While early submission deadlines for college applications have passed, families can still get ahead of the game for regular-decision applications by anticipating new developments.
Applying for college is often a student’s first solo adult responsibility – a first experience of taking the future into their own hands. This year, however, all the trusty maps appear garbled. What is different? In short: everything … and not much at all.
Many applicants remain uneasy about testing requirements, student assessment and how extracurriculars, personal achievements and community service will be considered when we’ve all been stuck at home.
What students need is a compass. This is where parents can step in to guide them.
Colleges still need students
Students have more leverage this year than they realize. With all of the upended standards, colleges still need students!
Every college has a yield model. The percentage of accepted students who actually show up will determine how many professors are hired, how many dorm rooms are filled and how financial aid and scholarships are dispersed. Colleges need a 50% yield, and most will need to dip further into their applicant pool to get the class numbers they want. That means all students have a better chance of acceptance at many colleges, barring a few of the most competitive ones.
Many families worry that deferred acceptances from this year will make it harder for them. Fear not! There aren’t as many as one would think. Colleges simply can’t afford to grant unlimited deferments because it tampers with their predictive models.
Care is the new extracurricular
A majority of colleges and universities have pledged this year to assess students by their commitment to self-care and family-care instead of volunteer work, participation in music or theater and sports. Admissions deans have collectively put together a guide for students and families to learn about the new criteria under close consideration:
- Academic work
- Service and contributions to others
- Family contributions
- Extracurricular and summer activities
You can find a statement from the Making Caring Common Project from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education here: Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19.
Thanks to the shift in guideposts, and the need for more in-depth personal exploration, it’s crucial for parents to get involved. Students will need to develop how they see themselves and expand their scope of vision. They will need to get comfortable expressing who they are at their core.
To test, or not to test?
For the ACT and SAT, at least 70% of schools are now test-optional, which some schools have committed to for three years.
In May of 2020, schools presented a watered-down version of the full-length AP exam, with merely a few questions and 45 minutes to answer them. On a computer. What could go wrong, right? For one, technological failures, which will detract from performance. Admissions officers know this.
Colleges are not sure how to look at all the inconsistent data from AP tests right now. The current minimalist tests mean little in context with the data they’ve received year after year. Instead, colleges will look at AP classes taken, grades achieved and how involved the student was in AP classes rather than overall test scores.
However, for some students, testing is a fundamental rite of passage. They have the preparation, ability and wherewithal for stellar performance on these tests and want to pursue them. In California, families that wish to take tests are shuttling to Utah or Colorado because local testing sites are closed until further notice. Bear in mind, though, that quarantining for weeks after travel to a test center out of state seems like more of a hassle than a dream come true.
On the flip side, if a student doesn’t have the ability to take the test because of geographical limitations, and the expectation is an average test score, it’s recommended to not take them. Tests are not make-or-break, and test-blind admissions won’t even look at scores if they are submitted. Lastly, for those who have test-taking anxiety or don’t test well – great news! You don’t have to take them. Period.
New importance for essays
Application basics – what students need to fill out, recommendations required, transcript submissions – are the same. However, given the aforementioned changes to testing and extracurricular activities, essays take on a new role.
The focus for essays has shifted to see how an individual thinks, what makes them unique, compelling and weird. Instead of using numbers, colleges want to assess character, get a sense of grit and ascertain what sort of contribution a student will make to a college community.
Let questions – not your projection of what admissions officers want to hear – guide the early phases of writing. Parents can help students identify their inner compass with open-ended questions: “What do you value and believe?” For inspiration, encourage them to have a look at the mission statements of the companies, causes and organizations they admire. Other question prompts: “What are you doing to take care of yourself and your family?” “In-person recitals and contact-sports were canceled. What did you do instead to help yourself or others around you feel OK?” “What did you do to take care of yourself and nourish your soul?” “How did you allocate your time and energy in a meaningful, authentic way?”
If students didn’t do anything and are struggling, that’s understandable. They can touch upon challenges in an extenuating circumstances essay. Encourage them to be transparent and focus on how they have grown, talk about new insights and the unique way they see others and the world.
Formulating comprehensive, authentic answers can be tricky. It’s essential for students to create intentional time for themselves in order to reflect on prompts and what they mean to them before attempting to write a fully realized, polished narrative. Parents can suggest they start by bullet-pointing or engaging in some uninhibited free-writing to help navigate the thought process and develop a clear vision for their essays.
How applications will be assessed
This year, students will be assessed on how well they advocate and speak for themselves. Admission reps will be looking for what students did during this time instead of what they didn’t do. How did they make the most of it? How did they get creative and do meaningful endeavors to keep them OK during the hard times? It’s always meaningful for students to present what they’ve experienced and discuss how they’re learning from it and growing.
The good news? Everyone has more choices this admissions season. Everything isn’t as bleak as it may appear. Students have more control in terms of what and how they present themselves. This is an opportunity. You can play your best hand of cards and not be forced to settle for ones that don’t exemplify your strengths, unique perspective, talents and interests. Students can leverage their options this admissions year so that it is happening for them instead of to them.
Cindy Chanin is founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring.