• Skills

Applying to U.S. and Canadian Universities during a pandemic

Written by Hale Education’s Consultant Elijah Koome
01 May 2020
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Applying to U.S. and Canadian Universities during a pandemic


The ongoing pandemic has left students, teachers, and parents uncertain about the future. The rapid and unprecedented changes that have been implemented to check the spread of the virus have affected the education field in a significant way. In particular, students who were planning to polish their college application profiles during this period are suddenly seeing their options diminish as many of the activities they had initially planned have been cancelled or shifted online.

Despite these unforeseen changes, there are several ways in which students and parents can continue to prepare for the applications to American and Canadian universities.


One of the most important factors in college application is the academic record of a student throughout high school. In the USA, colleges pay close attention not just to the final exam grades but to all the grades that a student has attained in the course of their high school studies. Additionally, admission officers pay attention to the trend of a student’s academic performance. The current crisis has disrupted the way classes are administered and the way grades are assigned to students. With most schools administering classes virtually and the pass/fail option being adopted more widely, some students might be tempted to be more lax on their studies. However, students are strongly encouraged to maintain their work ethic to ensure there are no fluctuations in the trend of their academic performance. Although admission officers will take these unusual circumstances in consideration when reviewing student applications, this should not be mistaken to mean that students will be given a free pass.

Parents and school counsellors are encouraged to closely monitor any changes in admission practices. The National Association of College Admission Counselling (NACAC) provides up-to-date information on the ongoing changes in university admissions across the U.S.

Standardized Testing

In light of school closures and the shift to online learning, College Board, the organisation that administers the SAT, has cancelled the May and June tests. However, it has indicated that more test dates will be available later in the year, and should the pandemic persist, there is a possibility that the test will be administered online. In a similar move, the April ACT was rescheduled for June, with the possibility of further changes if the conditions do not improve by then. A number of colleges in the USA, including Tufts and the University of California system have made the SAT/ACT requirement optional. While some students might be quick to celebrate these changes, it is important to remember that most colleges waive the SAT/ACT requirement for the sake of students whose circumstances make it impossible or challenging for them to take the exam. The standardized test will continue to be accepted by most colleges, and a high performance in it can only boost a student’s chance of admission. As such, students must be encouraged to register for the next available test dates and keep revising consistently.

Extracurricular Activities

Sports, student clubs, community service and other extracurricular activities have been disrupted alongside everything else. With restrictions on leaving their homes, students suddenly find that they are unable to continue with most of the activities they are accustomed to. While admission committees will not punish applicants for the obvious gaps in these activities, students are strongly encouraged to find innovative ways of spending this time. For instance, students involved in club activities can use online platforms to bring members together and continue club activities in a different format.

Summer Programmes

Every summer, some high school students choose to spend a few weeks on a US or Canadian college campus taking courses and getting immersed in the university environment. However, this summer will be different, as most colleges have closed residential programmes. Summer programmes have either been cancelled (for example the popular Summer@Brown) or shifted online.

For the summer programmes that have been shifted online, parents and students should review the specific details of each programme and decide how to proceed based on factors such as cost and course availability. While some may be content with the online delivery of the summer programmes, others might prioritise the campus experience more and as such, decide against proceeding.

For students whose summer programmes have been cancelled, there is a wide range of alternatives. The first option is reading. As a rule, colleges in the US expect applicants to be intellectually curious. They expect students to go out of their way to seek knowledge and engage with ideas through personal reading. To be successful applicants to most US universities, students must therefore ensure they are reading widely and consistently. The second option for students is registering for and taking online courses. Today, there are several excellent learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy and edX. These platforms offer courses ranging from machine learning to political philosophy.

A third option for students is conducting research either on their own or with collaboration with their teachers or professors. Programs such as Pioneer Academics connect students with professors who mentor them on research over a period of 8 weeks. Lastly, students should be encouraged to spend the summer pursuing any solo projects that they have, whether it is writing a blog or coding an app. Colleges appreciate these kinds of initiatives, and the strongest applicants are the ones who use their summers wisely and productively.

College Visits

While it is no longer viable to visit campuses over the summer and get in-person information from schools of interest, parents and students are encouraged to do thorough college research at this time. Colleges usually track demonstrated interest; that is how much prospective students have engaged with resources that they have availed. As such, students should be encouraged to sign up for university newsletters and take virtual tours of their colleges of interest. Additionally, they should also make a point of emailing the admissions officers with questions and clarifications about any aspect of the universities.

Bearing in mind the negative economic effects that the pandemic is bound to have, parents and students need to scout for financial aid and scholarship opportunities early. While preparing a college list, families that need aid should keep in mind colleges that offer grants and scholarships to international students. Websites such as the International Student provide reliable information about this topic.

Application Essays

While the application season might seem a bit far ahead, students should use this time to give themselves a head start. Essays such as the mandatory personal statement require extensive time commitment, and the earlier students start brainstorming and drafting, the easier time they will have during the application process. The prompts for the Common Application and the UC essays remain the same this year, so students can go ahead and start working on these during this period.

Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, students and parents therefore have plenty of options to forge ahead with college preparation. While the pandemic is a huge adversity for everyone, students have a rare opportunity to showcase their creative capacities and sense of initiative, two values that are highly esteemed by US and Canadian schools. Ultimately, the strongest applicants will be the ones who make the smart use of this challenging time.

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