How We Move Forward


As I am being bombarded by questions from our students, clients and outside families about admissions and testing changes due to the pandemic, it seems there is still a lot of confusion and fear mongering going on. Thus, I decided to reach out to a select group of experts in the admissions world and get their perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on students’ college admissions process. This is, by no means, an exhaustive look at the cascading changes to the 2021 applicant cycle; consequently, the blog post will continue to be updated and augmented as a living document.

Iris Even, Head of School for 新萄新京十大正规网站: College Board just canceled the June SAT and is eyeing different options for the fall. The ACT is not far behind, and more and more colleges are announcing they will be test-optional for 2021 applicants. Do you think there should be a concerted effort to have all colleges and universities in the U.S. be test-optional for the 2021 applicant cycle? And, if so, what would you recommend they ask of students in lieu of SAT/ACT (and possibly subject exams)?

Anna Ivey (CEO of Inline for College Apps & a Former Dean of Admissions): The test-optional wave had already been in process before the virus hit, and now it may be forcing their hand. For example, UC Berkeley had been waffling over it for a while, and boom, now they're test optional. Other schools have decided to do it on a pilot basis, like Boston University. Any standardized test administered in an at-home environment is going to have serious problems associated with it in terms of validity and security and access, so we don't recommend substituting one test for another in a test-optional environment, unless you know you're really good at a particular kind of test and it won't add more stress for you; the latter is very important in these circumstances. 

Nathan Fuerst (VP of Enrollment Planning & Management, UCONN): This is a situation we are obviously watching very carefully and considering the alternatives. For one, the limited capacity for all students to sit for an exam at this date is a concern. Across the entire cohort, we are already in a position that rising Juniors have not been afforded the same access to testing opportunities as what is typical. And further, disparities in access to an educational environment that is conducive to productive learning, let alone suitable for testing, is of great concern. These things considered, there will be some level of flexibility in test score requirements for applications for the Fall 2021 term, which is currently being discussed and will be released to applicants soon.

Casey Decker (Associate Director of Admission, Chapman University): Chapman decided to move to a test-optional model before the COVID-19 situation and our multi-year research study showed a declining correlation between a student’s success at Chapman and their standardized test score. This means most applicants can choose if they want their SAT or ACT scores reviewed with their application. There are a few exceptions, including those who have been home-schooled or attended a high school that provided a narrative transcript. In addition, all applicants who are non-native English speakers must submit proof of English proficiency. Should a student have any questions, feel free to reach out to your Chapman admission counselor directly!

Mark Montgomery (a leading independent university admissions counselor in the US): Colleges do whatever they do because it is in their interest to do so.  They don’t make policies for the benefit of students; they make policies for the benefit of their institutions.  So at this point, there are still many, many universities, including the Ivies and most public institutions, that have not yet announced that they will be test optional.  Instead of getting mad, protesting, and shouting “it’s not fair!” into the wind, just get informed, prepare for the tests as best you can, and register to take the test whenever you can and in whatever format it is offered.  The reality is that college admissions has never been “fair,” and you cannot control what colleges do.  Therefore, if you are now considering any college that is not yet test optional, you need to assume that you must take the ACT or SAT.  As the situation evolves, perhaps things will change.  But don’t waste energy trying to second guess colleges.  Do what you need to do to prepare for admission.  

Also, the good thing may be that if your scores really stink, you’ll have more opportunities to consider test optional schools. Colleges will adjust to the realities as they evolve.  Right now, if you’re planning to apply to a selective college, you need to move full speed ahead on your testing plans.  

Kelly Walter (Associate VP for Enrollment & Dean of Admissions, Boston University): It was clear to me from the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak that high school juniors were going to be impacted in a significant way by the shifting education landscape.  The cancellation of SAT and ACT test administrations combined with the suspension of on-campus visitation programs was going to change how students approached their college search.  By going test optional, BU wanted to do our part to minimize the heightened stress around standardized testing that many students were experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While this is clearly the right decision for BU, it is up to every college and university to make their own decision about standardized testing requirements.

Brady Norvall (CEO and Founder, FindaBetterU): Oh gosh, is there enough time and space for this? Essentially, yes, schools should offer flexibility with testing. For those who test awesomely and want it to be a part of their profile, great, they can take it. But for those who don’t have the time, money, and support to realize what the timeline maybe should look like, or just to learn how to understand- and do well on- the tests, then other parts of their applications should be weighted more heavily. How this happens functionally in the age of globalization, where universities are just encouraging everyone to apply, I’m not sure. Somewhere, somehow you are going to be putting more responsibility on the student, on the teachers, on the school counselor, or on other, personal recommenders, and that does not solve the problem of inequity, particularly when we start to think about applicants who come from overwhelmed, underfunded public high schools. In other words, universities need data to select the students they will admit, out of their ever-increasing pool of (often very qualified) applicants, and to take away the SAT/ACT option would maybe just move that elephant off some students’ chests and put it onto their shoulders, as they then need to understand and navigate these other, alternative requirements. So, yes, I think schools should be more flexible with optional testing, but they need to make sure this won’t hurt students even more than testing can negatively impact some.

IE: A fair amount of state testing has been canceled, and some high schools will be grading students on a pass/fail scale for spring term. How will your college look at those issues in the context of transcripts, etc? Do you think colleges will, generally speaking, have a unified perspective on pass/fail semesters, given the unprecedented situation?

NF: Ultimately, I think we’ll reach a point of uniformity, or as close as possible, in the acceptance of Pass/Fail grades, and other relevant credential related impacts from COVID-19. For purposes of admission, UConn will be accepting all Pass/Fail grades. We will spend time considering, as we always do, all that is available in an applicant’s materials through our holistic application review process. When considering all of the circumstances associated grading and other relevant curricular issues, our holistic application review process is more important than ever!

KW: As a general rule of thumb, my colleagues and I understand that high schools will be adopting a wide variety of policies around academic assessment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our plan is to be as flexible as possible and to honor whatever decisions a school makes regarding grading and course requirements. I also understand that each student’s situation is unique and we plan to take into consideration a student’s personal circumstances in our evaluation of their application.  Please rest assured that students will not be disadvantaged during the admissions process for circumstances that are clearly beyond their control.

CD: We are aware that several institutions are implementing a mandatory Pass/No Pass grading system. Because of this, we will accept a “Pass” grade for courses taken in spring 2020. Chapman certainly understands all of the changes and adjustments high schools across the US and internationally are making to accommodate students, and we will be flexible with our current policies and students as we all navigate the COVID situation together. 

IE: 2020 AP Exams are now going to be online/in-home due to the pandemic. What are your thoughts on the hastily put together new format? Some advisors and schools are recommending that students boycott the online exam. What are you recommending to your students? Are there any instances where you feel the exam should still be a must-do?

CD: Chapman will continue to accept AP scores if students are able to take the exam. If a school closure or test cancellation is preventing a student from taking the exam, we encourage them to communicate with us by sending an email so we can work with the student directly. 

AI: What advice to give on this question has been hugely controversial within the college counseling community. Speaking only for ourselves, of course, I can tell you that we are advising applicants to skip the AP tests this year unless your high school requires them. There are so many problems with the at-home test they're administering that I can't imagine admissions officers will take it very seriously, especially given all the access and equity issues surrounding it. For example, if you end up taking it in the Middle East, you're starting the test at midnight. Oof.

BN: I do not adopt that same position. Really, I listen to my students and hear what they say about their uncertainties and anxieties (or not) around the test. For many of the students I work with, they have felt prepared for the test, both academically and psychologically, and what I hear them saying is essentially, “enough of my life has become uncertain and put on-hold, so I want to keep any semblance of normalcy that I can.” Granted, my students are a small sampling of all students, and most of them actually are enrolled in IB programs (International Baccalaureate), so the AP is not something I have spent a ton of time philosophizing. I generally like to believe that the universities are smart enough to realize how this has flipped everything on its head and, therefore, my position about AP tests, pragmatically, is the position I take on a lot of issues: it’s not going to hurt you but it could help. In other words, if a student comes to me and says, “I will do exactly what you tell me to do about the AP exam(s) next month and I promise it won’t weigh heavily on me, either way.” To this I would say, go for it. If you bomb it, it won’t haunt you. Now, granted, many parents aren’t going to believe this. But, fortunately, the amazing families and schools with whom I do work know my track record and know how much the students and I trust one-another, and they really do hear me when I offer recommendations. 

KW: While it is clear that high school students across the country and around the world have experienced significant disruptions to their education, it is my hope that students who have been working hard in rigorous and demanding AP courses continue to focus on their studies and prepare for the online AP exams.  I know this is not what you planned on but it is what you’re prepared for.  I encourage you to keep up the good work and take the AP exam.  I know you can do it! 

MM: Whether to take the exam is a personal choice.  But I am advocating that all my students take the exams as planned, even in the new format.  No matter what the result, and no matter how the results are interpreted lated by colleges, you will at least have done your best and seen your commitment to these courses through to the end.  If you take them, you will never be disadvantaged more than any other student who took an AP course in 2019-2020, the year of Covid-19.  You will always have that little “asterisk” next to your grades, your test scores, and your extracurricular activities.  Everyone will know that things were not normal for you this year—just as they are not normal for other kids your age around the world.  Just do your best, finish with your commitments, and know that those in a position to judge you will put your actions into the Covid-19 context. 

