After the upheaval in all areas of our life—including in higher education—in 2020 caused by COVID-19, there’s a palpable sense of optimism half-way through 2021 that the worst is behind us and colleges across the nation will return to some semblance of normal this fall. 

And while it’s still possible that the spread of coronavirus variants may force another round of restrictions, it’s likely that the application process for students starting college in the fall of 2022 will look both the same as it did before the pandemic upended our lives—but also very different.

One similarity to the pre-COVID era is that students and parents will be visiting campuses once again and meeting in-person with faculty and advisors. But the biggest difference rising seniors in the fall of 2021 face compared to previous years is that many colleges are extending their suspensions of SAT and ACT test scores for several more years—perhaps even permanently.  

This means that a big question for homeschool students is how best to position your application for success in a competitive landscape where the removal of standardized test scores has led to a surge in applications at many top-tier schools

Here are five ways to make your college application stand out as everyone learns to navigate the new normal of a post-COVID world: 

1. Include your standardized test scores anyway

While many schools, like the University of Virginia and Harvard, may have suspended their requirement of SAT/ACT scores for students to apply, consider including them anyway as they may be a tie-breaker consideration for some admissions officers. Just be aware that some schools have officially removed standardized testing as a criterion altogether (such as the University of California, Berkeley), so don’t waste your time offering the scores if they won’t even be considered.

The bottom line is that most admissions officers still see value in test scores. And at a time when many students might take the easy path and not include them with their application, going against this tide can make you stand out in a good way.

2. Continue to focus on senior-year grades

For many students, it’s tempting to dismiss senior-year grades since the application process is weighted more heavily on grades earned in your freshman, sophomore, and junior years.

But according to Jerry Lucido, a professor of practice and associate dean of strategic enrollment services for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, “The strength of the curriculum completed and the grades achieved, always the most important factors in admissions, will play an even stronger role [in 2021].” 

This means you should finish strong and stay focused on getting the best grades possible during your senior year—something you’ll feel good about in the long run.

3. Take an online mastery course (or two!)

With a wide variety of courses to choose among—from writing, business, and music to design, science, and technology—online mastery courses offer homeschool students fun and engaging content that can beef up your college application and show a willingness to be flexible and go above and beyond.

You’ll not only learn from the world’s best, but also be exposed to a style of learning that’s similar to real-world training in many job situations beyond college.

4. Volunteer online

There’s no denying that the pandemic greatly limited the availability of in-person volunteer opportunities to serve others, expand your horizons, and ultimately strengthen your college application. And while it’s likely that many of these opportunities will become available again soon, there are still many online opportunities that offer rewarding volunteer experiences that will impress admissions officers and show that you’re serious about becoming well-rounded—and making a positive impact in the lives of others.

So whether it’s through the United Nations, the Smithsonian, or staffing a crisis text line, the options are endless. All you need is an internet connection.

5. Choose an alternative path

It’s no secret that going to college today is more expensive than ever. With the possibility of another surge in new COVID cases shutting down campuses again, many students are understandably cautious about spending big bucks only to be back at home in lockdown for yet another semester.

Given this, alternatives like attending your local community college or trade school, taking a gap year, or joining the military can be viable alternatives to the traditional four-year college degree for many homeschool students. And along the way, you will gain invaluable new experiences, learn new skills, serve others, grow in maturity, and get a jump start on earning income. 

Eyes on the prize

Yes, 2020 was a crazy, chaotic year that most of us would like to forget. And while it’s hard to predict the degree to which the college experience—including the application process—will be forever changed, one thing is certain: Admissions officers are looking for students who keep their eyes on the prize through hard work, discipline, cultivation of curiosity and a service to their families, school and community.

To the degree that you highlight these key areas in your application, you will stand out from the crowd and improve your chances of being accepted into your top-choice school.