The pandemic has upended the process of applying to college. Four college admissions officers spoke in late November about how the pandemic has changed admissions and how students can navigate this new landscape. Stefanie Niles of Ohio Wesleyan University, Robert Alexander of the University of Rochester, Anika Olsen of Northern Arizona University, and Rachelle Hernandez of the University of Texas at Austin discussed four key areas: demonstrated interest, campus visits, test-optional applications, and the essay.

Demonstrated Interest

Demonstrated interest, or engagement, is a factor in admissions at some, but not all, colleges or universities. (I use “colleges” to cover both.)  It may be as simple as keeping a file of how often you’ve emailed them or attended information sessions, or as sophisticated as tracking your interactions on their websites. The University of Rochester notes which emails you’ve opened and when you’ve clicked on links they sent you; OWU says that they do note engagement and it can help you but lack of engagement won’t hurt you. You have to ask individual institutions whether or not they count demonstrated interest and if so, what demonstrated interest looks like to them. At all colleges, it pays to foster a relationship with your regional admissions representatives, especially since they are often the ones who will be reading your application.

How do you demonstrate interest? I like the word engagement: engage with the college. Drill down into tabs like “Admissions,” “Academics,” and “Student Life” on the websites, respond to their ;emails, sign up for events the colleges hold, attend their information sessions when they “visit” your high school, follow their social media, sign up for virtual college fairs. Most importantly, reach out to admissions. They’re real people who want to help you. As Dr. Niles said, “They aren’t trying to put up barriers. If you have questions, reach out to them.”

Campus Visits

Until the pandemic closed down campuses, the campus visit was the solid gold piece of evidence that you were interested in the school—as demonstrated by your willingness to get there and spend part of a day there. Some schools do now have limited in-person tours going on; check the websites to see if they’re offering tours and what protocol you must follow. But it has been hard to visit campuses, just as it’s been hard to go anywhere. The campus visit was not only a way for you to figure out how it “felt” to be there; it was also a way for schools to sell themselves to you. 

On the upside, the pandemic has forced colleges to get creative and to level the playing field a bit. Students who couldn’t afford to jump on a plane to visit a school across the country can now visit virtually. Colleges are working hard to make themselves available. To help students experience the campus, one admissions director streamed a live trail run. You can “attend” a live in-person tour and feed your questions to the tour ambassador. At Goucher, you can schedule a chat with a current student. And the admissions counselors want to talk to you. Don’t be shy.

Test-Optional Admissions

Test-optional means that you can decide whether or not to submit your scores. There is no trick to this. NACAC (the National Association of College Admission Counseling) produced a document, signed by hundreds of schools, saying that you will not be penalized for not submitting scores, whatever your reason. Some schools do still require SAT/ACT scores for admissions and/or merit scholarships, but those that say it’s optional really mean it’s optional. 

Ohio Wesleyan University has a page on their website devoted to clarifying what OWU means when they say they’re test-optional. Look for similar clarification on other college websites. Read the fine print, too. Are they test-optional only for this year? If you were able to take the SAT or ACT and your scores reflect favorably on you, it may be worth sending them in. 

Robert Alexander of Rochester said that not having the scores to rely on in admissions is a welcome challenge because it forces them to really get to know who the student is instead of relying on numbers.

The Essay

With the de-emphasis on standardized testing, essays (as well as your recommendations) become even more important. All of the admissions professionals on the panel agreed that you should not worry about what the colleges want to hear; rather, they want to know what you care about, what’s important to you. The essay is the place to convey what numbers like class rank, GPA, and SAT scores cannot. 

The pandemic has given you a gift of time and stillness that colleges hope you have used for reflection. The essay will show what you’ve learned about yourself.

About the Covid-19 optional essay that’s new this year in the Coalition and Common App: Nine out of 10 college reps that I’ve heard address it this application season say that unless you were affected more dramatically than the rest of your classmates, don’t write it. They already know that you lost your sports, your extracurriculars, your 50 or 90 minutes of class time in a row of desks with 30 other kids and a teacher. Don’t tell them what they already know.

What you cannot change. . .
Jeff Selingo, author of Who Gets In and Why, says that everyone needs to remember what you can and cannot control. You cannot control the pandemic. It’s too bad you can’t zip around the country visiting colleges. Control the things you can, let go of what you can’t control, and know that you are going to be OK.

Applying to College During a Pandemic