How COVID-19 has Created New Opportunities in College Admissions

by Neil Chyten

It is hard to fathom the vastness of change that has swept through the college admissions landscape, making college acceptance decisions about as predictable as New England weather. What was once as seemingly simple as analyzing a set of data points has now become emblematic of the coronavirus itself—unknown, untested, and in a constant state of flux. As each new point of comparison falls into a fire pit of uncertainty, we are left wondering if colleges will be relegated to analyzing the pattern of ashes that remain, or if they will reinvent the admissions process by identifying (or elevating) other predictors of college success.

What Factors Have Been Lost?

From a college admissions perspective, 2020 is a complete do over. Because it has been difficult, or impossible, to dedicate significant time to standardized testing, ACT and SAT scores are no longer as relevant. AP was a total experiment this year with shortened tests taken at home with open notes. SAT Subject Tests had already dwindled down to a trickle in significance. Of course, extracurricular activities in the summer of COVID-19 have virtually disappeared—or should I say have become virtual—making the whole “engaging in meaningful activities in your free time” thing impractical at best. Visiting colleges has also not been possible this year, weakening the case for demonstrated interest which is often a significant factor for all but the top few colleges in the country. Showing your ability and achievements on the field as a member of a sports team was also wiped out by COVID-19, as were musical performances, theatrical performances, and art exhibitions.

What Factors Remain?

While taking standardized tests has become significantly more difficult, they do still exist. So, students can differentiate themselves by making an extra effort to take these tests and to earn high scores. AP scores may not be as important as before, but they still exist and can help make a case for admission. While it takes a little bit more initiative, extracurricular activities do still exist. In fact, the extra effort it takes to find a significant activity to engage in over the summer or during the lost months of March through May, shows fortitude, initiative, and resilience—three factors that are highly coveted by colleges. Live college interviews have been all but canceled. However, the opportunity to have college interviews still exists online. And even though virtually all college visits have been canceled, you can learn a lot about colleges by checking out their websites and social media sites, which also has the effect of putting you on their database for demonstrated interest. Sports and arts programs were canceled, true, but you could still stay in shape, practice, and fine-tune your skills. Athletes could get stronger or more agile. Songwriters could write songs. Musicians could continue to rehearse and improve.

Where is College Admissions Now? 

So, how will colleges navigate this new, (and hopefully temporary) admission landscape? There is no doubt that they will look for students who created the most opportunities for themselves. They will look for students that looked solemn tragedy in the face and saw bright opportunity. They will look for students who found ways to help their neighbors, their communities, and their world. Recommendations will be elevated to among the most important admission factors. Also, essays will become far more important in the COVID and post-COVID admission era. That is because essays are where students will be able to connect all the dots in order to demonstrate a cohesive interpretation of the new world order in their place within it. 

Colleges do not take kindly to excuses. Even though it is unreasonable to consider the global pandemic of 2020 to be anything less than the most devastating event of our lifetimes, colleges will look to those who didn’t treat the pandemic as a roadblock but rather who used it to motivate themselves in order to become better people, or to help more people, or to reset their life’s goals, ambitions, or passions. In a manner of speaking, it is the “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” mentality in college admissions these days. Don’t show me how COVID-19 made things more difficult. Rather, show me how it made you a better person or how it motivated you to be an integral player in the new world order. Show me how it changed you —for the better. Show me how it punched you in the gut—and how you rose up to defeat it. Show me how it punched a hole in your parachute causing you to violently fall to the ground, how you limped away in pain, and how you worked to regain your gait in the months that followed. Show me how COVID-19 showed you how to never give up, how to fight through adversity, and how to make a positive contribution to the world around you. If you do some or all of these things, your college opportunities maybe even better than they were in the pre-COVID-19 era. Yes, you can turn tragedy into opportunity. Make no mistake, there is certainly no shame—only bravery, fortitude, and resilience—in doing so. 

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