Navigating College Admissions in a Covid-19 World

COVID-19 has upended college admissions.
Here’s some advice for the Class of 2021.

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Everything under the Sun has been affected by Covid-19, so it comes as no surprise that the college application process has also had to adapt to a new set of circumstances.

Traditional stand-bys—standardized tests, campus tours, extracurricular activities, summer internships, travel plans, numeric grades (rather than pass/fail)—have been sidelined or rendered impossible, at least temporarily. For the Class of 2021, the timing of this disruption has created even more anxiety during an already stressful time.

If upheavals to the college application process strike you as unsettling, you are not alone. Compounding the issue is that colleges and universities have continued to make changes to the application process throughout the summer. It takes time and effort to keep up with all of these moving parts.

Luckily, college consultants, admissions officers, test prep companies, and institutions like the Harvard Graduate School of Education are eager to help. They recognize that additional support is warranted to understand the changes COVID-19 has compelled.


Jill Smilow

College Consultant Jill Smilow, of Smilow & Associates LLC in Lexington, sees reassurance for students and families in the elements of college application that have not changed.

“I feel good that I can take my students through a known process,” Smilow explained. “There’s going to be an application cycle. Students still need to express themselves through essays. They will need to show what they’ve been able to accomplish— not just in the last four months but over the course of their high school experience. There’s normalcy to this. It’s a process: you do this now, and you do this next. That won’t change dramatically.”

Smilow continued, “No college is going to expect a student to have accomplished something that was not possible for them to accomplish in this moment.”

Kelly Bellevance, Associate Director of Admissions at Boston College, put it this way during a recent webinar about applying to college during the Covid-19 era, hosted in May 2020 by Summit Educational Group: “We will look at a student’s entire academic history, their extracurricular activities, their letters of recommendation. We will use whatever tools your school provides in order to understand your educational journey. We will think about things like what you’re going to be like on our campus as a roommate, as a classmate. You will not be judged in terms of what has happened in this short amount of time. We totally understand. Everyone is going through the same thing right now.”

Bellevance continued: “The process is the same as it was pre-COVID. There are three big questions for a student: Where will you apply? Where will you be admitted? Where will you enroll? You have control over the answers to two of these questions. The process can be a lot more empowering than you think it will be.”

On the subject of standardized tests, most colleges – including the Ivies— have at this point deemed them optional this year, meaning there is no penalty for those who do not provide SAT or ACT scores. As of this publication deadline, rolling cancellations of in-person test dates continue, and the College Board has scrapped plans to administer tests online.

“Trust what the schools are saying,” assures Jill Smilow. “Understand that [college admissions officers] understand. They are part of this world, too. They aren’t living in some alternative universe.”

As Jan Suter, Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Vanderbilt University, emphasized during the Summit webinar, test-optional colleges—indeed all colleges—are looking for reasons to admit students, not reasons to deny them.

“We are quite adept at dealing with students who come to us from a variety of backgrounds. In terms of building our classes, we look for a diversity of experiences and diverse learning. We are experienced at looking at students as individuals.”

Many see positives in the elimination of test scores as an admissions metric because it forces colleges to look more closely at essays and letters of recommendation.

In 2016, well before Covid-19, the Harvard Graduate School of Education launched a project called “Turning the Tide” in an effort to push back against perceived toxicity in the college application process, such as “padded resumes” or so-called “brag sheets.” The Harvard initiative hopes instead to re-focus the spotlight on “meaningful learning.”

Once Covid-19 accelerated changes to how applications would be evaluated, Turning the Tide’s publication— “What We Care About in This Time of Crisis: A Collective Statement from College Admissions Deans”— was quickly endorsed by over 300 college admissions deans. It emphasizes five categories it believes matter most when reviewing an application:
Self-care: Especially in this time of crisis and because of changing circumstances;
Academic work: Assessed in the context of the obstacles present in a student’s life. “No student will be disadvantaged because of a change in commitments or a change in plans because of this outbreak; their school’s decisions about transcripts; the absence of AP or IB tests; their lack of access to standardized tests (although many of the colleges represented here don’t require these tests); or their inability to visit campus.” Service and contribution to others: Encompasses a wide variety of activities while acknowledging that not every student has the ability to participate; Family contributions: Students are encouraged to report these in their applications. “Many students maybe supervising younger siblings, or caring for sick relatives, or working to provide family income, and we recognize that these responsibilities may have increased during these times.” Extracurricular and summer activities: By signing on to the “What We Care About” statement, the deans affirm that they “have never had specific expectations for any one type of extracurricular activity or summer experience and realize that each student’s circumstances allow for different opportunities.”

