common App: The Texas Common App provides admissions information for every public university in the state, along with 2-year colleges and many private colleges and universities.

About the Authors:

Emmy Award-winning anchor, husband, dad, German Shepherd owner, Crossfitter, Game of Thrones junkie, chupacabra hunter.