Fallout from this year’s application season is starting to take shape, and it’s becoming clear that applying to college next year will be more difficult and nuanced.
Strategies to make your applications stand out
The Test Optional Trap
Yes, schools are increasingly going test optional next year—including the UCs, but that only complicates the process for most applicants. First, “test optional” does not mean “test blind.” Schools that are test blind will not look at scores at all, so all applicants are on equal footing. Test optional schools will still look at scores if you send them, but they will not count against you if you don’t submit them. The problem is that students who test well will send in their scores and will get the first round of slots, leaving fewer to fill with students who admissions officers see as a bit of a gamble who do not submit their scores.
Also, if you want to apply for merit aid, you will probably need to submit scores regardless. Fairtest has a comprehensive list of test-optional schools.So, most students should still probably take the ACT or the SAT for this application cycle.
Next, some current seniors who have been accepted to college for the 2020-21 year are deferring or taking gap years because they don’t want to take online classes. What does this mean for next year’s applicants? Some predict up to 10% fewer available spots.
Loss of Extracurriculars
The third challenge is that with school closures in the spring of this year, many students did not have the opportunity to engage in activities that could add heft to their applications. Athletes lost chances to show their prowess, club presidents lost valuable time demonstrating their leadership, and performers were not able to showcase their abilities. With pass/fail grades this spring, extracurriculars will become even more important, so the loss of spring activities is just that: a loss.
8 Steps You Can Take:
2. Even during COVID-19, stay active, passionate, and curious. Write an Op-ed for your local paper. Submit to writing contests. Take an online summer class or free MOOC (Massive open online courses–Harvard has many that are free this summer). Volunteer to do some virtual work for a local organization. Write and produce a podcast or blog with your friends. Write a play. Learn a new skill. Help elderly neighbors.
3. Do test prep (Khan Academy offers online, free lessons) and sign up to take the ACT or SAT. Wait to see your scores before you send them to schools.
4. Start the writing portions of the application. With fewer data points, the personal essay, the UC Personal Insight Questions, and supplement questions will become increasingly important. The Common Application essay questions will not change this year, so they are available now and the summer is the perfect time to work on these. Make sure your responses are compelling, demonstrate something beyond your GPA and testing capabilities, and illustrate your writing skills. Be authentic.
5. Take a rigorous class schedule senior year; your first quarter (if you are applying Early Decision or Action) and first semester grades (if you are applying Regular Decision) will undergo more scrutiny and hold more weight than usual, since for most, the junior year was interrupted.
6. Be judicious in asking for your letters of recommendation. Approach teachers who know you well, can fill in the blanks in your application, and who can talk about your academic strengths and leadership with details and anecdotes.
7. Use your counselor and ask for help if you need it.
8. Start the process early, proofread every part of your application, and meet deadlines.
This year, it’s becoming a bit more of a buyer’s market in the world of college admissions. Many schools that rely on out of state and international students are feeling the COVID 19 squeeze as families opt to keep their kids closer to home. In a Niche survey, at least 35% of high school seniors reported altering their previous college plans in order to stay closer to home because of uncertainties related to Coronavirus.
A client just called me to say that although her daughter was accepted to her dream school—which is out of state—they are reconsidering where she will enroll. They are paying close attention to the ways schools are responding to the pandemic and will be taking that into consideration when making their final decision. They are not alone.
What does that mean for you if you are a current senior? There are some silver linings.
Many schools have moved their decision deadline (sometimes called “intent to register”) to June 1. An exception is the UCs; however, if you need an extension from a school that has not moved its deadline, ask for it. Admissions officers are people too, and they understand that this is a stressful, complicated time for everyone. They have been working overtime to make accommodations for students during these topsy-turvy months.
In fact, even the UCs admit to some flexibility. In an email update sent on April 14, the University of California said that “Requests will be considered individually by each campus providing maximum flexibility to students needing extensions, and individual campuses have the authority to extend the deadline for accepting admission offers beyond May 1 or June 1.”
Even more surprising is that some schools are opening their application process again, such as Franklin and Marshall, which just announced that they are accepting applications on a rolling basis. In an email, they stated that (in addition to waiving the application fee) “application. . .decisions will be returned to students within one week of completing their application.”
