College Applications in the Time of COVID

If you’re a high school student or the parent of a high-schooler, you don’t need me, some random guy on the internet, to remind you that even the best version of the college admissions process is extraordinarily stressful. You probably also don’t need me to tell you that, though I don’t exactly have access to a comprehensive data set, it seems unlikely that this current moment could ever be considered the best version of anything.

Fortunately, what I can tell you is that colleges themselves seem to recognize this as well, and they’re taking steps to address it. As of mid-June, more than half of all US four-year colleges and universities had already announced that they would be test-optional for the admissions class of Fall 2021 (per, citing concerns about students having insufficient and inequitable access to test administrations. And now, in a statement released at the end of June by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, admissions leaders have outlined exactly what they will be looking for in applicants.

The letter, which you can read in full here, has at the time of writing been signed by admissions officers at 350 schools, from MIT to small liberal arts colleges. It begins by acknowledging the unprecedented strain that the pandemic has put on the education system and on students themselves, then goes on to lay out five areas of emphasis for students to keep in mind while they’re working on building their applications:

  1. Self-care
  2. Academic work
  3. Service and contributions to others
  4. Family contributions
  5. Extracurricular and summer activities

It’s gratifying to see self-care atop the list, and it’s an important reminder to applicants that their physical, mental, and emotional health should always be a higher priority than their applications; hopefully that sentiment will be heeded by students who are feeling anxious and frustrated as they navigate this challenging process.

Beyond that first bullet point, a common thread throughout the rest of the statement is the importance of context: the admissions officers stress that students will not be punished for academic or extracurricular opportunities that they missed out on due to COVID but rather will be judged against a background of what they were able to do. The schools plan to “view students in the context of the curriculum, academic resources, and supports available to them” and to “assess… [community] contributions and service in the context of the obstacles students are facing.”

One particularly interesting segment comes in the portion of the letter dedicated to contributions to others. Many students are understandably stressed about the restrictions that COVID has placed on extracurricular activities, community service included. The signees make a point of mentioning that service for the sake of an application is never desirable, and that the authenticity and personal value of the activity are much more important than the scale of the impact:

Our interest is not in whether students created a new project or demonstrated leadership during this period. We, emphatically, do not seek to create a competitive public service “Olympics” in response to this pandemic. What matters to us is whether students’ contribution or service is authentic and meaningful to them and to others, whether that contribution is writing regular notes to frontline workers or checking in with neighbors who are isolated.

The statement also notes that it’s important for students to communicate on their actual applications the specific challenges and obstacles they’ve faced due to the pandemic. Admissions officials want to know “how any of these circumstances have negatively affected [students’] academic performance or ability to engage in activities that matter to them.” The letter finishes with a reminder that both the Common App and the Coalition for College application will “provide opportunities for students to describe how they have been impacted by the pandemic.”

So applicants, in summary: focus first and foremost on taking care of yourselves and taking care of your families. Don’t go out and start an unnecessary nonprofit to bolster your application. And don’t forget that the pandemic has affected everyone, including you – it’s okay, and even encouraged, for your application to reflect that, because that’s the backdrop against which you’ll be judged.

That’s what I’ve got for you today. As always, stay safe – and masked – out there.

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