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Community Life
Leading for the Common Good

“We Get It!”: College Admission Deans Speak Out—Part 2

Brennan Barnard
In “An Essay on Man,” poet Alexander Pope wrote:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 
Man never Is, but always To be blest. 
The soul, uneasy, and confin'd from home, 
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.” 

All of us know a bit about being confined from home these days, and Pope’s words are a timely reminder that in difficult moments we must rely on our inherent ability to be optimistic. First and foremost, we can take advantage of the current crisis to rest and to reflect on what is to come. We need to resist the urge to always be in motion, proving ourselves to be high-achieving, productive machines. We can instead “expatiate” (write or talk in detail) about our humanity and the challenges that we face.

Many college applicants are nervous about how this moment in time will look to the schools to which they will apply. What will it mean that they have not been able to engage in the same ways that previous applicants did? How can they prove their involvement, curiosity, and excellence? When it comes to building your college “portfolio” this spring, make your hope eternal. The admission officers who will be reading your application next fall, and winter, know that high schools are responding to the challenges of this global pandemic in a myriad of ways. They also realize that your ability to engage in the usual ways (sports, clubs, internships, jobs, etc.) has been stymied. 

In part one of this three-part series, admission leaders shared their advice on how spring term grades and disrupted test administrations would be considered. Here is what they want you to know about involvement outside the traditional (or virtual) classroom:

Extracurricular Activities
Often, students and parents mistakenly believe that they need to build a long list of activities and involvement in the name of admission to college. “More, more, more” is their mantra as they try to do—and be—everything to stand out in the application process. In some communities, daily schedules for high school students become unsustainable, as families rush from one commitment to another—usually leading to sleep-deprived, burnt-out young people (and parents). In other communities, students are working long hours at a job or caring for a younger sibling, and therefore worry that their college application will lack what they perceive as “traditional” extracurricular involvement. This resume building approach to admission is flawed and the current crisis has forced us all to slow down and look critically at what we do. Juan Espinoza, associate vice provost and director of admissions at Virginia Tech, says, “We recognize that organized extracurricular activities will be impossible, but we are impressed, by how students are finding ways to give back to their communities.”

Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions at Swarthmore College tells students, “many of you may have a little more time on your hands these days. Rest. Read. Reassess. Ask yourself, ‘Why do I pursue this activity or that program?’” He adds, “many students believe we count activities and that more is better. What we seek is commitment to a few activities, though there is no formula for a successful application.” He advises, “pursue what you want, and find the college that matches, and you will be much more satisfied in the end. You may also have less choice as you care for siblings and families, and there may not be the ability to work. We value all commitments.” Bock encourages students to “think about what has motivated you to do what you do? Would you do it all the same? Why are you doing it? When things return to the new normal (whenever that happens) how do you envision engaging with and impacting your family, your faith community, your school, or your larger community?” He says, “regardless, take care of yourself first and take it slow. There is time for reflection.” 

Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan University sends a similar message to applicants: “We deeply regret that students are not currently able to partake in the activities that bring them joy, strengthen friendships, and provide meaningful growth experiences. Staying home may afford some students time and opportunity to explore new interests. We do not have any expectation that prospective students will learn how to code, pick up second or third languages, or even demonstrate depth and commitment to their existing activities. To be frank, we believe it is enough for students to prioritize their own wellness, as well as that of their families, right now. When the time is right, we will be interested to learn how and why students spent their time as they did.”

But what about admission to larger universities, students might wonder? Jim Rawlins, assistant vice president and director of admissions at the University of Oregon echos Bock and Gonzalez, saying, “sure, the pandemic is a time where you won’t be able to do certain activities, but you can still do others.” He adds, “while some might tell you that it’s a time where colleges will be okay with you not doing as *many* activities as you had planned, you might be surprised to learn that was already normal! Many colleges understand that students who do a lot of activities have less and less time to devote to any one of them.” Rawlins says, “I, for one, have always been a big fan of students who focused more on a smaller range of things to which they devote their time, energies, and attention.” He explains that students can show schools how the activities they have been involved in previously connect to the contributions they will make to a college community. He suggests, “take a moment to see what you’ll be able to do on our campus as a way to build off who you are becoming. Tell us a story about how a specific organization, program, or connection we offer will let you keep growing—and giving—in those ways. We’ll listen, and will be impressed you’ve done your homework.” 

