When I think about navigating the college application process in a post-COVID era, I am reminded of a song from my three-year-old daughter’s favorite show, Daniel Tiger, which goes, “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways, we are the same.” Daniel and his classmates weren’t singing about college admissions (not for another ten years, I’d imagine), but I find the sentiment both applicable and comforting. I have had the privilege of supporting students through the college planning and application process for over a decade, and despite the unprecedented adjustments and challenges ushered in by the pandemic, the way students’ approach, experience, and navigate the college application process has remained largely unchanged.
There are certainly trends that have emerged, such as the prevalence of test-optional policies, increases in applications at selective institutions, and sputtering enrollment at less-selective institutions, but these trends, while important to consider, minimally impact how students position themselves competitively for college admissions. The factors that students can control–grades, test scores, activities, essays–are still the primary drivers in admissions decisions and should be their focus. Here are a few practical considerations for students in any grade level, and their families, to bear in mind:
- Transcripts remain the most important piece of an application. A former colleague liked to say that “school is the work of the teenager,” and it is important to labor well. Take your academic responsibilities seriously and lean into the educational opportunities available to you. Choose courses that are appropriately rigorous, and when possible, relevant to your future endeavors.
- SAT and ACT scores, while less important than several years ago, can still impact admissions decisions. Students are encouraged to prepare intentionally, whether through independent study or formal tutoring, and take advantage of practice testing opportunities like the PSAT. Applying under a test-optional policy may be an appropriate strategy in certain instances, but should not be the default assumption. Bear in mind that most colleges are still weighing the pros and cons of test-optional policies at their institutions, so they might not be here for good.
- Meaningful and sustained involvement with co-curricular activities is a great way for students to show colleges what they care about and how they have contributed within their communities. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to activities, so students shouldn’t feel pressure to get involved with everything. Commit to a few activities that you genuinely care about and consider pursuing leadership positions in them. Activities can be in or outside of school, and may be particularly impactful for students who choose to apply test-optional.
- Personal statements, supplemental essays, and recommendation letters from teachers and counselors are also important pieces of a well-rounded application. Essays allow students to share their original voice and values with the colleges, and recommendation letters invite trusted adults to advocate on a student’s behalf. Students should invest in building relationships with their teachers, and who knows, in addition to securing a strong letter of recommendation, they may discover that teachers are actually fun and interesting people!
At Eastern Christian, we pride ourselves on educating and preparing students for this process even before they reach our high school campus. Annual course scheduling meetings, freshman seminars, evening programs, class meetings, college road trips, weekly SOARs, and a variety of other programs and services have been thoughtfully designed to equip our students as they discern and pursue their postsecondary endeavors. We know that navigating college admissions is daunting, irrespective of COVID’s significant, yet, not-so-significant impact on the process, and we are proud to support our students and their families every step of the way.
By: Jesse Struck
Jesse is the Director of Academic & College Counseling at EC. He is passionate about helping student keep their future at the forefront, answering questions, and giving college advice.
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