College Prep and Admissions During the Pandemic

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with noted college admissions expert Debra Felix about issues in college prep and admissions during this unprecedented public health crisis. Here are her responses to my questions:

1. What do you see as some of the big changes in college admissions for 2021 due to the global pandemic?

I foresee the biggest changes to be the following:

a. Most applicants will not be able to take the SAT or ACT before they apply to college for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, and most colleges will declare themselves “test optional” as a result. Furthermore, many students will be applying with pass/fail grades for the latter half of their junior year of high school.  This will make it more difficult for applicants to demonstrate their academic potential, but it will still be imperative for them to do so.

b. Most applicants will not be able to visit colleges, take on-campus tours, or visit classes during the fall of 2020, and possibly longer.  In addition, colleges are changing dramatically due to the pandemic. This will make it more difficult for students to figure out which colleges will be a good fit for them, and to show their demonstrated interest for the ones they like.

Because applicants will be submitting applications this year containing limited grades, scores, extracurricular activities, and demonstrated interest, admissions committees will have to evaluate applications differently.  Therefore, applicants will need to undertake a different application strategy in order to be admitted through this new evaluation process.

The implications of these and other changes are enormous and complicated and will affect each applicant differently, making it more important than ever to seek out all the best advice you can get in order to maximize your outcomes in the admission process.   

2. The Common App has added a COVID-19 question to the application. Do you have any strategic advice for students in approaching this question? 

Yes.  Only answer this question at length if the pandemic has affected you in a unique and significant way.  If both parents lost their jobs, you started working as a “shopper” to deliver groceries to high risk neighbors, and then your family had to move in with your grandfather in another state when your grandmother died from COVID-19, that would be unique and significant impact.

Admissions officers will not want to read hundreds of essays from students about how their favorite extracurricular activity was cancelled this spring or summer and how difficult it was to take classes online.  If you think the impact of COVID-19 on you was roughly at the same level as the impact on the vast majority of your peers across the country, just say so briefly.

3. With many colleges offering test optional admissions due to difficulties in testing this year, what would you advise students who might not be able to achieve optimum results due to disruptions in testing?

It will be critical to find other ways to demonstrate your academic level and potential to the admissions committee.  Ace your classes this fall.  Pick the right teachers to write your recommendations and prepare them appropriately to write great ones.  Write superb essays. Selecting the right topics and shaping the essays for maximum impact is critical. Get professional help with all of this if you can.  Speak to college representatives by phone or Zoom so they can witness your personality, hear how articulate you are and see how you think.

4. How can students grow their extracurricular and summer enrichment experiences with so many offerings closed to them this year?

First of all, take the time to mourn the cancellation of the summer activities you were looking forward to.  It is disappointing, maddening, and unfair that they have been taken away from you.  Scream, cry, or whatever you need to do to put that disappointment behind you.  Then, try to move forward.

Be creative in finding things you CAN do.  Research colleges, research things you have always wanted to know more about or you’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  Create something.  Make art or music.  Write.  Plan something you can implement when things open up more.

Admissions officers will be impressed by the applicants who pursue an area of interest, who initiate something, and who don’t just develop themselves, but also contribute positively to the lives of others.  Do something that will give you a great answer to the interview question, “Tell me about a time when you had a positive impact on someone else.”

5. What would you advise students who are considering a gap year rather than matriculate in an uncertain situation? 

Start college, unless you have a far better option for next year.  Even if you were seriously considering taking a gap year before the pandemic occurred, consider starting college instead. This is a terrible time to take a gap year.

Your fall college experience might not be ideal or what you had envisioned a year ago, but it will be fine and you will come out of it that much closer to having a college degree.  Exceptions: If you need to help your family in some way this year with elder care, child care, income to pay bills, etc., then taking a gap year is completely justified.

Finally, you might consider asking for a gap semester and then start college in January.  This might go more smoothly for students who will be attending a large university.

6. How has the pandemic affected how students make their college list when visiting remote colleges may be impossible and staying closer to home might be a new consideration?

Whether a student chooses to go away for college or stay closer to home is a complicated and personal decision.  At the moment, it doesn’t look like many colleges will be open to visitors in the fall, so students will not be able to tour colleges anywhere, near or far.

I find that my clients are leaning on me more heavily right now than in the past to help them pick the colleges at which they might thrive.  I know the colleges; I have been studying them and visiting them for decades.  So, I hope students are open to a wide variety of locations and schools and are getting advice from a professional about what colleges are really like at the core rather than relying on rankings or the college’s subjective website, marketing materials, and admissions staff (including students who work for the admissions office).

I have always encouraged my clients to connect with current students or recent alumni at the colleges on their list, and I provide them with questions that elicit more important and honest information about each school. These days, due to the rapid changes occurring on every college campus, I am encouraging clients to prioritize talking to current students over recent alumni since recent alumni won’t be able to tell them what life is like at the school now, let alone what it will be like next year.

