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Five tips for applying to college during the pandemic

October 7, 2020
paper airplanes laid out over a blue background(Getty Images photo)
Robert Alexander, the dean of undergraduate admissions, financial aid, and enrollment management for Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, offers advice for prospective students and parents as they lay out a path to college over the next several months.

The events of the past seven months have added more stress for prospective students and parents navigating a college admissions process already fraught with anxiety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted high school schedules, eliminated standardized testing administration dates, and altered families’ plans to tour campuses across the country.

But has it also provided an unprecedented opportunity to re-think our collective approach to college admissions?

1. Recognize what’s been lost, then focus on opportunities ahead

For some prospective students, COVID-19 has had devastating impacts, including family members who have become critically ill or died from the virus. The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a spotlight on racist policies and practices that endanger and disadvantage Black and Brown people and communities of color in America, and underpins the disparate health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

Colleges will want to understand the losses and pains that unfortunately are integral parts of some students’ experiences, and we also want to hear how those struggles have shaped applicants’ growth and goals for the future.For other young people, the pandemic has taken away their long-awaited spot on a varsity athletic team, or lead role in the fall play. It’s OK to mourn what should have been, but don’t let that stop you from making the most of the opportunities that you DO have. Maybe it’s not how you expected to spend your senior year, but there are ways to find meaning in all kinds of pursuits and share that in your application essays. We recognize the value of a student working to help supplement family income, the new perspectives that can be gained from caring for family members, and the leadership it takes to be an activist in the movement for equality.

2. Embrace what’s within your control, including your academics

This current fall semester is the one to do your best academic work, since colleges will likely put a lot of emphasis on your high school record. Don’t spend the time and money trying to find the one open testing center two states away, or try to game the system. Remember the adage that the college admissions process is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. Together, we can collaborate to end the escalation of the college admissions “arms race.” Let’s reset our misguided expectations that pressured high-achieving American teenagers into multiple anxiety-ridden standardized test retakes, and impossible ideas about multitudinous extracurricular activities. Colleges care about how applicants spent their time, and where they focused their intellectual energy, but we also know that lots of students have to work to supplement family income or care for younger siblings while their parents work double-shifts. We want to hear those stories—not just that a student had a particular responsibility, but what lessons they’ve taken away and how it has shaped who they want to be.

3. Trust the advice of college admissions staff

I know you’ve read about the Varsity Blues scandal, but remember that the dishonest parties were parents, coaches, and third-party consultants, NOT college admissions officers. We do this work with a great deal of ethical care and take our role as counselors very seriously. We’ll always try to steer you right. With many fewer SAT and ACT testing opportunities available, most colleges aren’t requiring standardized test scores for admissions this year (the University of Rochester was already test-optional, but the policy is now trending elsewhere). If a college says that submitting test scores is optional, and won’t reflect negatively in our review, believe us! You were always much more than just an SAT score, so think through how you can demonstrate your academic achievement and potential through your accomplishments to date and in your interview, essays, and choice of recommenders. We’re not asking trick questions, and we’re here to help. If we say that we won’t hold it against you if you’ve never made a visit to campus, we mean it! But, if you can’t take a trip to tour in person, perhaps you can participate in virtual information sessions, social media live-chats, and alumni interview sessions via Zoom. These kinds of interactions help demonstrate to colleges your strong interest in attending our university.

4. Acknowledge the unknown and the unknowable

Working through a pandemic is new for us, too, and we’re figuring things out as we go, just like your high school. Our campuses have spent inordinate hours on plans to provide exceptional instruction—online and in-person—while taking stringent health and safety precautions. We’re hosting virtual open house programs, and we’ve set our admissions deadlines and requirements for next year. But all of those best-laid plans may have to shift and adapt based on a host of unknown factors on our campuses, in our local regions, and even globally. Any admissions consultant or college representative that tells you they’ve got it all figured out isn’t being honest. But we’re going to get through this. Even before the pandemic, there were unknowable factors at play in the admissions decisions that shaped each year’s entering classes. Applicants and guidance counselors couldn’t possibly know from one year to the next whether a specific university needed three cellists or more engineers than they admitted the year prior. And we (admissions deans) can never precisely predict how many of the applicants we admit will ultimately be accepted by students who have wide-ranging options [around May 1, I’ll be reminding myself of my own advice!].

Similarly, we know you’re concerned about paying for college, and we’ll guide you to the best possible resources. Here’s my top two: apply for financial aid at (you can start now if you’re a high school senior) and don’t eliminate any college that seems like a great fit for you just because of the published sticker price. The only way to know your exact cost is to apply for admission, academic merit scholarships, and federal and state grants.

5. Take care of yourself and others

The stresses faced by students and families are real. We want students to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities, in ways big and small. Yes, do your homework! But please also wear masks, maintain social distancing, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. Why? Because we hope you’ll do the same when you join our campus communities of scholars and maximize your opportunities to build the knowledge, skills, and experiences to prepare to make our world ever better.”

Read more

students walking on campusThe Class of 2024 settles in
With no campus tours or in-person meetings, putting the Class of 2024 together was a community effort.
"rainbow Adjusted enrollment activities help students, families in midst of COVID-19
While students in the Class of 2024 were unable to visit campus this spring, there were several online events to introduce them to the University’s academic programs.
"headshotRobert Alexander named dean of admissions
With more than 20 years of enrollment management experience in higher education, he has gained national attention for his focus on college access, affordability, and transparency.


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Category: Campus Life