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4 Ways to Stand Out When Applying to College During COVID-19

High school student on video chat with college counselor

How are colleges evaluating students whose transcripts and activities have been disrupted by COVID-19? Admissions officers from Bowdoin, Tulane and USC weigh in.

October 29, 2020

Even in the best of times, applying to college can be stressful. Applying to college during a global pandemic, however, adds new worries for some students and families. How will colleges evaluate students when some of them are lacking test scores, grades, and extracurriculars, or have experienced significant disruptions to their lives because of the pandemic? 

How to Apply for College During COVID

According to three college admissions officers who spoke at the 2020 National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) Conference, these issues are troubling to college admissions officers, too. In their panel discussion, “Reimagining the Application Review Process,” admissions officers from Bowdoin College, Tulane University, and the University of Southern California discussed how they are adapting their admissions processes and providing students with new opportunities to showcase their academic strengths, passions, and positive qualities.

Here are four ways to stand out when applying to college during this pandemic, according to these admissions officers.

1. Take advantage of virtual opportunities to connect.

In response to the suspension of high school visits and live regional events that have given students and families the chance to meet in-person with admissions officers, Bowdoin, Tulane and USC have created webinars and video presentations featuring everything from interviews with current students to programs for parents to financial aid tutorials to live-streamed walking tours. Because they're online, these programs are available to a much wider audience of students and parents.

“We’re now able to build distinctive and unique programs in a virtual space that before would have been limited by travel or budgetary restrictions,” explained Kedra Ishop, Vice President for Enrollment Management at USC. “We couldn’t always bring current students with us on the road, for example.”

The panelists encouraged students and parents to participate in as many events as possible and to check college websites regularly for new content. Students were also encouraged to sign up for these events, because colleges are paying attention. “When we review applications this fall, we’ll be looking to see if students attended some of our virtual events and engaged that way,” explained Jeffrey Schiffman, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Tulane University.

2. Seek out college admissions officers.

The virtual space has also made it possible for admissions officers to be more available to connect with students one-to-one by email, phone, and Zoom. While this might sound intimidating, the panelists agreed that they – and most admissions officers they know – are eager to help you and answer any questions you have. “We want to encourage students to seek us out and spend time with us,” said Ishop. “We can connect applicants with our students and with offices across campus and showcase more of the university experience.”

3. Complete optional college application requirements.

Some colleges have always offered applicants opportunities to include optional admissions materials, such as an extra letter of recommendation, or the chance to interview with alumni. Completing these “extras,” the panel agreed, might be more critical now, especially if you don’t think that your application is fully showcasing your strengths or accomplishments. Some colleges have come up with creative ways for students to tell more of their story to the admissions team.

For example, on its application portal, Bowdoin provides students with the option to submit a “Spontaneous On-Demand Video Response” to a randomly selected – and easily answerable – question selected by the admissions team. “The idea behind this was to give students the opportunity to submit something completely unprepared,” explains E. Whitney Soule, Bowdoin’s Dean of Admissions and Student Aid, “and give students a chance to demonstrate how they see themselves in response to other people.” A typical question, said Soule, might be “What’s the nicest thing that somebody did for you week?”

To get to know students better in the absence of test scores, Tulane has doubled down on the optional interview. “I’ve probably done 400 interviews over the last five months,” said Schiffman. “I think the interviews are a really cool opportunity for students. Not a single interview I’ve done has reflected poorly on a student.”

More colleges might ask for recommendations or additional recommendations. Bowdoin, understanding that students might have limited access to teachers and coaches this year, is allowing students to submit an additional recommendation letter written by anyone who can talk about the student’s strengths and how they relate to others.

4. Pay attention to supplemental essays.

Students might think that if their applications are lacking some letter grades or test scores, their college essay will be weighted more heavily by admissions. But Schiffman says he doesn’t think so. “The essay has always been an important part of the application. But I don’t think the essay is more important now because of COVID-19.” However, Schiffman said his team is looking more closely at supplemental essay questions. “For us, the ‘Why Tulane’ question is now more important than ever.” Schiffman recommends that applicants reach out to current Tulane students to learn more about the college and mention this conversation – and the student by name – in the “Why Tulane” essay. According to Schiffman, “It shows you took the time to really find out if this school is going to be a good fit for you. Talking to current students is the best way to do that right now.”

As for the optional COVID-19 supplemental essay question on the Common App and Coalition Application, the admissions officers from Bowdoin, Tulane and USC agreed that students should not feel obligated to respond to it. If they do, they should succinctly list only the facts surrounding their personal experience with the pandemic.

Remember that admission officers are rooting for you.

Ishop, Boule and Schiffman emphasized that students should not worry if their application is missing test scores or letter or numerical grades. “We look at things contextually,” explained Ishop. “We are accustomed to looking at transcripts that are already very different from each other, with different grading and rules for access to challenging courses.”

Most of all, the panel wants students to know that they understand how this pandemic has disrupted their lives and the process of applying to college. “We’re all experiencing COVID together,” said Ishop. “We know that activities are affected. We know that new family and health challenges may emerge for students, that financial circumstances and applying for aid are going to be different.”

Schiffman agreed. “A lot of times high school seniors and their parents are thinking, ‘Are colleges going to understand? Are they going to be sympathetic?’ And the answer a thousand times over is yes,” he assured. “There is no group of people that is more rooting for high school seniors than those on the college side. We are going to assume the best in you.”

If the efforts of the admissions leaders at these colleges are any indication, students applying to college this year can relax a little. Think about the version of yourself you want colleges to see, and take advantage of the opportunities colleges have created to get to know you. Here’s to making a great impression!

What's Next?

Your college planning doesn’t need to fall off track during COVID-19. See our COVID-19 Resources page for  testing and financial aid updates, and ways to navigate college admissions during the pandemic.

For more information about what colleges look for in students, visit CollegeData's blog.

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