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Applying to College in 2020: Tips From an Ivy League Dean of Admissions

For many high school seniors and their families, it’s go time. Time may feel like it has stopped, but at this time next year, they’ll be beginning their freshman year of college. Getting from high school to college has never felt more daunting, as so much of the college admissions process has had to adapt to the realities of life in a pandemic.

That’s why it was so comforting to speak with Eric J. Furda, former University of Pennsylvania Dean of Admissions and co-author of The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education.

How Can We Get a Feel for the Campus if We Can’t Visit?

Every school offers a range of virtual tours and opportunities to meet with people in the campus community. Go online and see what schools are offering. We are actually offering more now than we did before, and since admissions officers aren’t traveling, they are able to be more responsive to questions.

What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Colleges should not be driving health and safety considerations. If we said they are required, families would feel compelled to the take test.

If you were able to take the test, then look at the previous year’s testing profile of the colleges you’re applying to. If your score puts you in the top quartile, the submit it. If it doesn’t, then don’t.

If a student’s grades were moving in an upward trajectory and then Covid hit, a test score may help to demonstrate what they’re capable of.

Current high school seniors have had ninth grade, tenth grade, and most of junior year to exhibit what kind of student they are. Those courses and grades matter. With test optional, admissions offices will be leaning heavily on transcripts.

Should Students Write about COVID in their Application Essay?

The college application is a mosaic, and the essay is one way for the admissions officers to learn about a student. There is not a definitive answer to whether or not you should write about COVID.

The most important question is: What is it that you want to convey about yourself? And how can you amplify it. If, for example, your eyes have been opened from COVID on racial injustice, you may want to discuss that.

Also, the Common Application, which many schools use, has added a COVID-specific space for students to comment on how COVID has impacted their learning and activities

How Should Students Approach Activity Lists?

Here is one area where COVID may have helped to put a finer focus on what matters. A colleague of mine once said that if they have 14 lines for activities, students will try and fill out all 14 lines.

In these times, you can’t do that. And that leads students to ask some really important questions: Why am I doing it? What do I value? Participating in an activity should be about more than having something to put on a college application.

When you do fill out the section, we offer a framework in the book. Choose one activity that is so important to you and that you see yourself as a leader. For example, maybe you’re the editor-in-chief of the paper or the person everyone counts on to make the shot. Next, include an activity where you’re not the leader but you enjoy it. Third, choose an activity that reveals the role family, faith, or community plays in your life. How have you carved out time to make those things part of your life?

Everyone is waiting for life to go back to normal, but this is really an opportunity to be your genuine self. Think about what matters most to you and how you want to implement that and apply that.

What Do You Wish Parents Would Teach Their Kids Before Sending them Off to College?

Don’t provide 24/7 service to your child. Don’t be there all the time. They need to have opportunities to make decisions on their own. The world is not perfect—something that we are all aware of now. Make sure your teens know that you don’t expect them to be perfect either. They’re going to make mistakes and they need to know that it is okay and that they can learn from them. Be supportive but give them space to be independent.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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