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Applying to college during the pandemic? College admission deans offer 5 tips

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, applying to college is trickier than ever. On Monday, college admissions officials from across the country offered students some advice.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, applying to college is trickier than ever. On Monday, college admissions officials from across the country offered students some advice.Charles Krupa

More than 300 college admission deans nationwide came together Monday to offer advice to frantic applicants experiencing personal hardship, scaled-back academic courses, and lost opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic: Take care of yourself.

That message was among five tips the 340 college admission deans delivered in an open letter, entitled “What We Care about in this Time of Crisis: A Collective Statement from College Admission Deans.”

“We recognize that many students, economically struggling and facing losses and hardships of many kinds, are simply seeking to get by,” the letter says. “We also recognize that this time is stressful and demanding for a wide range of students for many different reasons. We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time.”

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The signers included admission deans from Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, Yale, Brown, and Cornell.

Since the pandemic upended American life this spring, forcing the closure of school districts and higher education institutions nationwide, college admission deans have been fielding inquiries and untangling misinformation from prospective students, parents, and guidance counselors about what applying to college will entail this fall.

There has been good reason for the confusion; the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of applying to college. The school shutdown this spring forced the cancellation of the SAT, sports, extracurricular activities, and college campus tours. It also pushed classroom learning into cyberspace, where lessons were streamlined, inaccessible to students who lacked the Internet, and often graded on a pass-fail basis, raising quesions about how seriously colleges would take them.

Meanwhile, college applicants have been finding diminished opportunities this summer for internships, public service, and overseas trips — the kinds of experiences that can help students dazzle admissions officers in college application essays.

And some students have been impacted directly by the coronavirus itself, which has struck communities of color at much higher rates, as evidenced in places like Chelsea. That has only exacerbated inequities in communities hamstrung by underfunded schools with slim academic offerings, uneven teaching, and a shortage of guidance counselors who can help them apply to college.

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The deans touched upon those areas in their letter. Their goal is to make clear what they value amid the global health crisis as they evaluate applicants. They also wanted to reaffirm their commitment to equity — giving all students regardless of their backgrounds and obstacles a fair chance at getting in.

The letter is an outgrowth of efforts by colleges to convince applicants to move away from cramming their resumes with “brag sheets” and instead focus on the experiences that are the most meaningful to them. It was organized by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, which aims to helps families, educators, and communities raise kids who care about others and the common good.

“I think this is the time to reimagine college admission,” Richard Weissbourd, the faculty director of Making Caring Common, said in an interview, emphasizing his view went beyond the messaging in the letter. “I hope it’s a laboratory year where the deans try different things.”

This admission cycle is expected to be unlike any other, he said. With the SATs cancelled this spring, many more colleges will not require the scores for admission and will be relying more heavily on other elements in the applications, such as essays, high school courses, references, and attributes of applicants, such as being peristent, creative, and a team player. Students might find expanded opportunities to interview online, he noted.

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Robert Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School in Western Massachusetts, said he appreciated that the deans understand the obstacles the pandemic has created for students and how it has affected their well-being, noting that applying for college is stressful enough in ordinary times.

“Anything colleges can do to alleviate that stress is helpful,” said Bardwell, who is also the executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association.

Seniors, he said, will be playing catchup this fall. He said he hopes colleges will be flexible with its deadlines for submitting applications and completing financial aid requests, noting that some deadlines, such as requesting an early decision on admission, begin in the fall.

Josette Teneus, a school counselor at Charlestown High School, said many of her students were juggling a lot this spring, including some whose families were directly affected by the virus or the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“Kids had real situations going on and some had to take full-time jobs to support their families,” she said, adding that their perserverance during that time potentially reveals more about their ability to make it through college than an SAT or AP exam score.

She also said that some students and their families are re-evaluating college plans, such as whether to go out of state and how much they can afford.

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The deans’ letter is broken into five overarching areas. Here are the highlights from each of them:

1. Self care. The admission deans emphasized that self-care was especially important in a time of crisis, like the coronvirus pandemic. They encouraged all students to take care of themselves.

2. Academic work. The deans said they recognize the obstacles that may have impeded learning this spring — including health and economic hardships in their families and a lack of Internet to complete online lessons — and will keep that in mind when examining coursework during those months. They will give more weight to courses before the pandemic and to those after the pandemic subsides.

“No student will be disadvantaged because of a change in commitments or a change in plans because of this outbreak,” the letter said. “We will also view students in the context of the curriculum, academic resources, and supports available to them.”

3. Service and contributions to others. The deans suggested some ways students might be able to pitch in during this time, such as tutoring, delivering groceries, helping senior citizens, and registering people to vote. But they said they won’t penalize students who cannot take part in these activities because they have been hamstrung by the pandemic or other obstacles.

“Our interest is not in whether students created a new project or demonstrated leadership during this period,” they wrote. “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.”

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4. Family contributions. The deans said they understand many applicants have immense family obligations that prevent them engaging in community service and other projects, and they see value in these commitments.

“Many students may be supervising younger siblings, for example, or caring for sick relatives or working to provide family income, and we recognize that these responsibilities may have increased during these times,” the wrote. “We view substantial family contributions as very important, and we encourage students to report them in their applications. It will only positively impact the review of their application.”

5. Extracurricular and summer activities. The college deans said they won’t hold it against applicants if the pandemic took away these opportunities.

“We have never had specific expectations for any one type of extracurricular activities or summer experience and realize that each student’s circumstances allow for different opportunities,” they wrote.

The deans encouraged students to share as much as they can about their most meaningful experiences with them and to “describe concretely” any obstacles that may have interfered with their academic performance.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.