Why is this happening? Student attendance (sometimes called “yield”) is less predictable this year. This is good news to students who are waitlisted at their dream school. Many schools are digging deeper into their waitlists than usual.
Equally important is that there may be more financial aid for students in need. As some accepted students turn schools down, colleges will have more flexibility in the packages they offer to students they take off the waitlist. Many schools are also digging deep into their reserves to help students whose families’ financial situations have changed because of the pandemic.
On top of these developments, it was a little easier to get into some schools this year. For example, USC’s acceptance rate rose over 4% this year—the highest it has been in three years. Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard (the first increase in six years) also accepted a greater percentage of students.
So what should you be doing right now?
Explore your options: Take a driving tour of nearby schools you are considering. Also, contact schools and ask for a personalized campus tour; I just took one of Wooster College in Ohio that was run by two hyper-passionate and knowledgeable students. The tour guides addressed on the spot questions about campus culture, diversity, and majors. It was a fun, informative, interactive tour, and I got a great sense of the campus from the comfort of my couch.
Another source for info on colleges is Youtube. Check to see if the colleges you are interested in have student interviews posted.
You can also call or email any admissions office and ask to speak to a student in your major, or from your part of the state.
If you are on a waitlist, reach out to the school and express your interest. Update them if anything has changed (did you complete a capstone project? Just start virtual art classes to help parents working from home during COVID 19? Is your girl scout troop helping deliver groceries to older people in your community?).
Has your family’s financial status changed? If so, contact schools’ financial aid office to ask them to recalculate your expected family contribution. You will probably have to show proof/documentation, and not all schools will have more money to distribute, but some will, so it is worth checking in with them.
In short, pockets of opportunity are opening for those willing and able to explore and re-explore the evolving college admissions landscape.
In this shifting landscape, a few things have become clear for current juniors: your application process will be an anomaly and quite different from the usual.
As a reaction to COVID 19, for example, many schools are becoming test optional next year (including the UCs). Colleges recognize that SAT and ACT testing dates have been canceled or rescheduled, and though the College Board says they will add dates (the ACT has yet to announce new dates), colleges and universities are being more flexible about testing. We expect even more schools to announce that for the 2020-2021 admission process, standardized tests will be optional.
Many schools will also be flexible with second semester grades. They realize that some schools have gone to pass/fail and some students will not have access to remote learning.
What does this mean for current juniors?
→If you test well, you should still take the SAT or ACT—a high score will still hold weight at many schools and might make you eligible for merit ail.
→First semester junior and senior grades will be more important than ever.
→Teacher recommendations will be important, too. They will help fill in the gaps left by the pandemic, telling colleges about your work ethic, your strengths, and your ability to work with others
→Essays and supplements will take on increased importance as well; make sure that you put your best foot forward in all of the written components.
→And though you might not have been able to engage in your usual extracurriculars during the pandemic (such as sports, orchestra, and theater), there are lots of ways for students to stay engaged and connected.
→What did you do with your quarantine time? Did you take a course from a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses)? Did you develop a relationship with a pen pal in another country? Write and publish poetry? Set up a network to help elderly people in your neighborhood?
Schools want to see that you are staying motivated and curious; make sure that you remain engaged in your studies and keep in contact with teachers and counselors. Don’t let this time go to waste!
While many colleges are closing their physical doors for the rest of the year, current high school juniors and seniors are wondering how the Coronavirus outbreak will affect them and their college search process. The good news is that everyone is in the same boat, so don’t panic.
Regular decisions: most colleges are finalizing their decisions and regular decision announcements should come out on time.
Testing: colleges are aware that SAT testing may be postponed or interrupted. If you miss your testing date, you will be able to rescheduled it for a later date; it would be a good idea to look ahead and push your dates now. The College Board may even add extra dates.
College visits: If you were planning on visiting colleges during spring break, most have cancelled tours and admitted student events. Instead, take advantage of virtual tours and if possible, consider rescheduling your college tour to the summer.
