COVID-19 and College Admissions

You’re probably well-aware by now of the drastic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on everyday life. Nearly every facet of society has been upended over the past 9 months, and the college admissions process is no exception. Parents and students have been left confused and under-informed whilst admissions departments work around the clock to try to piece together some semblance of normalcy and fairness under extraordinary circumstances. 

While each college and university has generated an individual response regarding their protocol for admissions for the duration of the pandemic, some commonalities have emerged among most higher-ed institutions. In this article we will highlight these points, and offer advice and guidance to students and parents applying to schools amidst the chaos. 

The Common App

The most visible change for students comes from the Common App, which has added a dedicated space for students who have been significantly impacted by COVID-19 and its secondary effects to expand upon their experience. This has left many students unsure about whether they should respond, and what they should say if they choose to do so. 

The unsatisfying answer is that all of this depends on context. To start, however, we have written a definitive list of things you do not need to include in your statement: 

  • That you were in lockdown for months. While this certainly constitutes a major disruption, everyone was in lockdown for months – thus, colleges don’t need to be explicitly informed about this. 
  • That you began remote learning. Counselors file a school report each year that includes exactly this kind of information, so colleges have proper context to understand student experience at a given school. You can trust that your counselor described the ongoing situation at your school with clarity. 
  • Anything you want to write just to fill up space. This question, like the traditional additional information section, is truly optional – there’s no pressure to write anything if you have nothing significant to add about your application. No one will be penalized for not writing about their pandemic-related experiences. 

Now, let’s talk about some situations that indicate you should fill out this question:

  • You or a family member got COVID-19, or a family member passed away due to the disease.
  • Your schooling was disrupted to a degree that was greater than usual, e.g. you lacked proper internet access or the technology needed to participate fully in remote learning. 
  • Your family suffered unusual hardships due to loss of work or financial strain. 
  • You were unable to take standardized tests. While testing will be covered in more depth later, if you were entirely unable to take standardized tests due to cancellations and lockdowns, you should include that here.
  • You suffered additional hardship due to the pandemic or lockdown that you feel impacted you in a significant way. 

To sum up, there is no right or wrong way to respond to this prompt. The section exists so that students can give schools explicit context on their adverse experiences with the pandemic where applicable. While the 250 word limit isn’t substantial, remember that this isn’t an essay – this is a place for you to present facts about your circumstances. There are plenty of other places on your application for carefully curated prose. Here, you can simply express your experience in a straightforward manner.

Standardized Testing

Standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, and AP exams, have all been heavily impacted by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Test dates were cancelled or postponed, testing centers had to adopt new rules and protocols, and students everywhere were thrown into limbo.

Colleges are well-aware of this issue, and as of September, two-thirds of colleges and universities have gone test-optional. This means that students are not required to submit scores from the ACT or SAT to be considered for admission. While most of the schools still welcome students to submit scores, they will not penalize anyone who does not submit standardized test scores. 

What does this mean for your own test-taking and score reporting? A good test score can and will boost your chances of admission, but being unable to take a test, or merely not submitting scores, will not hurt your chances this year. Therefore, you shouldn’t worry too much about the cancellation or postponement of your exams due to lockdowns. Instead, focus on aspects of your application that are within your control, such as your essays and extracurriculars.

Writing About COVID

With the enormous impact COVID-19 has had on an individual, societal, and global level, many students are wondering: should I write my college essays about the pandemic? While it is difficult to give a single clear-cut answer, we can offer some guidance.

College essays generally should tell schools something unique about a student, and illustrate the experiences they have that make them stand out from the crowd. Whatever topic you choose, it should be with an eye towards telling admissions officers something they would not know about you otherwise. With that in mind, should you write about COVID-19?

If you have something unique to say, then absolutely. The story you tell in a personal statement should be unique to you, which makes writing about a global pandemic that has affected almost everyone to some degree a pretty difficult task. If your experience has been exceptional–perhaps in how you continued your extracurriculars, worked to engage with educational opportunities online, or volunteered to help others–then it may be a story worth telling. 

If your essays on the pandemic read like they could be about any one of thousands of people, though, then you should find another topic to capture your special lived experiences through a different lens. For more advice on writing your personal statement, see our article here.

Beyond the personal statement, the pandemic may feature briefly in other essays without being the main focus; there’s no need to avoid mentioning it altogether, even if you don’t feel like your perspective is particularly distinctive. 

What Colleges Want to See

This summer, many admissions deans came together and released a statement to say what they did and did not want to see from applicants during this pandemic. Signatories include many deans from top institutions, including the entirety of the Ivy League system. Put simply, they want students to take care of themselves, while still striving to maintain their academic achievements and helping out their communities where they can, in response to the pandemic or otherwise.  

They don’t want to see helping others turned into a charity Olympics of sorts, wherein students compete with each other for clout and recognition rather than for the sake of giving back. They want to see students contributing in authentic and personally meaningful ways. They also reassure students that helping with their families during this time is an important form of service that they recognize as significant. 

Colleges will understand if students are or were unable to participate in their regular extracurriculars during the pandemic, although students who show initiative in finding new ways to involve themselves will be viewed as having demonstrated the leadership and initiative many schools look for. As with submitting test scores, while you won’t be penalized for events outside of your control, participation can still help your application.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to students who want to participate in new extracurriculars because their usual activities aren’t possible during the pandemic. Coursera and edX offer hundreds of free expert-led online courses. Local volunteering is also a great way to stay engaged in your community. While the form and scope of many activities has shifted, there are still creative ways to engage with your interests and passions. 

What Will Happen to Colleges?

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on colleges are still uncertain, and this year will be a big test of the adaptations colleges have made to deal with the pandemic. Articles abound discussing hypotheticals, but it’s impossible to predict the future. 

That said, we’ve observed a number of trends which are likely to shape admissions for the foreseeable future. Many schools are not just going test-optional, but test-blind, meaning they will not consider standardized test scores at all when making admissions decisions. While it remains to be seen if standardized tests are leaving the admissions process for good, their popularity is steadily declining for the time being. 

Another relevant trend is remote learning. Many schools are being forced to conduct classes online, leaving students questioning why their tuition is so high. Many schools are facing financial difficulties as well, leaving them in treacherous waters. Schools have facilities to run and research to conduct, much of which is funded by either government grants or investment income, both of which have been adversely affected by this pandemic. While the schools with the largest endowments may weather this storm relatively unaffected, schools that are largely dependent upon tuition for operating expenses will struggle over the coming years. 

College admissions, and the college experience generally, will be changing, and this year’s admissions process will serve as a test case for any number of theories and methods to explore moving forward. 

Final Thoughts

College admissions, and college in general, is an adventure. Adventures are, of course, great fun to read about or recount stories of, but they tend to be less fun in the moment. Here, your greatest consolation is that colleges are facing many of the same worries students are, so neither has an upper hand over the other. 

This may all seem confusing, and like many of the events that have unfolded due to the pandemic, that’s unfortunately because it is. While we hope this article has equipped you with some of the necessary tools for dealing with the pandemic, we are well-aware that everyone has unique circumstances and worries that we haven’t been able to touch upon in the space of a blog post. 

If you have concerns about your own situation, and would like professional guidance on your college admissions journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. At Ivy Scholars, we have extensive experience guiding students through the unique challenges of the college admissions process, and the students who work with us get into their schools of choice at 3 times the average rate. We’d love to help you achieve the same. 

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