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Community Life
Leading for the Common Good

“We Get It!”: College Admission Deans Speak Out—Part 3

Brennan Barnard
That every aspect of life has been disrupted this spring is an understatement. Even as our nation slowly starts to reopen, we will continue to feel the impact of the global pandemic in the months and years to come. This three-part series has been highlighting messages from college admission leaders about how they are responding to these challenges and the ways they expect that this disruption will affect applicants to their schools. In part one, they shared their advice on grades and testing and in part two, they discussed the absence of traditional extracurricular involvement this spring, as well as the potential for missed summer opportunities. This final piece explores how admission leaders can discover your unique circumstances and learn more about you as an individual and a community member. They want to understand the ways that COVID-19 has impacted your life, however, they also want to know who you were before, and who you will be after, this crisis.

Financial Circumstances
Almost every sector of our society has been hit hard financially by this pandemic—businesses, schools, non-profits, hospitals, local, state, and federal governments, and certainly individuals. This is making the already unrealistic costs of higher education that much more unaffordable for many families. Right now, there are still a lot of unknowns about how colleges will respond to issues of access and affordability as we emerge from the immediate health concerns. Institutional endowments, including funds earmarked for financial aid, will be impacted, as will other revenue sources that colleges and universities rely on to supplement income from tuition, room, board, and other fees. For a large part, these issues are out of applicants' control. What they can control is how they conduct their college search in a way that is sensitive to their unique financial situation and what they can afford to pay. This is not a conversation that families can put off until next spring, but instead they must approach college admission with eyes wide open and have honest conversations about family finances from the very start. 

Shawn Abbott, is the vice provost for admissions, financial aid & enrollment management at Temple University. He says, “Covid-19 profoundly underscores why it is so absolutely essential to ensure that each applicant identifies affordable college options.” He adds, “never before, at least in recent history, has it been more important to apply to a balanced list of colleges and universities—from reach schools to realistic schools, with not only admission, but also financial aid in mind. Be sure that your realistic options include at least one or two schools close to home and places you know that you can more likely afford.” Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of South Carolina agrees, saying, “for many families, cost of attendance is one of the primary determinants for selecting a school.” She advises students to “have honest conversations with your family now about what is reasonable for your financial situation and seek out schools where there is a high probability of receiving merit scholarships and/or need based aid in the event you are admitted. Explore the net price calculators that colleges have on their websites. At many colleges, few students pay the full sticker price. It may be more affordable than you think.”

Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment at Loyola University Maryland says, “there is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will impact many families’ financial situations. When it comes time to apply for aid in the fall, remember that the FAFSA will cover 2019 information. So it's important for your parents to provide the special circumstances that are going on this year to all schools you are applying to directly.” Finally, he adds, “don't be afraid to reach out.” The financial aid offices at colleges and universities are there as a resource, not just to hold the purse strings, so be proactive about understanding whether you will be able to afford the cost of attendance at each school that you are considering.

Essays
The college essay gets a bad reputation as something to be dreaded—often students obsess over which prompt to use and miss the point of the exercise. It is difficult for most people to write about themselves, especially when they are being evaluated on what they are sharing. Many students procrastinate, either because their schedules are too full, or because they are paralyzed by the challenge (or sometimes both). The stay-at-home world in which we are living can be an invitation to step back, reflect, look inward, and write. Start now and don’t try to write the perfect college essay. Instead, draft several stories about your experiences, values, background and/or interests. Then let them sit for a while and see which one draws you back. Kent Rinehart, the dean of admission at Marist College says, “Your essay is your chance to ‘speak’ directly to the admission committee. Take advantage of it! Think less about what the admission committee wants to hear and think more of what YOU want to tell us.”

But what if a student wants to tell a college about their experience with COVID-19? Is this topic one to avoid, and are there other subjects that should not be written about? Admission leaders differ in opinions. Temple’s Abbott, says, “I would advise to resist against writing about something that has consumed all of us around the world. Know in advance that colleges will fully recognize the impact of what COVID-19 had on your high school experience. Don't let this one public health crisis (as dramatic as it was!) define you.” Jim Rawlins, assistant vice president and director of admissions at the University of Oregon expands on this sentiment, explaining, “there is going to be a lot to say in next year’s college essays, but you might want to steer clear of the topic if your essay is unfolding as more a story about what’s happening with everyone, versus its impact on you, and how it helps us get to know who YOU are.” He adds, “when you are given the chance to share practical impacts COVID-19 had on you, such as your education environment, or your family’s health or work/income, it’s okay to share. That will help us put your academic record (and everything else) in the right context.” However, he suggests “that might not be in an essay, but sometimes in the “Additional Information” or “Special Circumstances” section of your application. Those additional writing opportunities have always been there, and will be more relevant than ever.” In fact, Common App has adapted to the disruption in applicants’ lives by adding an optional writing prompt for students to address the unique challenges of this and other crises. It reads:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.” 

Don’t hesitate to use this option explain your situation, and then write your college essay about the greater story of you.

Recommendations
Counselor and teacher recommendations are another way colleges and universities get to know you. The teachers who you ask to write on your behalf should be able to highlight your curiosity, engagement and academic ability, whether that is in a traditional classroom or a virtual learning setting. Colleges want to know how you work in groups, the role you play in class discussion and the amount of effort that you demonstrate in challenging yourself with new concepts. Manuel Carballo, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin College says, “recommendations are a great way to bring your candidacy to life.” He tells applicants, “teachers get to interact with you on a regular basis and they can help translate your grades into what you might be able to contribute in the coming years. Do you always ask the tough questions? Are you the one who quietly guides the class in an unexpected direction? Have you had to work extra hard to earn those grades? Do you help others when they need it? Hearing about what role you play in class helps us picture you in our classrooms. How does that all translate to a truncated semester and lots of uncertainty?” He adds, “We're also looking forward to hear about how this time has been for you. Know that it's been a challenge for us too, so we don't expect it all to rainbows and unicorns.”