School work: Whether your school has gone virtual or remains open, grades remain one of the most important factors that admission officers consider. Make sure to keep up with your work and challenge yourself!
Summer opportunities: This is also a great time to research summer activities. Look for programs that tap into and develop one of your passions. Take a MOOC—a massive open online class, join a local conversation class to keep honing your spoken command of a language, look for a part time job, or research internship and volunteer opportunities in a field of interest.
Decision day: Usually, applicants need to let colleges know if they will attend a college by May 1st; however, colleges may be extending the date to June 1st.
Advanced Placement exams: APs are another unknown. They usually take place during the first two weeks of May. Will test schools be open by then? Will they be rescheduled? We don’t know yet. Also, Many parents and students are wondering if they’ll be prepared for the test if they’ve missed a lot of school.
Make sure to keep up with your work and check the College Board website for practice materials under the “Exam Preparation” section. In addition, AP teachers have access to other online tools and activities that they can assign to students. Check in with your teachers to see if they can assign you work to prepare you for the exam.
Finally, when in doubt, check in with your counselor!
Back to School for seniors means strategizing regarding soliciting strong letters of recommendation. Schools usually ask for two letters, and students should think about highlighting different facets of their academic lives. Often that means asking for one letter from a Math or Science teacher, and the other from a Humanities teacher. Instructors who taught you junior year are the best for this task since your work is fresh in their minds and they had you in class for a full year; however, if you have a senior teacher who taught you in a previous grade—like freshmen or sophomore year—they will know you well enough to write a compelling letter. A teacher who also coached you in a sport or club like Mock Trial is also a good bet.
Another thing to consider: which teachers saw you at your best: Which classes did you participate in the most? Did you ever attend office hours? Did you go above and beyond by doing extra work or writing extra pages on an essay? Did you help other students who were struggling? Did you ever bring the teacher articles that you found that touched on subjects explored in class? Did the teacher ever use your work as an example? Did you write that teacher a letter at the end of the year telling her how much you enjoyed her class?
How to ask for a letter or recommendation:
Once you have decided on a teacher to approach, collect all of the materials you will need. Prepare for the meeting by printing out a resume or having it ready to send to the teacher. In addition, before the meeting, reflect on how you will ask; be ready to tell the teacher what you loved about her class and which topics excited you the most. You might even find a copy of a paper or project that you aced.
Once you have all of your materials collected, email the teacher for an appointment, or stop by her (virtual) office hours. Ask in person via Zoom if possible, but if you can’t, email is fine. Don’t be stuffy, but be fairly formal in the email. Include your resume and a samples of work as attachments as well. Also, make sure that you write the teacher a thank you card or email a few weeks later, acknowledging how much work it is to write letters of recommendation and how grateful you are for her help in your college search.
That’s it! You can check letters of recommendation off of your list.
Often, parents and students ask what the secret sauce is in the college admissions process. While there is no exact formula for getting into any particular school—and various colleges have different qualities they might be looking for in any given year—there are a few things that most agree on.
1. According to a 2020 survey of college admission experts organized by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, the number one thing that matters is that students challenge themselves. Colleges want to see that you are curious and have grit; one of the ways you demonstrate this is by choosing some of your school’s more rigorous classes. This does not mean that you have to kill yourself by taking every AP that your school offers; you do need to show that you have stretched yourself, however, and gotten out of your comfort zone.
If you love History, take two classes during your senior year. The same is true for language: if you might want to major in a language, take two in high school if your schedule allows it; or take one at school and one online or at a community college. Another possibility is taking a science or math class in the summer so that you can go into a more advanced course your senior year.
2. Develop and follow your passions—commit to something and see it through. In IECA’s study, extra curriculars moved up the rankings to earn the 4th spot this year. But just joining every club doesn’t work: colleges want authentic, engaged, sustained involvement.
If your passion is movies, start a film club; if you love basketball, play all four years; if you like to tinker, join the robotics team. Closely related to activities outside of the classroom is leadership, which earned the 6th spot in the rankings. If you follow a passion for multiple years, you will naturally take on leadership roles and mentor younger students—a win win.