Additionally, in the midst of all the disruption, the pandemic has created, the gift of time has been bestowed. Classes and activities now occupy less of the day than they would normally. Because students have more time and essays and letters of recommendation remain hugely important, the experts recommend putting extra effort into making them the best they can be. Carefully consider which teachers and adult friends know you best. Make use of the writing prompts provided by the Common Application and write as many drafts as it takes to produce a polished submission.

Rick Hazelton, Director of College Counseling at The Hotchkiss School (Summit webinar), says it’s also important to focus on less conventional concepts of productivity.

“Use the time in a positive way to take stock. When else are you going to have time to go for walks and reflect? It’s a time to get healthy and work on your relationships. You don’t have to feel like you have to start a non-profit from your home. Let you be you.”

Susan Davidson, Associate Director of College Counseling at Rye Country Day agreed during the webinar. “You don’t have to read the complete works of Shakespeare, but if you want to, go ahead.”
Lexington’s Jill Smilow said, “I try to empower students to first think about what’s important to them. Be true to yourself. Be self-reflective. ‘What has made me happy? What have I enjoyed? Then, in their research, see whether a school is the right match. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to be when you grow up.”

About letters of recommendation, Smilow stressed, “Many schools allow for at least one outside recommendation and they always have. Someone besides a classroom teacher or guidance counselor. I always recommend a student have at least one, if they can. At this moment, if a student has someone who knows them well— and can speak to character, work ethic, responsibility, humor, talent, and/or skill development within the context of working hard— then the student should ask that person to write a letter on their behalf and send it to the schools that allow for it. This is a good way to help an admissions officer get as broad and deep a perspective on the student as possible – and this is exactly what they are trying to do in the admission process.”

“Please know that we miss you,” said Vanderbilt’s Suter. “We love talking about our institutions. We love people and our campuses are way too quiet. We’ve had to pivot to ‘how do we reach students now?’ so, yes, everything is online on our websites: all kinds of virtual visits (often hosted by current students) and webinars and faculty talks and student panels plus some things we’ve always had, like being able to contact your admissions counsellor. You can also talk to a real-live Vanderbilt student. Sign up for an informational interview. Please reach out to us.”

Jill Smilow concurs: “I guarantee if you call your admissions rep and say ‘I really want to learn more about your acapella group’ the admissions rep will be happy to talk to you [or connect you with a professor or student.] Schools are working very hard on getting their information out there.”

Henry Marrion, Senior Admissions Counsellor at Tulane University, another Summit panelist, said that one of the silver linings of having to rethink admissions during Covid-19 is the improvements made to the technological outreach.

“It’s forced us to get creative. [For example], Tulane has released a series of 20-minute Coffee Chats over Zoom. Demonstrations of interest for selective universities [such as this] are very important and, in some situations, can be just as good as a college tour.”
Hazelton from Hotchkiss stressed another positive of virtual visits and online communication: “The child can be more in the driver’s seat than they would be during an in-person campus tour. They can ask a question without parent interference or fear of judgment in a group tour setting.”
He also encouraged families to use the Net Price Calculator, available on every college website and on the Common App, especially now when many people have experienced recent financial reversals. “The results are reliable, assuming the information you plug into it is accurate,” Hazelton said.

Jill Smilow asks parents to remember, especially when application anxiety mounts: “Just stay true to who your child is. Your child hasn’t changed very much since March 2020. If anything, he or she is just a little more resilient because junior year of high school was different from what was expected. That should be honored by the colleges and universities, and it should be honored by families. Yes, take the process seriously, but this is an unprecedented moment, and admissions officers are there with us…There’s more than one school out there for everyone.”


Summit Webinar:
Fill out the information to be redirected to the webinar.
Harvard Graduate School of Education “Care Counts In Crisis: A Collective Statement from College Admissions Dean”:


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