Summer Opportunities
Some students had grand plans for the summer. Maybe they had been looking forward to being a camp counselor or participating in an internship. Perhaps they were eager to volunteer or work a steady job. Research, travel, spending time with a relative—many summer experiences have been, or likely will be, closed down by the pandemic. Applicants fear that dashed plans will ruin their college dreams. Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University suggests looking at it in a different way. He says, “summer presents an opportunity to be productive even if in different ways. For example, a student might not be able to secure a coveted internship, but they could still plant a garden in their yard or design a smartphone app or read books by authors from marginalized communities.” 

Kelly Walter, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Boston University points out that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what the summer will hold for all of us. She says, “for students, this means that many pre-college programs have been canceled and plans for internships, summer travel, or volunteer experiences may not be possible.” Walter adds, “while I understand that this may be disappointing for students, I see this as an opportunity to do what you love rather than doing something you think might look good on your college application. Spend time with family and friends, volunteer if social distancing guidelines are relaxed, find a new hobby, or begin writing your college application essays.” She says, “trust me, you will be glad you got a head start when school begins in the fall.”

Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of South Carolina explains that “thirst for learning and knowledge is always valuable and appreciated by the admissions committee.” She tells students that given that they are operating in a non-traditional classroom this spring, “consider other opportunities to pursue learning beyond the classroom over the summer,” adding, “you're probably already doing something that could be considered an internship or research project of sorts. Perhaps you've taken on new responsibilities in your home or family. Is there a new skill that you are trying to learn online? Are you working toward a finished project or artifact that can show off what you've learned? These can be applied, creative, or reflective in nature. We find that students are pretty imaginative on this front and are self-taught in many areas.” 

Gil Villanueva, associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond emphasizes that “internships and jobs may not happen but don't underestimate the value of civic engagement and volunteer work.” He says, “know that colleges and universities will be just as impressed by the impact you make—and by the knowledge and the skills you gain—as you give back to your community.” Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment & communication at Lawrence University adds, “managing your time and energy in a pandemic seems like a pretty significant summer program to me!” 

Character Counts
It is too easy to slip into the mindset that the college application is all about proving what you do, when in fact it is meant as a space to provide evidence of who you are. If anything, the moment we are living in has served up an opportunity to consider questions of identity, community, and character. Surveys of college admission professionals have revealed that character is important in their review of applicants. As students think about their extracurricular involvement and how they are approaching this summer, it is important to ask how these decisions align with not only their interests and hopes for the future but also their values. 

Wagner, at the University of South Carolina, says, “crises have a way of distilling what's most important in our lives, and how we respond to that reveals one's character.” She adds, “We have seen some inspiring examples of students reaching out to others in their communities, organizing events, and charitable outreach to others in need. Consider adding these to your activities/interests section in the application.” Swarthmore’s Bock also points out that, “self-care is critical, and if you are unable to care for yourself, it will be difficult to care for others.” He encourages students to give themselves permission to prioritize their own health in the same way one might put their own oxygen mask on first during an emergency in flight. He says, “finding a way to give back to your team, club, faith community, family will come with time. Taking care of yourself in this crisis is a way to help others. It will take time, but there will be ways for you to share and care for others beyond your computer screen and devices.” 
 
Remember, hope does spring eternal, even in college admission. Though we are living in challenging times, remember that you are not defined by what is happening in this current moment and the opportunities you have lost. It is, however, part of your story. The final part of this series of advice from admission leaders will discuss how you might tell that story and will also look at some of the other considerations of applying to college in a pandemic.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post
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