The pandemic continues to impact the college admissions process, so it’s important to think about your applications from a holistic perspective. 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 remain test optional, and some (like the University of California system) are test blind. 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 stay test optional?”
That said, for a variety of reasons, skipping the ACT or SAT may be a better choice for some students. 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.
Think about where you can take initiative with your extra-curricular interests. For example, if you’re an athlete, 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 a summer elective class you might not have time for during the school year. If you’re taking AP classes, get a head start by previewing topics and concepts. Community colleges offer a wide selection of 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.