How has the Pandemic Changed the College Application?

By Gabrielle Fox

The college application process is notorious for being confusing and overwhelming. Needless to say, the pandemic has not simplified this process. If you are one of the thousands of families searching for clarity on how the application process has changed, then you are in the right place. In this article we will discuss how the new application requirements compare to the old and how we can easily adapt to the new application.

The Big 5

Prior to the pandemic the college application consisted of five main parts.

1. Transcripts

2. Test scores (AP, SAT, ACT, GRE, etc.)

3. Extracurricular activities

4. Letters of recommendation

5. Application Essays

Transcripts. Transcripts will always be required for college applications. However, it is no secret that students, teachers, and parents struggled to adapt to the distance learning model. These challenges have resulted in adaptive strategies at both the collegiate and high school levels. Some high schools are altering the curriculum demands in both positive and negative ways. Some are adding additional opportunities for extra credit. While other schools are going so far as to wipe grades for entire semesters. This struggle is absolutely evident to college admissions departments. While transcripts are still a quintessential aspect of the application, they are not weighed quite as definitively as they were before. Most colleges have added an optional supplemental essay that allows students to explain how distance learning impacted their academics; essentially giving them an opportunity to speak to their grades and defend their academic abilities.

Test Scores. This is perhaps one of the largest changes to the college application; the vast majority of colleges and universities have made test scores optional. This is largely due to accessibility and equality issues. If you were able to take the ACT, SAT or AP tests and are satisfied with your scores, submit them! It can’t do any harm. Likewise, it should not hinder your application if you were unable to take these tests. College application decisions have become more holistic during this time. They cannot weigh one student over another based solely on test scores.

Extracurriculars. Extracurriculars over the past two years have been few and far between. There was so little opportunity for extracurriculars in a quarantined world and therefore they do not demonstrate a multifaceted student. If you have found these opportunities during this time, by all means talk about it! Include it in your resume, essay, etc. But if this was not an option for you or your student you are definitely not in the minority.

Letters of Recommendation. While the pandemic may have impacted your ability to develop a personal connection to your teachers, it has not changed how much these letters matter. Universities still place a good deal of weight on these recommendations, and they represent a huge opportunity to demonstrate your character and academic capacity.

Application Essays. The main and supplemental college application essays have increased in importance. In fact, they are now one of the top two most important aspects of the application (followed by letters of recommendation). These essays are the best representation of you/your students’ character, drive, and influence. Which is why the essay will take some extra work!

How to Change with the Application

Essentially, the “Big 5” have become the “Big 2”. Letters of recommendation and application essays are perhaps the most weighted aspects of the undergraduate college application. While students have no control over the content of the letters of recommendation, they remain completely in control of their essays. I recognize that these drastic shifts may feel intimidating, but I believe this could also be an opportunity. The stress of testing, overly stuffed extracurricular schedules, and strict 4.0’s have given way to a more genuine representation of abilities and ideas. Although there is more emphasis on the essay, there is also more time to focus your energy on it. There are two simple pieces of advice I would give in order to write the best essays possible.

1. Begin as early as possible. Not to avoid procrastination, but so the ideas you want to express have time to “simmer” in your subconscious. Find your prompts early and take your time. Some of the best essays I have ever written, were when I had an epiphany after weeks of thinking. Give yourself the time to really ruminate on your essay prompt. That way you won’t be up late frantically typing the night before the deadline. (I have been there!) Honestly, there is no reason to add stress to this process.

2. Write as genuinely as possible. Colleges don’t want or need to hear about how great they are. They know what clubs they have, and they don’t need to be told their own statistics. Also, and this may be counterintuitive, they don’t want to hear about how great you are. Not to say you shouldn’t showcase yourself, but the way to grab the attention of the person who is going to sit down and read your paper is to write as sincerely as possible. Humans connect with humans. Connection is not a product of perfection; it is a product of sincerity. Realness. And flaws. No one can duplicate the way you think and express yourself. Also, a little hint* writing becomes WAY easier when you tell stories you actually want to tell (as opposed to what you think people want to hear.)

There are a lot of ways to handle this new essay emphasis. You could seek the help of a college application tutor (like me). Generally, application tutors help as much or as little as you need. That could mean a one-time online edit where we help with grammar and big picture ideas. Or it could look like a tutor coaching you through the entire process.

However, hiring a tutor and fitting them into one’s schedule is not a feasible solution for everyone. If that’s you here is a list of other potential resources.

  • Consult with your English teachers to help you while developing your essays.

  • Use online resources like Grammarly to help you finalize your grammar edits.

  • Contact an admissions advisor from your top schools, set up a meeting, and ask them what they really look for in essays and applications.

  • Create a study group with other students and co-edit each others papers

I know this process is overwhelming. But I promise there are so many outlets and resources as well as people who genuinely want to help. It is simply a matter of finding them.