The COVID-19 pandemic has altered day-to-day life for all of us. It will continue to impact students in the coming weeks, months, and even years. If you’re a rising high school junior or senior, you may resist looking too far into the future. We get it, but it’s important to start planning now for the college admissions process. It’s all but certain it will look different for you than it did for students in previous years. Don’t let that scare you! Embrace the new opportunities to highlight all you have to offer.
Students and parents wonder if taking the ACT or SAT (or submitting scores from already-taken tests) is necessary. Many colleges have announced that they’re going test optional for the coming year (and beyond for some. Find an up-to-date list here). For most students, taking a test is still a good idea. According to the Los Angeles Times, “many college counselors haven’t much altered their advice: Keep studying. Take the exams. And, unless they’re disastrous, submit your scores.” Corinne Pinsof-Kaplan of Launch College Counseling is strongly encouraging her students to take the ACT or SAT because of the unpredictable landscape. “What if the schools on their list don’t go test optional?” It’s good for rising juniors, in particular, to keep that in mind. Who knows what the admissions process will look like in 2021?
That said, for a variety of reasons, skipping the ACT or SAT may be a better choice for some rising seniors. But without that data point, how can you show colleges that you’re a stellar applicant? Honestly, even students who are able to submit very good ACT or SAT scores should be asking this question. Pinsof-Kaplan says colleges are promising to be more flexible in light of the pandemic-related barriers. You are more than a test score – show that to schools!
Pinsof-Kaplan and Sara Miller, a former assistant director of admissions at Purdue, agree that juniors and seniors should also ask themselves this question: How am I making good use of my time? Schools want to know that you’ll be a contributing member of your class. They want to see that you’ve already established good habits, and that you’re engaging in activities that reflect your interests. When you spend your time productively, it’s easy to show schools that you’ll be an excellent addition to their student body. You’ll also have more interesting – and authentic – experiences to write about in the more-important-than-ever college application essays.
Volunteering on a regular basis is a wonderful way to support your community, build relationships, develop a worldview, learn teamwork and leadership skills, and recognize your own privilege. There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities available to students, or you can create your own like Michael Arundel of Orland Park did.
So much has been cancelled this summer. Use that to your advantage by stepping up your self-discipline and initiative. For example, if you’re an athlete whose team isn’t formally practicing or competing, create your own plan for staying in shape and continuing to grow in your sport. Creative arts students can host their own show, teach others, or even team up virtually with other artists to collaborate on projects. Whatever your “thing” is, find ways to practice it that will be beneficial to you and others. These experiences will highlight your talent and dedication on your college resume.
On the academic side, show your commitment to learning and challenging yourself. With all of the online learning options available right now, it’s easy to find a course to get ahead. Or take an elective class you might not have time for during the school year. If you’re taking AP classes this fall, get a head start previewing topics and concepts. Community colleges offer a wide selection of summer classes (earn those college credits!).
Finally, consider exploring a new or established interest in a structured way. A summer passion project involves choosing a topic of interest, studying it in depth, and designing a creative project that shows what you’ve learned. Let’s say you’re interested in environmental sustainability. You could study composting, set up your own bin, design and carry out an experiment, and present your findings in a YouTube video.
A summer passion project can also lead to a more consistent and action-oriented study of a topic. Focused, goal-driven work over the summer might lead to a part-time job or volunteer position (e.g. setting up composting at your school). One of our students is thinking about studying computer science in college, so he’s working with a tutor this summer to complete a passion project diving into the subject. His work will enable him to build skills, and also help him decide if computer science is indeed a good fit. And that will influence the colleges and programs he pursues.
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination! Completing a passion project doesn’t just provide you a way to showcase your interests to schools (what a great college essay topic!). It also gives you the opportunity to practice critical thinking, executive functioning, curiosity, and researching – all skills that will help you succeed in college and beyond.
Remember that you’re not alone! Every student across the nation has been impacted by the pandemic. No one will be surprised if your spring internship or volunteer work didn’t happen. You won’t be the only applicant whose clubs and sports were canceled this year. Admissions officers canceled college fairs and high school visits, too. Explain any extenuating circumstances on the Common App COVID-19-specific response, do your best with the resources you have available, and know that you’re in good company.