The playing field has essentially been leveled. Students aren't attending elite summer university programs, conducting research, participating in community service projects or mission trips, traveling to distant lands or growing in life-changing outdoor programs. Let's be real: They also aren't competing in sports, debating, tutoring, mentoring and pretty much everything else that could help them distinguish themselves in their college applications.
There is no question that colleges will be flexible when examining a student's activity list. Colleges have assured parents and students that they get it; they understand that students haven't had opportunities to explore, lead, participate and develop skills they would have had if we weren't dealing with a worldwide pandemic.
So, just be honest on the applications. If you feel compelled to share all the things you would have done, if it hadn't been for COVID-19, then write the optional COVID essay. But most students can relax and know that colleges understand and have adjusted their expectations.
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But we still want to know how colleges make their admissions decisions. What goes on beyond those closed doors? While there's a lot we don't know, for the most part the admissions process is rational. Decisions are based on two basic sets of student qualifications: objective and subjective criteria.
Rigor of coursework: This is the most important factor. Colleges want to know that students challenged themselves. Colleges see a student's full transcript. That means even though they don't see senior-year grades, they are aware of course selection. Be sure not to load the senior year with lightweight classes, thinking colleges won't find out or won't care.
Grade point average (GPA), rank in class (RIC) and school profile: Have you excelled in your classes? Has there been improvement from freshman to sophomore year and sophomore to junior year? How do you compare with other students from your own school? How does your school compare with others?
Standardized testing: What are your best math/verbal, critical reading and writing scores? Are your scores competitive with the college's pool of applicants?
This is where students are able to set themselves apart from other applicants.
Extracurricular activities: Colleges want to know what you have been doing when you aren't in school. Have you made a contribution? Have you moved from participating in a club or group to a leadership role?
Essays: Make sure the essay is substantive and relevant. Follow directions and proofread. Be authentic. Could a friend or relative read it and know that you wrote it? Essays are likely to carry more weight this year since student activities are compromised.
Letters of recommendation: Does the writer really know you? Give the recommender plenty of time. Ask people who are strong writers. Be sure to send them thank-you notes.
Anything that allows an applicant to stand out: This includes special activities, community service, travel, honors, awards, athletics, talents, etc. In sharing these activities, always be sure to bring the focus back to how you were affected. All too often, college admissions officers receive essays about mission trips where students do nothing more than share a laundry list of what they did day by day. Share your insights and new perceptions.
Real-world experiences: This includes paid or volunteer work. Internships are particularly attractive to colleges because they demonstrate not only initiative but also a career interest. Creating your own job-shadowing opportunity can be a very valuable activity.
Interview: Due in large part to the increase in the number of applications, most colleges no longer recommend or even offer interviews. Smaller colleges are most receptive. Consider arranging an interview if you are particularly interested in a college and if, with an unbiased assessment, you are confident about your interviewing skills. Do your homework, come prepared with your own questions and have a solid knowledge of the college's academic offerings, such as study abroad, majors and internships.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.