3. Be intentional—this applies to the courses and clubs you join, but also to the application process. Think about what you really value and where you will flourish, and then research schools that fit that description.
Make sure that you look beyond name brand schools and look at student satisfaction and graduation rates. Examine the majors offered and the social scene. If you really love the schools you are applying to, your application will be focused and compelling. The admissions process is like dating: everyone likes to be wanted for themselves.
4. Connect with your teachers and counselors (and be nice). They will write your letters of recommendation and advocate for you. To do so well, they will need to know you as a person and learner. Participate in class (you will enjoy it more if you do); go to their office hours; keep your eye out for every day connections to their discipline and send them magazine or newspaper articles that show that you are engaged in the material. Also, don’t forget to write them thank you cards at holidays, at the end of the year, and when they write you a letter of recommendation!
5. Think about how you might be a good fit for the colleges you are applying to. What will you bring to their campus? You might bring a talent, or a diverse viewpoint, or add to student life by establishing and/or leading clubs, or by getting involved in research.
For students who work diligently all year, summer may seem like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Yes, summer should be a time to recharge and spend time with family and friends, but it’s also the perfect time to explore and develop new skills and interests. And though it may seem early, February and March are prime times to make plans and apply to programs.
Colleges want to see that your child is curious and motivated—and there are many ways to demonstrate that. Are some activities better than others? Not really. It’s more what the student does with the experience. If she has a job working at a pet store and wants to be a veterinarian, then that makes total sense. If the student wants to go into computer science and spends part of the summer taking a computer animation class, that works, too. In addition, when it comes time to write the personal essay for college applications, meaningful summer activities often provide fodder for the stories students tell.
A few summer options that are fun and stretch students (so students AND parents will be happy):
Take a class
High schools, colleges, and community colleges offer myriad classes over the summer. These include standard academic classes which might help your child level up in a subject (like math or science), or explore a discipline that their school doesn’t offer, like Anthropology. But they could also take the opportunity to experience something that they are passionate about, like journalism or a language. A quick look at Santa Monica College’s offerings include animation, jewelry design, creative writing, fashion and design marketing, kinesiology, and religious studies. The California State School for the Arts also has a fabulous program where kids can live in real dorms for a month and take classes in dance, music, theater, visual arts, and more. Don’t wait just for the summer, though, the Grammy Museum offers a free photography camp in the spring.
Get an old fashioned job
Having a job shows that your child knows how to handle responsibility and money. It also demonstrates that she has grit and can stick with something. If a summer job also connects to an academic or extracurricular interest, even better!
If your student is interested in cinematography, HBO and Warner Brothers, among others, offer summer internships. Is art history your child’s passion? The Getty Museum offers summer internships where students can act as gallery guides, help with STEAM programming, or expand their classical Latin language skills. Stanford also has a cool, free internship program that is STEM focused and allows students to do cutting edge research. Microsoft also offers internships to students who live in a 50 mile radius of their campus. Is your child a budding scientist? Places like the Lundquist Institute take a few students every year and give them hands on learning experiences in a lab. City of Hope also offers high school students research opportunities.
Volunteering at a patchwork of different places doesn’t make meaningful connections, and colleges aren’t impressed by sheer numbers of hours. What they want to see is a commitment and a passion for the work. Help your child find something that connects to her interests. Does she think that she might want to be a nurse or doctor? Check out a local hospitals’ needs. Does your child like animals? Perhaps he would like to volunteer at a Zoo, or with a city program, like LA Animal services?
Start a business
Entrepreneurial skills are highly coveted in this economy. Starting one’s own business or non profit shows curiosity and ingenuity. Does your child make something? Let her try her hand at creating a business plan and selling it. Does he like to walk dogs? Let him start a neighborhood business.
Teachers fear the dreaded “Summer slide” that happens when students don’t attend daily classes. Studies support this, showing that students lose up to 20% of the valuable reading skills that they build up during the school year. How to combat it? By reading. Reading continues to develop vocabulary, comprehension, and even help with writing. So over the summer, make a habit of visiting the library or bookstore every two weeks and make sure that you are modeling reading at home—this is one of the best ways to cultivate a reader.