By Marina Pitofsky
College application season is around the corner for many high schoolers, and students are preparing to submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, essays and more.
The class of 2022’s applications will look different from those of other graduating classes. These students, along with high schoolers who submitted their college applications last year, have seen disruptions to their academics since March 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jenny Rickard, the president and CEO of the Common Application, a shared application for approximately 900 colleges and universities, told USA TODAY that new standardized testing policies and the transition to virtual learning changed how students approach the college application process.
“The process, by and large, has not been disrupted itself,” Rickard said. “It’s the way of getting there that has been disrupted.”
“Every admission officer in the United States over the next couple of years will recognize that students in high school, in the last year, all faced some unusual circumstances,” Robert Springall, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Penn State, told USA TODAY.
If you’re preparing to apply to college, here’s what admissions officers want you to know:
You only need to explain extraordinary COVID-19 circumstances
Students have seen a range of impacts during the coronavirus pandemic. Some may have missed one season of a sport, others lost loved ones or were diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves.
Gary Clark, director of undergraduate admission at the University of California, Los Angeles, told USA TODAY that admissions officers “assume that all students may have been impacted by COVID in some way, shape or form.”
He encouraged students who were not significantly impacted by the pandemic to focus on their achievements in applications.
“The idea of every student having to write that ‘I wasn’t engaged in activities. I wasn’t able to do this specific thing I typically do outside of class.’ That’s not necessary. We recognize and understand that that is going to be the case,” he said.
“If a student has to really think too hard or really struggle to explain how, then they probably don’t need to write about it,” he said.
DJ Menifee, vice president for enrollment at Susquehanna University and board director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told USA TODAY that students who faced major impacts during the coronavirus pandemic should “feel comfortable being their authentic selves in the process.”
“If they happen to have lost loved ones, if it impacted something they truly loved and they didn’t get to do it for a while, they should feel OK to step into that authentic place,” Menifee said. “Even if they say ‘Well should I share that? Because that could be someone else’s story as well?’ That’s OK. It’s still your story.”
Navigating test-optional applications
One of the major changes some colleges and universities made during the pandemic is not requiring students to submit standardized test scores.
A judge ruled in September that University of California schools, one of the country’s most prestigious university systems, can no longer use SAT and ACT test results in deciding undergraduate admissions.
Rickard said more than 85% of Common App colleges and universities were test-optional last year.
Admissions officials told USA TODAY they want students to trust that their application won’t be tossed to the side if they choose not to submit test scores.
“I recognize for a lot of students, it still feels so new that they’re not sure what to do, whether or not choosing test-optional might change how their application is viewed or might be penalized if they choose to apply without a test,” Springall said.
Menifee advised students to “be confident that if you decide to apply without scores that you’re going to be treated equitably in the process and looked at as an individual.”
Think outside the box for extracurriculars
Springall told USA TODAY that admissions officers know students have had sports, extracurriculars and other activities delayed or canceled.
He encouraged applicants to focus on any responsibilities they took on during the pandemic, citing students who may have helped younger siblings with virtual school while their parents worked.
“Students, especially this last year, carry some extra responsibilities, and maybe they don’t think to document them because they’re not getting a paycheck, or it’s not something that their school is sponsoring,” Springall said.
“If it’s a commitment and time and a responsibility, then we want to hear about it,” he said.