Covid and College Admissions
By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

In Part 1 of our Covid and College Admissions post we talked about that changing role of standardized testing. In this segment we’ll cover other ways the college admissions landscape is changing, specifically as it relates to Covid.

How are colleges going to evaluate students in this new normal? 

First, they are going to put more emphasis on transcripts. Transcripts are now the only consistent quantitative measure across all students’ applications. So a student’s grades pre-Covid and this school year are critical. Colleges will be looking closely at your performance and to what extent you challenged yourself with rigorous classes. In addition, it is crucial that you/your high school counselors or your School Profile explain the grading system that your school adopted during the Covid period last spring. This way colleges can properly evaluate students within the context of what was happening in your school. 

In addition, the qualitative or “softer” factors are taking on a larger role than ever before. These qualities can be measured by students extracurricular activities, essays and letters of recommendation. Along with your achievements and accomplishments, colleges are especially looking to assess a student’s character. Character has become a key aspect in admissions and was largely brought into focus a few years ago by the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard School of Education. This project has become somewhat of a movement in college admissions, and its ethic of balance and taking the stress out of the admissions process has been adopted by colleges nationwide. Colleges have tried to put a focus on students doing what they genuinely want to do, rather than just checking off boxes to impress admissions offices.

In many ways, Covid has been a reset. It has given students an opportunity to pause, reflect and reevaluate what’s important to them. Participation in extracurriculars and activities now look very different, and students are recognizing what they are passionate about–and dedicating more time to that, while letting go of things that don’t bring them the same reward or interest. The pandemic has helped all of us realize that life is too short to do things we don’t genuinely enjoy. Over 300 colleges have signed a pledge, “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19.” 

While there is much understanding of the impact of students’ cancelled activities, this pandemic has also dragged on far longer than any of us could have anticipated. As a result, colleges will also want to see how students have made the most of these challenging times. How have they shown resilience and ingenuity in continuing to pursue the things they love or discovering new talents and interests? For some it’s been mastering a new instrument, for others it’s been reading the entire works of James Joyce. Some have trained and completed self-created marathons, and some have mastered baking croissants. There is no shortage of needs right now, and many have found ways to safely volunteer (either with social distancing or remotely), whether it be contact tracing, phone banking for a candidate or collecting food for the hungry. Others have had to spend their free time taking care of younger siblings while their parents work or helping an elderly grandparent. The longer that Covid impacts us, the more students will be challenged to make lemons from this lemonade.

The continued importance of the essay

The essay has long been the centerpiece of an application. It is the one place to really give the reader insight into who you are and what makes you YOU! Commonly misunderstood, the personal statement is NOT the place to list your accomplishments and intended plans. Think of it instead as a window into who you are. It should be a story that is focused and personal. The supplemental essays are equally important but often not given the same level of attention by students. Don’t leave these to the last minute! This is where colleges get to ask their individual questions, and it’s often the place students can make the case for why they’re a good match. Be sure to do your homework and really draw that connection. 

Don’t neglect keeping connections with teachers during remote learning

Letters of recommendation are critically important. They give admissions offices insight into who you are as a student and a person. Yet, it is difficult to develop and maintain close relationships during remote learning, so it’s necessary to go the extra mile to ensure counselors and teachers have what they need to write great letters. Be in touch with these recommenders, show your gratitude and offer to provide whatever information they need. Make it as easy as possible for them to help you!

While less is generally more in this process, this could be an opportunity to send a supplemental recommendation from someone who knows you differently than your counselor or teachers. Or you might have a talent or circumstance that warrants additional or supplemental information. This could be an art portfolio, an explanation of hardship either due to Covid or otherwise, or a brief abstract of scientific research. Remember, you are trying to give the institution the most comprehensive picture of who you are and what you’ll bring to campus.

Ultimately colleges are looking for what I always call the “Four I’s”: Independence, Initiative, Impact and Intentionality. It is through these “softer” aspects of your application that colleges can assess these factors, look beyond your grades (and scores if you have them) to really identify who you are and whether you are the kind of person they are looking for. 

My parting words of advice to all students are to embrace the unknown, stay informed, be authentic and most importantly take good care of yourself. Time is fleeting and you want to keep things in perspective and stay focused on what’s important–both within and outside of the college admissions process.