Debra Felix is a former Director of Admissions at Columbia University and has been a professional educational consultant for over 30 years.  She has been quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, FNN, CNBC, U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post, among others.  Her clients come from all over the world, and are typically admitted to their first choice college. For more info:  www.felixeducationalconsulting.com

Navigating the College Admissions Process

An experts’ panel plus workshops for parents and teens

The Cornell Club
6 East 44th Street
New York, NY 10017

Saturday, March 7, 2020
9:30 am – 2:30 pm

College admissions has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer is the “well-rounded” student assured their top choice. Testing has also evolved, with changes in the SAT and ACT, while college costs spiral upwards. How can families best help their children make the right fit?

The Cornell Club is proud to present a special program for alumni and families featuring a stellar panel of experts in the college admissions process who will demystify these issues in presentations and Q&A.

This is a terrific opportunity to get answers to your questions from a range of top advisors in college prep and admissions. Attendees are invited to tailor the day to suit their schedules and interests with a panel discussion followed by lunch and two optional workshops:

“Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT”                                                        Presentation and Q&A led by Karen Berlin Ishii

“Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application”                                            Presentation workshop led by Andrea van Niekerk

Event schedule:

9:30-10:00am:  Registration and coffee/light breakfast
10:00-12 noon:  Panel presentation
12:00 noon:  Lunch Buffet
12:30-1:30pm:  Workshop: Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT
1:30-2:30pm:  Workshop: Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application

Participants include:

Andrea van Niekerk is a College Admissions Consultant with College Goals. Andrea was formerly Associate Director of Admission at Brown University for many years and also served as academic advisor to freshman and sophomore students. www.collegegoals.com

 

Laura Clark is long time director of college counseling at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. She previously worked at Princeton University, in admissions for four years and teaching freshman writing in the English department. www.ecfs.org

 

Benjamin Bingman-Tennant is the National Director of Programs for A Better Chance, a national organization dedicated to creating educational opportunity and developing leaders among young people of color throughout the country. www.abetterchance.org

 

Karen Berlin Ishii, a graduate of Brown University, is a college test preparation tutor of over 20 years’ experience. Karen also lectures on SAT/ACT prep for Brown University’s Admission Workshops series at Summer@Brown. www.karenberlinishii.com

 

Cost: $40 individual, or $60 for up to three family members.
– Registration includes all presentations, continental breakfast and luncheon buffets.
– Registrants may attend any or all of the presentations offered.

Register by contacting Kerry Strassel:                 K.Strassel@cornellclubnyc.com or phone 212.692.1386.

6 Classic College Application Essay Errors

Admissionscheckup.com Stephanie Klein Wassink

December is college application season and although we all know you meant to get your essays done last summer, if you are like most seniors, you still have at least a few left to go.

I recently reached out to Stephanie Klein Wassink, Brown University grad and founder of AdmissionsCheckup.com, for her college essay tips. AdmissionsCheckup is a unique application review service that offers students a fresh eye for their applications and essays after the usual editing and review is done.

Here are a handful of Stephanie’s key cautions to keep in mind when writing and reviewing your essays:

1) Overusing the word I: There is no “I” in team….so overusing it simply comes across as arrogant. Vary your sentences, choose another topic or make sure you are attributing your success more broadly, beyond “I.”

2) Being Boring: Admissions officers can and do skim essays. If you had 2,000 applications to read, who would you prefer to admit? Someone who almost put you to sleep, someone who made you realize that you read the same paragraph seven times or someone who captivated and held your interest while showing you his experiences? Boring is an uphill battle and the kiss of death combined.

3) A Plethora of SAT Words: Consider the fact that your reader has not taken the SAT in the last 5 (or more) years. Keep the vocabulary accessible. Nothing bothers an admissions officer more than reading an essay that doesn’t sound like a 17-year-old wrote it.

4) Bragging: I once read an essay about a student who had seen five of the seven wonders of the world. Impressive right? No, not impressive at all. It said more about his parents’ bank account than his actual accomplishments. Bragging just doesn’t come off well.

5) Another School’s Name: This one is obvious, but happens more often than you think. Here is a trick I like to tell my students: before you submit your application, read your essay from the last word on the page forward to the first. It will make catching the wrong name much easier. It is also a good idea to wait a day or two before submitting, and read it again.

6) Regurgitating your Resume: The application provides a place for you to list and describe your activities. If you list them in your essays, you are wasting a valuable opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are. The whole point of the essay is to tell the admissions officer something they would not get by just reading your resume.

For more application tips from Stephanie and AdmissionsCheckup.com’s team of former admissions officers, visit her blog at admissionscheckup.com.

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