The pandemic has certainly thrown a curveball in the college admissions process. With changing requirements that may shift the entire admissions landscape for years to come, it’s hard to understand how students should prepare for college. We sat down with Uchechi Kalu, a published author and college admissions specialist to learn more.
Q: How has the pandemic changed college admissions?
As this admissions season closes, it’s clear that people are thinking about college decisions differently. More students than ever are considering gap years, and that changes applicant profiles in future years. Additionally, “elite colleges” are seeing more applicants even as the rest of the US colleges are receiving fewer applications. This means that highly ranked colleges are now even harder to get into than before, and the remaining colleges will compete to come up with innovative ways to attract talented students. This could mean new types of early decision programs, more resources being offered to talented students who matriculate, and more scholarships to attract students to apply - all of these options gives students a lot more choice when searching for a college that will help them towards their aspirations. Rankings therefore, will mean less and be less “stable” for at least a while to come.
Additionally, with the pandemic’s restrictions, many standardized test requirements have been changed or completely eliminated from the decision process. With many top schools dropping consideration for SAT I, SAT II, and the removal of the optional SAT essay, extracurriculars and a strong GPA are expected to be more important than ever as indicators of a student’s academic performance and intellectual pursuits.
Q: What tips do you have for families navigating the impact of the pandemic on their student’s academic success?
This has been truly a hard time for most students, no matter how well they were doing before the pandemic. Colleges know this. So the most competitive applicants are finding ways to thrive despite the pandemic’s restrictions through meaningful projects, alternative ways to learn, and service to their communities in this great time of need.
As challenging as it feels for parents with students who have failing grades: it's really important to help students feel they are still growing and learning, despite what their grades may say. Fighting them daily on grades during remote learning or calling them lazy will only do more to harm their confidence and interest in school going forward. A way to maintain their motivation and skill building during this period could be to focus less on remote school and getting good grades and instead focus on learning “outside of the classroom”. What topics are they interested in? Are there passion projects they never had time for before? Encouraging them to learn about those topics in self-guided ways, and building “extra-curricular” projects can be great forms of hands-on learning that will keep their motivation to learn strong, even with the drone of 7-8 hour zoom school days. Once schools return to in-person instruction, many students’ grades will naturally pick up.
Is your teen struggling in school? Read our blog article on how to help.
Q: How early do students need to start preparing for college admissions?
There’s no clear answer here, but some families start as early as 6th grade with unique summer programs. In my opinion, that’s not always helpful. If your child doesn’t feel ready or doesn’t see the point, these can turn into trust-breaking experiences between the parent and teen. In general, I urge families to think of the preparation process as skill building and passion discovery for their teen. If your teen pursues deep learning in a field they are interested in, they are more likely to reach impressive accomplishments naturally. So if you want to start preparing, start early by helping your teen find a unique interest by exploring different fields and leading them to actually DO things and see if they like it. For example, they like animals and want to be a vet? Let them volunteer at the local pet shelter and guide them to learn about nutrition for baby animals through online research or showing them how to reach out to experts. The pandemic has also led to interesting innovations in education resources and opportunities, so lead your teen to notice and learn from how the world is changing around them to adapt to these new circumstances. These types of exercises are usually far more telling of whether a teen’s interest could develop into something more compared to signing up for another online biology course, for example.
Q: What advice do you have for parents when it comes to helping teens prepare for college applications?
They don’t have to do everything, but they do need to know who they are and what they care about to be successful for the college application process and beyond.
Your opinion matters A LOT. Even if you don’t think it does, your opinion (explicit or otherwise) is one of the most important factors for how your teen thinks about college. So being mindful of what you share is so important. Are college rankings more important than how well the school fits your teen? Is finance the best job in your opinion and now your teen is sure they want to be a business major even though they clearly love film? If your teen feels that college is the only route that’s respectable to you, they’ll take on immense pressure (which may not always produce productive action) to pursue college education, even if it’s not right for them. As the pandemic continues to shift requirements, this can feel very overwhelming anxiety inducing for the student who feels college is the only path. To them, everything is at stake, including your love and respect. So, take note, and help your teen develop independent thinking skills by thinking through the reasons behind their choices for college and beyond, together.
The other piece of advice I’d give is to stop obsessing about college and forcing your teen to do things that “will look good” for college. That takes the motivation out of learning, and everything becomes “transactional” and about getting into college. That’s the surest way for a student to show up to college burnt out and lost about what they actually want. They don’t have to do everything, but they do need to know who they are and what they care about to be successful for the college application process and beyond. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that knowing what matters to us can guide us to grow and adapt, even in the toughest moments. So right now, more than ever, it’s important to raise teens who know who they are and how they want to impact the world. The colleges want to know, too, how this generation of teens will want to change the world given what they’ve experienced in the last year.
So I guess, in short: talk to your teen about topics other than college because it expands their perspectives - which actually better prepares them for the college application process - and helps them understand that you’ll love them no matter what route they pursue after high school.