It's no secret that this college admissions cycle is vastly different from any other in recent history. Although there aren't answers to every question about how things will work this year, you will find some basic guidelines you can follow as you navigate your application process.
Although you probably won't be visiting campuses or attending in-person college fairs this fall, you can still find ways to demonstrate interest in the schools on your list, Gallagher says. "Colleges have been great about offering online events like virtual tours, information sessions, Q&As with current students or faculty members, and even Zoom-based interviews at some schools that don't typically offer interviews," she said.
Every time you participate in one of these events, it shows the school that you are interested, Gallagher notes. "Another way to demonstrate interest is to pinpoint who your regional counselor is at each admissions office — that's the person who is ultimately going to read your application, so if you have questions, reach out to them as another way of demonstrating interest," she adds.
Many students are interested in writing essays about the protests they've attended or the virus-related consequences they've overcome, but they aren't sure whether those are acceptable topics. However, Gallagher, notes, no specific topic is forbidden, but you should make sure your essay is specific to your experience.
"I always give the advice to focus on how a particular situation affected you, because it's easy to write about a topic and then go off track and make it about someone else," she says. "However, the essay should be telling your story with your viewpoints. It can be difficult to talk about yourself because it may feel like bragging, but it's important to share a clear picture of who you are."
In addition, she notes, details are very important. Rather than saying "I've learned a lot this year," you should share information about your experience that will show the reader what you've learned and how that learning process happened.
The counselor's recommendation letter is an essential part of most college applications, but many students don't feel like they know their counselors well enough to get the right information on those documents. In particular, some students are worried that their counselors will send transcripts to colleges without any background information that could shed light on certain grades and course selections.
That's why, in addition to providing your counselor with a brag sheet and/or resume, you should go over the transcript with the counselor as you discuss every year of high school. "Tell them what was going on in your life, both in and out of the classroom, during each year," Gallagher suggests. "The recommendation letters should be as personal as possible, and the best way to make sure that happens is to share as much information as you can so the letter ends up reflecting who you are."
For example, discuss trends in your grades, talk about what prompted you to take particular challenging courses, explain what may be behind grades you aren't proud of, and share what your life was like outside of the classroom, such as any jobs you worked, family challenges you faced or other issues that were important to you.
"The counselor will take particular pieces of information from what you share," Gallagher says. "While they can't write about everything that happened to you or every class you took, they can provide a very good overview of your time at school and any situations outside of school that may have impacted your grades and your personal life. The counselors and teachers have a lot of these to write, so it's in your best interest to share as much as you feel comfortable doing so the rec letters are as comprehensive as possible and highlight you as a person and as a student."
Such information could be more important this year since schools will be reviewing applications differently than in the past, so ensure that you dedicate a lot of time to these explanations, Gallagher adds.
In many cases, students have been unable to take the ACT or SAT due to the pandemic, and will therefore be applying to test-optional colleges without scores. This has prompted many students to wonder how they can stand out in a test-optional environment.
"I'm encouraging students to go over their fall schedules and make sure their course loads are academically strong," Gallagher says. "Admission officers will be looking at the student's first three years of grades and their overall schedule of classes, and the strength of those courses will be highlighted this year," she said.
Colleges want to see dedication and strength in core academic classes, so make appropriate changes to schedules if necessary to ensure that a wide breadth of courses are included.
Get creative with extracurriculars, and share anything you've done during the pandemic that might count in this regard, Gallagher says. "Even if you've been babysitting a sibling, that shows how you've spent your time in quarantine and it's worth noting," she adds.
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