How to Navigate College Admissions During COVID

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The college admissions process has always been anxiety-inducing, but this year, as with everything else, the pressure (and confusion!) around it is that much more magnified for both students and parents. To help us help our teens navigate the current situation, turn in the best possible application, and make sure the whole thing isn’t keeping us up at night, we asked to Scott Doty co-founder and CEO of Bergen County-based BrainStorm Tutoring, to share his top tips.


Don’t worry so much. (Seriously!) 

Doty has been inundated with questions from area parents concerned about changes in the admissions process and worried that it might be harder than it’s ever been before, which isn’t actually true, he’s happy to report. “Part of what I want to do is talk people off the ledge,” he says. “People are really afraid of what the implications are for their kids getting into college. My point would be it’s not really any different than it’s been. The job of the admissions officer has changed, but that’s not your issue. What you need to do to give your student the best possible chance of getting into college has not changed.”


If your kids missed the SATs, it’s not the end of the word.  

Was your kid’s SAT canceled for the gazillionth time? Was his score lower than expected due to oh, you know, a few factors that popped up thanks to a global pandemic? They’re still going to be OK, assures Doty. Over the last decade-plus, many colleges and universities have been moving to a test-optional and even test-blind application process. A couple years ago 1,000 were test optional, but since COVID, that number has more than doubled. That said, he still encourages every student to take the ACT or SAT if they can. “Because you don’t have to submit your scores ever, there’s no downside to taking these tests. Because they are being canceled so frequently, sign up for as many as you can, and take as many as you can. I’m trying to strike a balance in telling parents, ‘Don’t abandon the SAT and ACT, but if you have to apply without test scores, don’t lose sleep over it. There are other factors that are more important.’”


Focus on the essay(s).

By now, the transcript your future college student (if he or she is a senior) will submit is likely a pretty done deal, but they can still make sure they craft the best essay possible, since it’s more vital than ever in the application process. “Essays are now, in general, the second most important factor,” Doty says, adding that with COVID impacting regular classwork during two different school years, admissions staffers are leaning harder than ever teacher recommendations, class rigor, and the almighty essay. “Over the course of the last five or 10 years, schools have been pushing up the qualitative factors, in particular essays. In addition to the application essay, many schools offer the chance to write a supplemental essay, sometimes two or three of them, that are heavily weighted.” Doty’s advice: As a family, challenge yourselves to figure out how many hours you spent on your student’s test prep and then make sure your student gives 50 percent of that time (or even more, ideally) to the essays.


Encourage your student to ‘make lemonade.’

Parents, students, teachers, and college admissions officers all know it’s been a tough year, but what did your student do with this time? (i.e. anything beyond schoolwork, Netflix and Facetiming with friends?) If the answer is yes, make sure that’s reflected on the application. “We’ve all been given lemons, but to what extent are you at least trying to make lemonade? What are you doing as a student in the face of a difficult time? Are you showing initiative? Have you started a new club? Have you done something to make the world a better place?” asks Doty, who points to kids he’s been working with who have organized fundraising campaigns for students who didn’t have access to laptops, for example. “In some cases, it could be that you really stepped up your game in helping your family. Your parents work, you started taking a lot of care of your younger siblings. That’s something colleges want to see.”


Take advantage of online tours.

With most in-person tours canceled, there have never been more opportunities to get an overview of colleges and universities near and far ... all from your own living room. Kids can take advantage of these virtual tours to see schools they might not have considered in a region your family might not have traveled to tour. Remember that having your student apply to a school all his classmates didn’t could potentially help her get in.

“When kids are looking for what schools are good matches for them right now, they might want to look a little further afield then they might typically,” advises Doty. “A big component of how you get into college is if you are the only person from your high school applying. That’s going to be a huge advantage for admissions. You could be an amazing student, but there’s only so many spots for kids from your zip code. It’s now easier to see those schools without breaking the bank by actually traveling there.”

In addition to visiting college websites and setting up official virtual tours, Doty recommends checking out,, free sites that allow you to tour at your leisure ... which might be 3am in your pajamas. No judgement.


Scott Doty is the creator of online academic coaching service Doty Academy and CEO and co-founder of BrainStorm Tutoring, a provider of K-12 tutoring, test prep, specialized academic coaching for students with IEPs, and admissions counseling. BrainStorm’s buy-one-donate-one model donates an hour of college admissions coaching to underprivileged kids for every hour purchased by clients.

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