The New ABCs of College Admissions

By Kim Newett | Contributor


Photo credit courtesy of Rick Davitt

A private college counselor once told me about the call he received from an anxious parent asking how to get her child into Princeton. As the conversation progressed, it was revealed that the child was yet to be born, and was due to arrive approximately three months after the phone call took place. I have no idea if that child ended up in their Ivy League school of choice, but the moral of the story illustrates how early families start planning for their children’s college careers.  


The traditional high school to-do list for the college application process — pre-pandemic — had items spread across a student’s four-year high school tenure, with a focus on a rigorous course selection, extracurriculars, and college research during the first three of those years, culminating with the final college list and applications senior year.


So, how does COVID-19 change the college applications landscape? It’s a question that many students, parents, and even college counselors and admissions officers have been grappling with over the past year. Essentially, everyone wants to know how does a year of attending high school from behind a computer screen change the college application process for these kids?  


We sought out an expert — Frank Smith, Director of College Counseling at Sage Hill School in Newport Beach — to get the answers. Read on for his insights and an informative update on the current college admissions landscape.


Colleges met the challenge of current high school seniors applying during the pandemic by recognizing that the ability to take standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT over the past year was unequally available to students based on geography and socio-economic circumstances. Therefore, they did not require test scores for this year’s round of applications. The result? Sage Hill School’s Smith shared with us that college applications were up 30% for the high school class of 2021. It seems that, without regard to an average test score range for any particular school, more kids felt empowered to “go for it,” with their grades and resumes speaking to their preparedness. While the final lists of committed college freshmen for the 21-22 year are not yet available, the expectation is that this class will be the most diverse yet. A COVID silver lining, so to speak!


We are currently approaching spring break, the time that many families of high school students make trips scheduled around a variety of campus visits. These trips often help current juniors fine-tune their college lists. What should juniors do this year when travel is not available and/or campus visits are restricted? Smith advises students to take advantage of the programs colleges are offering online in efforts to give kids a real taste for what it is like to be a student at their school. They are offering virtual tours, online admission sessions, and faculty Q & As. It is actually possible to examine many more schools with these tools than if a student had to be on a campus to attend an information session. Additionally, many high schools like Sage Hill School track which colleges their graduates attend, and are able to pair high school students who are interested in certain colleges with alumni who attend those schools. “This is a fantastic resource for students who want honest insights to campus flavors and cultures,” says Smith.


Once juniors finalize their lists with college counselors and parents, they will be planning for applications. Smith shared with us that this year’s Common Application and many others included a section for students to address their COVID-19 circumstances. It is likely that applications for future classes also will include this section. It is here that students will want to talk about their access to school and activities, as well as detail any adversity they and their families have faced during the pandemic. Smith recommends that applicants save the essay portion of their applications for stories that give the readers real insight into who they are and who they are working to become. It is also worth noting that some colleges have announced that they will not be requiring test scores for next year’s round of applications. Students can check to track which schools will be using a test optional approach.


Sophomores and juniors usually take these years to take rigorous classes, working hard to maintain competitive GPAs. They also traditionally demonstrate participation, skill, recognition, and leadership in activities outside the classroom. We asked Smith what happens to these kids who have had their activities changed or canceled, and their classes switched to an online format. His answer was surprisingly encouraging.  He first noted that kids in general, and high school kids specifically, have an innate ability to pivot. Their tech-savviness has readied them for this point in not only online classes, but also in researching. With many students having more time available to them than in previous years, they are able to delve into their areas of interest and really explore topics at a deeper level. Normally, this is a time when many students form bonds with a few of their teachers who eventually become their advocates to colleges in the form of teacher recommendations. That can and is still happening with online school. Smith recommends that students foster those student-teacher relationships by illustrating their interest in subjects by diving deep into them outside of class and bringing insights into class discussions. Colleges love intellectual curiosity.  Reaching out to teachers via email to continue these conversations is a great way to build that rapport.


As far as extracurricular activities go, there are those that are happening and those that are not. Colleges are aware that access to sports and other traditional high school activities is varied depending on the student’s location and school. 

According to Sage Hill’s Smith, college admissions officials are not expecting applications to show the same lists of activities as in previous years. They will be looking for quality over quantity and to discern which students took advantage of the opportunities that they did have and those students who created opportunities where they might not have existed. Many clubs are still active with online meetings. Lots of charities have created ways for students to continue to participate, even if it is not in person. There are other options that have opened up due to more available time.  Students can take additional classes online at their local community or four-year college.  Mr. Smith notes, “It is less about what you haven’t been able to do and more about what you have accomplished with the resources available to you.”


In regard to younger students who may have not built the academic foundation they would have if they were attending in-person classes during the 8th and 9th grades, Smith believes high schools will rise to the challenge of creating programs that address class-wide as well as individual deficits.


As he does every year, Sage Hill School’s Smith tells his students to take a calming breath — in fact, many of them — during the multi-year college preparation and applications journey. Even though the past year has been very different than any year before, it is impacting everyone. Colleges are taking this all into account. While the college applications process can be nerve-wracking in the best of times, rest assured that accommodations are being made for students at every point on the path during this unprecedented time.