NF:  At UConn, we have growing concerns about equity and access to educational opportunities in the current online educational environment. With that said, UConn will be accepting 2020 AP Exam results, despite the online exam format.

IE: IB testing has been canceled. Do you think this will impact students from IB programs applying to colleges? Are colleges asking for anything additional in support of these students’ applications/admittances? 

MM: For students applying to US colleges, the cancellation of IB exams will have no particular disadvantage in the college admissions process. Why? Because no IB student will have exam results for 2019-2020.  Colleges and universities will have to adjust to the reality:  no one has an exam score. 

I have not heard of any colleges asking for additional information; from US universities:  our admissions decisions are not contingent on exam scores.  Things may be different in other countries—but I would say that, too, is unlikely.  (Then again, my crystal ball is completely busted right now…).

IE: Schools are now offering virtual tours. Do you think these will be enough for a student to get a sense of a college? If not, what should they do to determine “fit”? Anything they should watch out for?

NF: We are actually very excited about the online options that are emerging as a result of moving to virtual options. Some of these, we already plan to keep beyond this period of social distancing. For example, prospective students can schedule a virtual one on one with a current UConn student or one of our admissions officers. There are also virtual sessions and tours, presentations, etc. These are all available on our site here:

Our orientation program is also moving online for the summer. And again, we can already see that coming out of the social distancing environment, we will have streamlined what is offered online, versus how students spend their time in person at orientation in future years. This only will create more meaningful time for connecting with each other moving forward.

AI: They'll have to be enough! At least until campuses open up again. A virtual tour isn't the same as an in-person tour, but you can learn a lot on a virtual tour. You don't even have to rely on the ones that the schools put together (those are great, but of course it's all 100% rah rah). You can make your own virtual tour. We wrote a blog post about how to make your own tour. You can read it here.  

MM: Visiting a college is one piece of your thinking and research that goes into your selection of a college.  But for many families, these visits became the *only* aspect of the college decision selection process.  Students often walked the campus for the one-hour tour, and then let their “gut” tell them whether the school was a good fit.  The inability to visit has enabled students and families to get down to the harder business of deciding on clear criteria for the college selection.  They must actually build some criteria for what a “good fit” means, and then they have to develop questions to research whether the school fits those criteria.  Some of these answers can be found online, and others can be answered by people with strong knowledge of the school:  admissions officers, professors, coaches, and current and former students.  

At the end of the day, a campus is just a bunch of buildings and some inanimate resources.  But a college or university is primarily the people that inhabit that space.  So take the time that this pause in college visits allows you to think carefully about what you want from your college experience and then reach out virtually to the people who can help you determine whether a particular school will provide you with that experience you crave.

CD: Even though we’ve had to move to virtual outreach efforts, there are still great ways to learn about campus, curriculums and culture while also connecting with admission counselors and current students! Some on-campus experiences that have transitioned to virtual settings include connecting with a current student or viewing an information session hosted by an admission counselor. Prospective students can connect with a current student to chat and ask questions on a one-on-one basis, allowing them to have a transparent and honest conversation about the current student’s Chapman experience. Admission counselors are hosting information sessions, allowing prospective students and families to learn more about deadlines/timelines, what application materials are required for admission, how we review applications and information on scholarship and financial aid options. Virtual tours also allow students to visually see the campus and specific facilities and many of our departments are offering virtual experiences to help prospective applicants envision themselves on campus. As we move closer to the Fall, we’ll also be offering optional interviews where prospective high school seniors can connect with a current student to highlight more of their interest in Chapman and provide information about themselves that we may not learn from their application. If a student is unable to connect with us through the virtual options, admission counselors and current students are also available via email or phone call to answer any of your questions or concerns about the application or admission process! 

BN: Universities and colleges are at a loss right now. They are doing whatever they can to reach admitted students and prospective applicants, and the virtual tours are about as close as anyone is going to get to a visual representation of a place. What we know, of course, is that there is a difference between infrastructure and actual atmosphere. Those of us who have been on (hundreds of) university tours know that it is typically the parent(s)/guardian(s) who want to see the residence halls and the library. The prospective students are much more interested in “the feel” of the place. So virtual tours are great, but for most prospective students, it might take a bit more for them to really gain a sense of each school’s “feel”. Below is essentially what I am telling students right now.

a) Go back to the basics and ask yourself what kind of an environment is most exciting to you in the first place: urban; suburban; rural. Big school vs. Small. Close relationships with faculty or a more research-oriented, lecture-hall style school. Climate and weather preferences for favored activities. Programs of greatest interest and universities which align most closely with these.

b) Utilize your school's guidance counselor, teacher, or administrator with whom you might feel most connected (by phone or email). Ask them where they can picture you and why? Really listen and use that input.

