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Opinion | Tips for when those college admissions letters arrive

Colleges across the country have experienced a double COVID whammy this year. Like K-12 schools, they’ve had to keep a close eye on how to offer learning opportunities, literally taking the temperature of the student body on a regular basis. On top of that, college admissions offices are trying to figure out which students they should admit for next fall, which is a scant five months away.

Patrick O’Connor
Patrick O’Connor is a 36-year college counselor and the author of College Is Yours 2.0. He is the first in his family to graduate from college. (Courtesy photo)

If you think this is an easy decision, think again. Many colleges rely heavily on a student’s high school grades and test scores (think ACT/SAT) to determine if the student would be successful in college. Thanks to COVID, most students weren’t able to take either the SAT or ACT, since so many test dates were canceled. In addition, many high schools that offered classes online decided to offer those courses on a pass/fail basis. If a college is used to admitting students who earn at least Bs, pass/fail grades offer little insight into just how much the student learned.


Adding to this challenge is the number of students applying to college, period. While some colleges are seeing application increases of up to 45 percent, many regional colleges – colleges that get most of their students from within the state, and close to campus – are seeing dramatic drops in applications.

This could be one of the reasons the number of students applying for financial aid is also down, especially among low-income students and students who would be the first in their family to go to college.

Many college decisions are coming out in the next couple of weeks, along with financial aid offers, so what should students expect to hear from colleges?

If you’re admitted, look at your financial aid package very closely, and ask questions. Colleges are saying they really have no idea how many admitted students are actually going to be on campus in the fall. That means there’s a good chance many students who are offered admission will turn down that offer, and the financial aid that goes with it.

That money has to go somewhere else, so it might as well go to you. Call the financial aid office if you don’t understand your offer, or if you think you could use more assistance. One parent called to ask a question about their child’s financial aid offer, and the college gave his child an additional $10,000 before the parent could even ask the question. You may get nothing, but you won’t know until you call.

If you’re a Detroit senior, sign up for the Detroit Promise. Any Detroit resident going to any Detroit high school has a full-ride scholarship waiting for them at any of five area community colleges – and if your grades are good enough, you could earn free tuition at many of Michigan’s four-year colleges. This is debt-free funding, and often includes support on making a good transition to college as well – all for free. Take a peek at for more information.

If a college says “maybe,” call them. A lot. Some colleges who have many applicants will put some of them on a waitlist, which means they will be happy to offer them admission, as soon as there’s room to admit them. It’s expected that many colleges will have very big waitlists this year – remember, they have no idea who’s really going to come – so it’s going to be important to make sure they know you’re interested, and that you’ll come if they admit you. Unless they tell you they don’t want to hear from you, contact the admissions office immediately, tell them about your interest, and bring them up to date on what you’re up to at school. You may have to keep doing this until July or August, but if you’re on campus in September, it will be time well invested.

Apply to college now or in the summer. Unlike past years, many colleges are expecting they will continue to take applications this spring, and even in the summer. This means it’s not too late to apply and build a bright future through college. Call the college and ask if they’re taking more applications, or work with your school counselor to develop a list of possibilities.

No one expected this COVID year to bring more college opportunity – and more college cash – than years before, but here we are. This is a deal that’s just too good to pass up.

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