The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably impacted college applicants and current students, shuttering campuses and prompting a shift to online classes. Members of the College Confidential community have submitted a variety of questions about how this is affecting both current college students and those who applied to college this year.
To answer those questions, College Confidential hosted a webinar on June 11 entitled "Student Voices: How COVID- Is Impacting Students." During the event, moderated by Abigail Ford, director of digital learning with Inside Track, the following panelists offered their perspectives on this situation:
- Ethan is a high school senior from Colorado who was accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Brown, Vanderbilt and Georgetown, among others, and will be attending Harvard this fall.
- Zai is a high school senior from Maryland who was recently accepted off the waitlist at Northwestern University, which she plans to attend this fall.
- Rohan recently finished his freshman year at Dartmouth College after having attended high school in India.
Check out the following topics that the panelists discussed, along with their views of how things may unfold.
Plans Shifted for Class of 2020 Applicants
When asked how coronavirus impacted their application experiences, both Zai and Ethan noted that the pandemic did prompt some changes for them. "I had applied to some schools on the west coast, and after the coronavirus arrived…I ended up not considering any of those schools," Zai said. She also considered attending the University of Maryland, despite having been admitted to NYU and some other schools that she preferred, because U. Maryland was less expensive and closer to her house. However, after getting accepted off the waitlist at Northwestern, she decided it was the best choice for her.
Ethan added that he hadn't visited any colleges prior to the outbreak, and campus closures afterward meant he wouldn't have the opportunity to see any of the schools on his list in person. "I had been banking on the admitted student weekends to explore campus life and the school culture," he said. Therefore, narrowing down his list of colleges was challenging, since he had to rely on other resources like virtual tours and talking to current students. "I just had to be a bit more resourceful in the process," he said.
Online Classes Not Appealing
The pandemic impacted not only college applicants, but also current college students. As a freshman at Dartmouth, Rohan had just finished his second quarter when he left for spring break — at which point campus closed due to the pandemic. "I started and finished an entirely new set of classes online, and I can honestly say in comparison to the classes I'd had before, it was definitely worse," Rohan noted.
He also pointed to other disappointments that came along with the campus closure. "I chose to apply early decision to Dartmouth because of its undergraduate focus, close relationships to professors, small class sizes and the community — and once you move to online school, all those things cease to be realities," he said. In addition, tuition was not discounted, and his energy levels for the classes suffered.
He also had to abandon previous plans to either do an internship or academic program this summer in other cities. "I'd taken the effort to research and plan those opportunities, so to put in that effort and have them canceled definitely threw a wrench in my summer plans," Rohan noted.
Advice for This Year's Applicants
Although many students say "the more the better" when it comes to extracurriculars, the panelists cautioned rising seniors against taking on too many different types of activities once they're able to participate in extracurriculars again.
"When you're formulating what extracurriculars to choose, I would argue against doing a little bit of everything," Rohan said. "That's what a lot of people think you should do: write for the school newspaper, do a sport, do the reading club, do a science project. And I honestly think that's the wrong way to go. I think colleges want to create a well-rounded class, not a class of well-rounded individuals. What that means is they want a class of students with different intellectual pursuits, things they're passionate about."
Instead, he advises, when picking extracurriculars, choose the ones that reflect what you want to do, and take a deep dive into them. "Specialization is key in one or two areas," he adds.
Ethan agrees that you should explore the areas that you're passionate about so when you're filling out your applications, the admission officers will get a clear idea of who you are. "The biggest piece of advice I have comes to the second stage where you're trying to figure out how to present yourself on your applications. It's kind of crazy to think about, but you pour countless hours into standardized testing, extracurriculars and all of these non-tangibles — and sometimes it's only a couple minutes that admission committees look at your application."
His advice is to package yourself in the most concise and compelling manner possible, and to devote some time to think about sewing a common thread through everything you've done to illustrate who you are and why you want to be on a particular campus. "The best way I found to do that was to think about what theme I wanted to convey through my essays," Ethan says. "You can boil that down to a couple words or a sentence that illustrates what you want to study, how that ties to a personal attribute, and what change you hope to bring about in the future on a personal scale or a global scale, or whatever is most compelling to you."
In addition, when writing your college essays, don't forget to note the unique factors of a school and mention them in the application, Rohan said. For instance, telling Stanford you want to go there because of its strong computer science program might not be compelling, because Stanford already knows it has a strong computer science department. "If you write a supplemental essay for a school and you can simply replace the name of the school and it would work for another school, that is a bad essay," he said. "Make sure you tailor your essay to each school."
Tips on International Applications and Waitlists
Zai was initially planning to attend a different school when she received an acceptance off the waitlist at Northwestern, so she shared the steps she took during the period when she was still wait-listed.
In addition to the two existing recommendation letters she'd already sent to Northwestern, she submitted another after finding out she'd been wait-listed. She also shared with the university that she had been accepted to Google's competitive computer science summer program, and explained what other contributions she'd been making since submitting her initial application. "I talked about being a student council president during the pandemic, the kind of difficulties I was overcoming, how I was still trying to make sure people were having a good time for the rest of the year, and how complicated that was. And I think that interested them because it showed that even through the pandemic, I was working to show my interest in the community. Hopefully it helped them decide they should accept me off the waitlist."
When it came to a discussion about applying from abroad, Rohan shared his experience as an applicant from a high school in India. He didn't get the chance to tour any schools due to the expense of being overseas, so he advises international applicants to perform thorough research. "Inherent to that is, first of all, throw rank out the window," Rohan said. "If you're applying to selective schools, they all have a pretty similar quality of education. Honestly the difference between the first ranked school and the 25th ranked school is pretty arbitrary, in my opinion," he said. "So look for the things you think are important that you want in your college experience and look for the schools where those are available."
Once you know what you want, you'll see that only certain schools have those attributes, and look for those things regardless of rank, he advised. "Please avoid U.S. News or Forbes or any of the rankings, because those are not relevant to what you want out of the college experience, because what you want is very highly subjective, no matter who you are."
Start the Scholarship Search Early
Ethan noted that when it came to finances, he worked closely with financial aid departments to discuss his financial package. "One thing that was helpful to me was negotiating offers with colleges," he said. His need-based aid varied drastically between different schools, and some expected him to pay nearly three time more than others due to different financial aid formulas. "By working with financial aid departments, telling them my situation, letting them now I had other offers, they were able to bring down the net cost per year. I would recommend that for those who are applying for need-based aid and have multiple offers."
He reminded students that although it may be compelling to relax after submitting college applications, that's exactly when you should start looking at scholarship opportunities, and you can often reuse some of your existing essays for those.
Zai encourages students not to hesitate when hunting for scholarships. "If you want some of the bigger scholarships, start early," she advised. She felt she started too late to qualify for some significant scholarships, for which applications open in August or September.
To review the entire hour-long webinar, you can watch the replay here.