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I often hear the question, “What should my student do so they can get into X college?” Even at the most competitive schools, there is no single recipe for admissions. Back in yester-year when we parents applied to college, being a well-rounded student with wide ranging extracurricular activities and excellent grades and test scores was enough to get an offer of admission. However nowadays, the level of competition at many colleges and universities has totally changed the equation. And further, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the landscape.

 “Pointy” Students

Now many colleges and universities are not looking for “well-rounded” students; rather, they are looking to create a “well-rounded student body.” In other words, colleges and universities are often looking for a wide range of “pointy” students who can make an immediate impact on the college campus. What are “pointy students”? They are students who can be described as the best at something that appears in their academic, extracurricular, and service activities. They can be the trumpet-playing student who plays in their school marching band as well as several all-state orchestras, volunteers to play taps on Memorial Day, teaches music to under-privileged inner-city youths, and plays uplifting tunes outside nursing homes while visitors are prohibited due to COVID-19. Or they can be the football player who student assists for PE classes for the handicapped, coaches the powder-puff league at their high school, volunteers as a “big brother” for children in the foster care system, and volunteers at the food bank to help with lifting the heavy boxes during the current economic crisis. Or the computer-whiz who creates webpages for their high school, competes in coding competitions, and volunteers to help families set up routers and WIFI for disadvantaged families suddenly forced to work and study at home during the COVID-19 crisis.

 Our role as parents in this age of “pointy” students is not to try to pile on a wide range of extracurricular activities for our kids. Rather we should encourage our teens to figure out what their passions and skills are and empower them to follow these passions and improve the world around them. 

Universities in the Age of COVID-19

Universities need to balance the student population on many metrics: male vs. female, in-state vs. out-of-state, musically-talented vs. athletically-talented, engineering vs. humanities, full-paying vs. those in need of financial aid, etc. Admissions offices are also making concerted efforts to balance private/public school students, racially diverse populations, first generation, and other historically under-represented populations. Admissions officers’ job is quite complicated in balancing all these factors as well as the bottom-line financial situation of the university, particularly considering their own shifting economic situations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Universities are also struggling with complicated logistics to protect student and faculty populations while they strive to continue their academic pursuits. The landscape of small colleges in particular will likely change significantly in the coming years.

The Common App and COVID-19

The Common App has recently made several changes in light of COVID-19. The Common App is keenly aware that students are facing a wide range of challenges not experienced by previous classes of students. They offer support at: https://www.commonapp.org/coronavirus

 And because the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, the Common App has added a specific question to the “Additional Information” section for the 2020-2021 Common App. Just as COVID-19 should not define all students’ stories, students need not make the pandemic the focus of their main Common App essay. See: https://www.commonapp.org/blog/COVID-19-question-common-app

 Here is the text as it will appear on the Common App Additional Information section:

  • Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. 
  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words.

Counselors will also have an opportunity to outline COVID-19’s impact on the school in the School Profile section (i.e., grading scale changes, testing disruptions, academic year shifts, etc.) 

As parents, we should help our students gain perspective about these past several months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our kids have missed concerts, sports games, competitions, and most other extracurricular activities, or have slogged through a drastically different virtual attempt at these. These changes have impacted all people – both across our country as well as the world. Our job is to remind our kids that while they cannot change what has been restricted and interrupted, they can ensure that their attitudes and responses are at least somewhat optimistic. Our kids are not alone – they share this chapter in history with all their cohort. What colleges and universities are looking for are students who can adapt and thrive and contribute to their university. And, for that matter, that is what the world needs too.