Consider what voices are already part of telling your story throughout the application and then choose individuals to write recommendations who can provide new perspectives on you as a learner, community member and individual. Some colleges only require, or allow, one teacher recommendation and others will ask for two and permit applicants to submit multiple letters of support. Often they will ask for a teacher who has worked with you in a writing intensive course and for specific programs like engineering, theater or music, they might require faculty recommenders from those disciplines to truly understand your potential and mastery in those areas. Follow the specific directions for each college. If a school allows, you might also consider requesting a personal recommendation from a pastor, employer, scout leader, coach or other individual who knows you well in a different context.

Santiago Ybarra, director of admission at Pitzer College outlines their school's policy, saying, “we decided to cut back our teacher recommendation requirement to only one.” He explains that many factors played a role in this and says “to some extent, I look back at my recruitment at public schools in northern California in 2018 and the talk of teachers not being paid to spend time writing these letters and the complications of that when you add in union politics.” He adds, “mostly though, we haven’t felt like two teacher recommendations was doing more than one letter could do. One letter is sufficient to validate the academic performance seen on a transcript, and to get a sense of who a student is in class. Granted, there may be other colleges that are looking for students who are well rounded across disciplines, but we are comfortable with someone who may have found their niche.” Colleges and universities understand that all high schools are not created equally and that some students may not have access to the same resources. They will take this into account as they review applications and recommendations, especially at this challenging time. To students, Ybarra says, “I would tell a junior to play to their passion. Get the recommendation from the faculty member who sees your excitement.”

School counselors are the best resource to help describe your unique circumstances, the challenges you have overcome, and/or opportunities that you have had. Again, colleges know that many counselors have disproportionately large caseloads of students and, especially in this time of crisis, are pulled in multiple directions. Not only are they helping with post-secondary planning, but they are also addressing food insecurity, abuse, mental health concerns and any other number of issues not directly related to school work. Be intentional about getting to know your counselor and communicating with them about your strengths and interests. Share with your counselors the background and contextual information that you hope they will include in their letter to colleges. What responsibilities or involvement do you have at school or home that will be important for your counselor to articulate to schools? Common App has also added a space for counselors to elaborate on how their school has changed policies due to COVID-19. It reads:

Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:
  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances”
For students who do not have access to a counselor who knows them well, or who lacks the time or resources to write a comprehensive letter, many colleges and universities will allow a teacher, advisor, or other school official to write a letter of support on their behalf. No matter who recommends you, take advantage of this way of being known.

A Commitment to Understanding
Last spring as part of the Turning the Tide initiative, the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a second report on college admission, Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in The College Admissions Process. It included the Dean’s Commitment Letter, a statement endorsed by more than 140 college admissions deans that reinforced these leader’s support of the unique context of each applicant and the challenges of their circumstances. They committed, through holistic review of applicants, to honor curricular and co-curricular decisions of high schools, and to value the responsibilities that students have at home and in their community. These decisions and responsibilities have only grown more complicated by the current crisis and, if anything, on a whole, colleges and universities have become more understanding.

College admission leaders “get it.” Many have kids of their own stuck at home, and some even are going through the college search and application process with a child. Other admission officers will have just earned their college degree only months before they review your application and will have graduated without the fanfare of traditional ceremonies and celebrations. They have had to embrace uncertainty, just like you. They will be making decisions with their admission colleagues based on what is known, and with an eye to equity and compassion. Students also should trust in what they know—themselves—and be intentional about communicating their story to colleges.

University of South Carolina’s Wagner points out that “it's weird for you and it's weird for colleges. Everyone is proceeding from a position of upheaval and uncertainty.” She adds, “this could work to many applicants' advantage, as many colleges will be upping their recruitment game in the year ahead.” Wagner says, “this fall, don't be surprised to hear that lots of schools had a hard time hitting their enrollment goals during this period of economic and public health uncertainty. You will see colleges being flexible and responsive in ways they've never considered before. They will demonstrate resilience, too, as they refine their educational mission and offerings along the way, meeting students wherever they are.” Matt Malatesta, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Union College explains that “the pandemic has placed several obstacles in front of all of us.” To students, he says, “you have lost time with your teachers, friends and loved ones. Similarly, it has caused some major challenges for the ‘traditional’ college search and process with campuses closed for visitors, courses moving online and often to pass/fail options, canceled standardized test dates, etc..” Malatesta emphasizes, “let's not think these latter challenges are anywhere near as important as the safety, health and well-being of our fellow community members. While your college search might not look like those that have come before you these past few years, colleges are still excited to engage with you. (We've all become masters of Zoom!) We are also very excited to learn about you in the application process. Okay, so we will have a few less grades to split hairs over; definitely, more students will be applying without their standardized testing. Neither is a bad thing. This will allow us to dig deeper into your interests, your personality and your motivations. Maybe colleges and students will both get less caught up in the numbers and be able to more closely analyze the opportunities that await.”
 
With disruption and uncertainty comes opportunities. Opportunities for colleges and universities to be more understanding and opportunities for applicants to distinguish themselves. Recognize that the schools to which you will apply do “get” that much has changed, but they will only “get” you if you effectively communicate who you are, and who you hope to be. Take advantage of this unique time in college admission to think introspectively and prepare to share your authentic self with colleges on your admission journey.

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