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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Best College-Application Advice to Give Students During the Pandemic

By Brennan Barnard & Richard Weissbourd — July 10, 2020 2 min read
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Today’s guest bloggers are Brennan Barnard, the director of counseling at the Derryfield School and a college-admissions program adviser to Making Caring Common, and Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer and the faculty director of Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

What’s the best advice I can give my students on how to handle the college-admissions process this year, given the COVID-19 crisis?

College admission can be a source of great anxiety for students, even in the best of times. The global pandemic has amplified concerns that applicants have about doing—or being—"enough” to be competitive for admission. These are challenging times, and admission offices understand this.

That’s why more than 350 colleges and universities signed a statement, “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19.” One main takeaway: Communicate to students that they should be, as the deans put it, “gentle with themselves.”

The statement conveys what schools value in applicants during this difficult time, with specific direction about self-care, academic work, service to others, family contributions, and extracurricular and summer activities.

Some students have been caring for a younger sibling or elderly relative during the pandemic, and others have been working 20 or more hours a week—often in front-line jobs—to help support their family. Health concerns, financial stresses, lack of access to the internet, and the impact of serious disruption in their lives have created circumstances unlike many applicants have experienced before.

The deans also indicate that they value service to others—for those who are in a position to provide service—not only actions that respond to the problems created by the pandemic but also other forms of contribution, including working to fight racial injustice or to register voters.

They encourage students not to worry if they can’t take standardized tests or access extracurricular or summer opportunities. Students won’t be disadvantaged in admissions if they lack these opportunities.

It is important, however, for students to know that college-admission offices will not be aware of the pressures or obstacles they face unless students communicate their unique circumstances. The Common App and Coalition for College Application have added optional questions to their forms to allow applicants to report details about the impact of COVID-19. The answers to these questions will be kept confidential and will not be held against students but rather will provide admission deans important context in assessing grades and other aspects of applications.

The best advice that you can give students is to keep college admission in perspective and to understand that all applicants will face a changed admission process this year due to the pandemic. They should control what they can control, do the best they can in school without experiencing significant stress, and treat themselves and others with care.

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