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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19: Part Two

PART 2:  Qualitative over Quantitative

Part two in a three-part series that looks at how the admissions process will need to adapt this year due to COVID-19.

Part one of our ‘Admissions in the Time of COVID-19’ series looked at how COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional markers of achievement that admissions officers have historically relied upon to make admissions decisions: testing and transcripts. Now more than ever, the qualitative aspects of a student’s application—curiosity, character, impact, resilience—things that can’t necessarily be quantified in a test score or grade—will take center stage. Does that mean that every bright, kind, high impact applicant has a chance at Harvard this application season? Not quite.

Part two of our series focuses on curiosity, character, impact, and resilience. Read on to learn where these intangible qualities are highlighted in an application and how admissions officers use them in their assessments.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

Schools that practice holistic admissions want to get to know you and look for clues into who you are: your hopes and dreams, interests, activities, accomplishments, quirks, experiences, perspectives, contributions, and impact. Each of the more qualitative aspects of the admissions application is designed to get at WHO YOU ARE BEYOND JUST YOUR SCORES AND GRADES. Typically, those more qualitative aspects include personal essays (and school-specific supplements), descriptions of your principal activities, letters of recommendation (college counselor and at least one classroom teacher), and, in some cases an admissions interview.

Today, more than ever, factors like curiosity and intellectual engagement, character and personal experiences, contribution and impact, and resilience will factor more prominently in the selective college admissions process. Admissions officers reading your file will likely “rank” or “rate” your essays, recommendations, and interviews on these key qualities and offer short summaries of highlights in their file notes.

YOUR VOICE

A quick perusal of the Common Application essay prompts and a college’s supplemental essay questions makes it easy to see what they value and what matters to their selection process. Just for fun, we assigned a theme to each supplemental essay prompt from 30 top private and public colleges and universities and put all that into a word cloud generator.

common app essay prompts & your voice

The results are clear! Colleges want to know about your academic interests and what sparks your intellectual curiosity. Admissions officers care deeply about creating a diverse community of bright and talented students from across the globe (even if you’re learning via Zoom right now) and want to know what you’ll add to the mix. They look for students who have positively impacted their schools and communities through their activities, leadership, and contributions.

When it comes right down to it, admissions officers read your main college essay (650 words) and the school-specific supplements (typically, 100 to 400 words) to figure out what kind of scholar and community member you are now and would be on their campus. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

As you tackle your supplemental essays, share your stories. Reflect on community (however you choose to define it) and how it has informed who you are today. Do your research and answer the “why” question with responses that connect you to the college or university, making it clear that you are the perfect fit.

Colleges understand that COVID-19 has deeply impacted many students and their families. Using a new short response option on the Common Application, students can share the effects of the pandemic and its related disruption to their families’ health and finances, as well as obstacles (think access to the internet, a laptop, a quiet study space) to students’ ability to pursue their education. Think twice about what you put in this space. There will be students who have suffered significantly during this time. Missing the spring track season, junior prom, or a long-awaited summer trip isn’t what they’re looking for here.

YOUR IMPACT: EXTRACURRICULAR AND COMMUNITY CONTRIBUTIONS

For many, the pandemic and ensuing shutdowns have also meant the cancelation of significant aspects of their extracurricular lives—especially those activities that have been more difficult to replicate in the virtual world. Admissions officers will understand that students may not have seamless extracurricular records as a result of the pandemic, but they will clearly favor those students who sprang into action to help their families, schools, or communities.

Despite the challenges of stay-at-home orders, enterprising students launched Zoom tutoring programs and PE classes. They taught senior citizens in their communities the ins and outs of Zoom and created pen pal programs to help those isolated from families. Enterprising students raised funds, bought their own supplies and crafted PPE for local first responders and hospital workers. They taught and cared for younger siblings while parents worked. Youth activism soared, as students responded to pressing health, social justice, and environmental issues by using their voices across all their platforms to push for needed change. Others worked or volunteered—in person or virtually—supporting their families, learning valuable skills. Student musicians, dancers, and actors created virtual Zoom performances featuring friends and classmates, often as a benefit for a community non-profit. Many students took their learning into their own hands and pursued research opportunities and college courses this summer—whether for credit or on platforms like EdX—deepening their academic interests.

Today more than ever, being a participant in a typical set of school activities just won’t cut it. Those students who spent the last five months binge-watching Netflix have missed an important opportunity to show admissions officers their values in action. It’s this evidence of impact, contribution, resilience, selflessness, and empathy that admissions officers will look for as they assess how students have spent their time outside the classroom.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Just as it has with each facet of our lives, COVID-19 has also disrupted students’ relationships with their counselors and teachers and their extracurricular lives. For rising seniors, this disruption, beginning last March, has fundamentally altered their relationships with teachers and college counselors—just at the time that these relationships were most important.

College counselor and teacher recommendations have always been a critical piece of the application review process at top schools. Remember that the majority of students applying to top colleges will typically have strong grades and scores, generally being “in range” based on a school’s published test score and GPA averages. Through careful reading of these letters of recommendation, admissions officers seek qualitative information to help differentiate the truly exceptional students from the typical well-credentialed ones.

The sudden and unprecedented closing of all our nation’s schools in March forced teachers and students into a new teaching and learning paradigm—and one whose success depended on access to resources in both the school and the family. Ninth grade science teacher Liz Russillo, as quoted in Education Week, noted:

The shift to remote learning has [required] me to use innovation and creativity for the most critical assessments while highlighting the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world. 

Just as in our pre-pandemic world, admissions officers read recommendations looking for tangible evidence of intellectual engagement, curiosity, contribution and impact. Today, admissions officers will first seek to understand just how much access students have had to teachers and counselors. There will be the lucky ones whose teachers and counselors made the shift to online learning and worked to stay connected with their students. Even in our Zoom world, teachers and counselors will know which students were the most engaged and made the classroom interesting and dynamic, even online, and will emphasize that in their letters. Seniors, as you head back to school—even virtually—connect with your teachers!

College counselors play a key role in helping students stand out in the admissions process. Where individual teachers focus on a student’s work in one class, the college counselor uses a wide-angle lens to help admissions officers discern the truly exceptional students from a pool of very high-achieving ones. Strong letters show, through specific anecdotes, a student’s impact and achievement, and are genuinely warm and enthusiastic.

THE ADMISSIONS INTERVIEW

Although interviews are not widely used, those colleges that offer interviews provide applicants with another opportunity to show they’ve done their homework on the college and bring their essays and activities to life. This year, you can expect those interviews to be conducted over Zoom (or similar platform).

Whether students interview with an admissions officer, alumni volunteer, or student working for admissions, impressions from the interview will be noted in the applicant’s eventual admissions file. For schools that care about demonstrated interest (that’s just about all of them these days), the interview provides perhaps one of the most direct ways for students to show admissions officers why they are the perfect fit.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Essays, activities, recommendations, and interviews provide opportunities for students to bring their candidacies to life. In this upcoming admissions cycle, you can be sure that these parts of the application will be closely read as admissions officers seek evidence of students whose curiosity, engagement, contribution, impact, and resilience are truly notable.

Having looked at each component of the admissions application, part three of our special series will look at the macro forces that shape the selection process. What new factors will admissions deans need to consider this year as they assemble the entire class?

Share your experiences with COVID-19 related school and testing challenges in the Comments. We’d like to hear what you’re experiencing and how you are adapting. We will continue to post about these issues and look forward to hearing your experiences.