Top 10 Lessons From 2020 to Help Your College Search

Classrooms Team

Jan 15, 2021
lessons from 2020 to help college search

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The pandemic has taught us that we can achieve our goals even in the worst of times. If you’re searching for colleges, keep these lessons from 2020 in mind!

This guest post was written by Kelli Dolan, Senior Assistant Editor & Counselor Communications Coordinator, CollegeXpress

As much as we’d all like to breathe a sigh of relief now that 2020 is over, the pandemic is still ongoing. And with the one-year mark fast approaching, it’s natural to look back at everything we’ve been through the past year. Today’s high school upperclassmen going through the college search are facing a much different process than college-bound students a few years ago—or even just last year. As schools, teachers, counselors, parents, and students all continue to navigate these changes, there are certain lessons students should carry into 2021 to keep up with it all. Here are the top 10 lessons we’ve taken away from 2020 for students conducting their college search.

1. Flexibility and Adaptability Are Key

One of the biggest issues students applying to college in 2020 faced was feeling completely stopped in their tracks when the pandemic drastically changed their plans. They didn’t know how to adapt in the face of such a major disruption. If there’s anything students can learn from the past year, it’s to be adaptable to major changes so they don’t stop you from getting an education. The best way to learn adaptability is by staying informed with COVID-19 developments as they continue; try using resources like Inside Higher Ed’s live coronavirus news updates or CollegeXpress’s COVID-19 student resources.

2. You Can Make Connections From Home

Meeting with admission counselors, connecting to alumni or current college students, and going on campus tours are all part of the search process that students really enjoy. Making genuine, personal connections often ignites a student’s interest in a college more than anything else. And thanks to technology, these aspects don’t have to be totally lost! Sure, in-person interactions are always better, but virtual campus tours, Zoom interviews, and phone calls and emails make it possible for you to still talk to the right people and increase your chances of getting admitted. 

3. SAT and ACT Scores Are Still Valid

With so many schools going test-optional or test-blind last year, many students felt the SAT and ACT scores they worked so hard for were suddenly worthless. But this is far from the truth. Although test-optional policies gave an advantage to students who weren’t able to take standardized tests, they don’t take away the value of the scores other students achieved. Test-optional policies may help some students, but that doesn’t mean they hinder you. It just means you have more flexibility in what you provide to schools when you apply; you now have the option to submit the application materials that will represent you best.

4. College Essays Deserve Your Best Effort

Although standardized test scores are still valid, the growing number of test-optional and test-blind schools just reemphasizes the importance of your admission essay. If you’re making the decision not to submit your test scores because you believe they won’t increase your chances, you need to make sure you have a killer application essay. Dedicate the extra time to it that it deserves, and seek out help from experts to make sure this crucial application element is in top-notch shape.

5. Extracurriculars Aren’t Just Things You Do in Groups

Students lost so much last year with the inability to participate in sports, performing arts, and other valuable in-person extracurricular activities—another important element of college applications. But they didn’t totally lose their chance of participating in extracurriculars; they just had to get a little creative, and so can you in your endeavors. Look for extracurriculars that allow you to participate safely during the ongoing pandemic: volunteering for organizations in small groups, coming up with a passion project, building skills through online courses, and more.

6. Don’t Let Increased Competition Stop You

A big issue this year’s college hopefuls face is the increased potential student population due to many students deferring admission last year in light of closed campuses. While this seems daunting, getting into the college of your dreams is absolutely still possible, so don’t let a little increased competition deter you from applying to the colleges that truly fit your needs. Colleges still want the best possible students for their school, so they’ll find ways to make their admission cycles work to accommodate qualified students. Speaking of which… 

7. Schools Want to Meet You Halfway

It’s amazing how quickly colleges and universities seemed to pivot when the pandemic first hit. And while nothing is perfect and there were plenty of bumps in the road, colleges made those swift efforts because they wanted students—both current and prospective—to still get the most out of their college experience or application process as possible. They adapted test score policies; they put safety protocols into effect; they thought of students first. Use this knowledge in your college search: The schools that made the most efforts in protecting their students are the ones you want to apply to. 

8. Staying Engaged Makes It Easier for Others to Support You

We’ve communicated with many counselors over the course of 2020 who shared the struggles they faced with disengaged students. Your school counselor is one of your key support systems in the college search process, so do your best to maintain communication with them even from a distance. It may seem like the odds are stacked against you, but that’s exactly why your counselor is the person to help—they’ve seen the odds over and over again, and they know best how to shift them in your favor.

9. Your Educational Goals Are Still Attainable

Just because the path to achieving your goals looks different than it has for college students in the past doesn’t mean they’re not attainable. It comes back to adaptability; you need to shift with the changes as they happen, and the best way to do that is by staying on top of your college search process. Stay organized, stay focused, and use the resources and information at your disposal from your high school and potential colleges to work around any barriers COVID-19 has caused.

10. Your Health Is Just as Important as Your Goals

It’s no secret that 2020 was one of the hardest years of our lives. We faced immeasurable loss, anxiety, and more—all while trying to still move forward in our lives. And though growth and forward mobility are important, nothing is more important than your physical and mental health. You have only one body and mind in life, and it’s a lot harder to get through tough times if you aren’t taking care of them. If you take anything away from 2020, it should be this: Pace yourself, avoid burnout, and make time for what you love. Your accomplishments aren’t worth much if you can’t enjoy them.

Carry These 2020 Lessons With You Into the New Year

2020 was the year of a lot of things—and growth was among them! We lost a lot, we struggled a lot, and we learned a lot from all the loss and struggle. Don’t let last year be in vain. Use that growth to move forward in spite of the obstacles, and you’ll find that you’re able to get just about anywhere with that wisdom and a little determination. 

About the Author:

Kelli Dolan is the Senior Assistant Editor and Counselor Communications Coordinator for, a college search website that helps students connect to the right schools. In addition to writing and editing content, she maintains connections with the CollegeXpress counselor community to provide information and resources they can use to help students in the college search process. 

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