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3 Ways to Make Your College Application Stand Out in a Covid-19 World

In the past few months America’s educational landscape has undergone an extraordinary change that is sure to have far-reaching implications on the college application process for years to come. In case you may have missed it, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. took the unprecedented step in March of postponing all upcoming SAT and ACT exams, respectively, until further notice - a move that has necessitated U.S. colleges to appropriately loosen their standardized testing requirements for 2021 applicants. While it is still unclear to what extent Covid-19 will impact SAT and ACT test dates in the months and years to come, what is clear is that the uncertain climate has prompted many colleges to reconsider the utility of such standardized exams in the evaluation of its applicants.

Since early April countless elite universities, including several Ivy League schools, have amended their testing requirements and shifted to “test-optional” policies for the foreseeable future. The University of California public university system even went so far as to eliminate SAT and ACT test scores from its application process beginning in 2024 - a landmark announcement that many experts believe may signal the beginning of the end of the SAT and ACT as we know it. In just a matter of weeks, Covid-19 has managed to disrupt a century-old college admissions tradition predicated on college entrance exams.

In the absence of standardized test scores, we should expect admissions officers to alter their admissions criteria by placing added significance on previously unheralded data points when assessing a student’s candidacy. Thus, in lieu of a strong SAT and/or ACT score it’s more important than ever that students modify their approach to the college application process in order to distinguish themselves from their peers. I am advising all of the high school students I work with to make the following three adjustments.

Load Up on Honors and AP Courses

Because there will no longer be a one-size-fits-all standardized testing metric enabling colleges to easily juxtapose the academic capabilities of its applicants, high school grade point averages will factor more heavily into the admissions’ calculus than ever before. However, prominently relying on a student's GPA to measure intellectual prowess is not without its challenges. It’s often quite difficult for admissions officers to qualitatively compare grade point averages as academic standards and grading philosophies can vary quite immensely between schools. It’s entirely possible, for example, that a hard-earned “B” at one school can be deemed a more impressive scholastic feat than an “A” at another school. Because admissions officers are aware of the inherent differences that exist between schools and do not wish to penalize students based on the institutions they attend, I always give students the same piece of advice when making course selections: when in doubt, choose the most challenging course possible!

At first glance, this suggestion may seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t taking more advanced classes potentially result in lower grades, thereby negatively impacting a student's GPA? Believe it or not, I would argue that it’s more important than ever that students avoid padding their GPA with “A’s” in easier classes and, instead, load up on more AP and/or Honors courses - even if those choices ultimately result in lower grades. Not only do competitive colleges prefer to accept students who demonstrate a propensity to challenge themselves scholastically, but AP and Honors classes at their very core are designed to simulate the pacing and difficulty of college-level courses. As such, admissions officers generally have an easier time contextualizing grades in these courses relative to others. For example, admissions officers may have a hard time assessing the true significance of an “A” in a non-accelerated course, yet those same admissions officers can be more assured that a “B” in a similar Honors or AP class represents an above average performance in a course of known difficulty. Thus, the more Honors and AP classes a student can include in his/her transcript, the easier it is for admissions officers to contextualize and quantify that student’s academic performance.

Of course, it’s important that students exercise good judgement when selecting their high school courses. I strongly caution students against selecting an overly difficult course load that may dramatically undermine their quality of life. Yet by that same token, I tend to encourage students to sacrifice an easy “A” in a non-accelerated course for the right to work harder each night to achieve a “B” in an AP course. A good rule of thumb is to enroll in as many AP and/or Honors classes as possible without incurring a “C” in any class for that semester.

Make Extracurricular Activities a Priority

I’ve written in previous posts how the Extracurricular Activities section can help a student project an appealing marketing campaign to prospective colleges. Changes to standardized testing policies are bound to place even more significance on the extracurricular interests of students. In order to enhance a student’s Extracurricular Activities section, I generally recommend the following pieces of advice. First, it’s important that high school students demonstrate a willingness to take on increased responsibilities in the organizations they’re involved in by nominating themselves for positions of leadership. And if its possible to start a brand new club or organization in high school, even better. In my experience, colleges are generally intrigued by those students who take initiative and apply extra effort to the activities they are interested in.

Moreover, I have often found that colleges tend to reward students who have either excelled at a particular calling or who have fully immersed themselves in experiences that are somewhat unique. Rather than participate in five different activities for 1-2 hours a week, for example, I always recommend that students focus more exclusively on just 1-2 activities for 8-12 hours per week. When a student is willing to sacrifice their leisure time to become expert in a particular field, regardless of whether the interest is academic in nature, it demonstrates to admissions officers that a student is capable of fully dedicating themselves to fields they are passionate about. In lieu of SAT and ACT metrics, any skill set or experience that can help differentiate a student from his or her peers should be pursued and emphasized in the Activities List.

Utilize Additional Recommendation Options

While most students are aware of the fact that they need to garner recommendations from high school teachers and administrators for the college application process, many are surprised to learn that colleges also allow students to include 1-3 additional recommendations from individuals who can provide further insights into that student’s candidacy. I highly encourage all students to effectively leverage this option when applying to colleges. It’s important to remember that high school officials are usually instructed to restrict their commentary in these evaluations to a student’s academic performance and/or school-related contributions. Yet as we all know students possess many additional attributes that these scholastic evaluations often fail to capture. For this reason, it’s important that students utilize the option of submitting additional recommendations to help differentiate themselves from their peers.

Additional recommenders have the freedom to speak about a student’s character, level of experience and/or expertise in a field, as well as his/her perceived fit at a given university. Provided the recommender has an extensive history with the applicant, admissions officers will generally appreciate the additional insights. But who, exactly, should students solicit for these recommendations? I generally recommend seeking recommendations from relative experts in a student’s field of interest who can both substantiate and expound upon that student’s involvement in the activity. Moreover, it can be helpful when a recommender has a personal connection to a student’s desired school and can vouch that the applicant represents a good fit for the university. It’s important to check each school’s policy in this regard as the number of additional recommendations a school permits can vary quite considerably.

As an increasing number of colleges transition away from the SAT and ACT, it is important that students implement the aforementioned techniques to optimize their application materials. If you are interested in learning more about the ways in which students can enhance their college prospects, please feel free to contact me.

Michael Hirsch

Founder, Lead Tutor at Precision Academic Tutoring

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