c) Look hard at numbers and cost, not just printed cost but non-apparent prices, as well. Some schools in NYC and North Carolina might have equal price tags but meals out, activities off-campus, and transportation will be significantly higher in the former. 

d) One of the most intangible qualities of campuses across the country are the atmospheres of collaboration vs competition. Certain schools inherently foster a sense of community and togetherness while others promote a greater level of cutthroat academic culture. Both work perfectly for the right student. But for the wrong student, either can be very difficult to overcome or see beyond.

e) Write to admission offices and ask to be put in touch with any current student(s) from your area, town, or high school, who are currently attending and have conversations with them. When you do connect with these students, just listen. Ask them all about their experiences and how they made their decisions to attend that specific university and listen. Are they close with professors? Do their friendships feel healthy and strong? Do they get to take the courses they want? 

f) Lastly, know that no school is a bad place. It's four years. You can live anywhere for four years, and all schools have really wonderful attributes. Nothing is being signed in blood, and we are only as stuck as we think we are. This is a great adventure and whatever happens, there is so much for each of us to learn in new and unique environments.

KW: Let me say a few words about right fit versus best fit.  The two words may be similar but there is a world of difference in the meaning of these two phrases and it can impact how a student approaches their college search.  A college search that only focuses on the ‘best fit’ weighs factors such as selectivity, rankings, and statistics.  However, a college search that focuses on the ‘right fit’ asks students to address questions about the feel of a campus community, the range of experiences available to them over four years, how they will thrive academically, and where they will be most happy.  Selecting the ‘right’ college is both an intellectual and emotional decision and one that requires honesty and self-reflection on the part of students.           

There is no doubt that a campus visit is one of the best ways for a student to determine if a college or university is the right fit.  But it is not the only way. Many colleges, BU included, are expanding their virtual and online programs for prospective students and I would encourage students to take advantage of these programs as they begin their college search.  BU, for example, is offering a wide variety of programs, including live events, informal chats with students, recorded presentations, video, and events on social channels such as Instagram and YouTube, so that students can decide on which platform they want to engage with us.  Additionally, most colleges offer virtual tours and/or experiences which is a great way to begin learning about a campus community.  In fact, BU just launched a new web site for prospective students called ‘Begin Your Journey Here’ for high school juniors who are unable to visit campus:

IE: Are international students weary of applying to American colleges at the moment?

MM: International students may be wary of applying to US universities, and we have seen a drop in applications and enrollments since late 2016.  Thus, this trend is not attributable entirely to Covid-19.  However, the distances, the ham-handed nature of the Federal response to the pandemic, and parental worries about the safety of their children in this country could have an impact on applications from abroad in the next year or two.  On the other hand, many families around the world have already made decisions years earlier for their students to attend US universities.  I don’t think interest in American higher education will totally dry up.  Further, American universities have a very strong interest in keeping their international enrollments at current levels.  But individual families may not be as eager to send their kids to the US in the short term. 

IE: Typically, a student visits the school, finds a way to visit the disabilities office/support services office (i.e. they don’t have to do crazy planning in advance or don’t want to feel “on the spot”)… What do they do now? How do they search for disability services (DS) offices?

Elizabeth Hamblet (author, consultant, and specialist on college for students with disabilities) : That’s a great question. I don’t know whether disabilities offices (DS) are highlighted in a lot of virtual tours. But even if they are, those tours may provide just a brief overview of what DS does. Families interested in knowing more can dig more deeply. 

They can start by finding the DS page on a college’s site. In some cases, they might find answers to all of their questions online (it really varies from college to college how much information will be on the DS site). They may be able to see a list of the staff members (which can tell them how many people work there), read about how students register for accommodations, and see what documentation they require students to provide when they register. 

Some schools list accommodations that are available.  When families see these lists, they should remember that students will only receive the accommodations that DS thinks are appropriate to their disability. (In other words, not every student gets every accommodation they see there, and sometimes students with the same disability, like ADHD, may receive different accommodations based on how DS views their needs.) They should also remember that a college may offer accommodations that aren’t listed, so just because they don’t see one doesn’t mean it’s not available.

When students are doing their college search, this level of research may satisfy their needs. However, once students have applied and are getting accepted to colleges, they may want to dig more deeply. Even if they’re not that interested in interacting with DS much once they get to college, knowing whether their requested accommodations are available and learning a little more might help them make the decision of which school to attend if they are undecided between two or more of them.

To do this, they can set up a call with someone at DS. 

Suggestions for questions they can ask:

  1. What are the documentation requirements for my disability? If students aren’t sure whether theirs will meet the college’s requirements, they should ask if they can submit it now and get a response before they enroll. If DS doesn’t have time to do that, they can ask whether they offer temporary accommodations for students whose documentation is found insufficient.

  2. What are some accommodations that you offer? Students should prepare for this conversation by making sure they know what accommodations they want to request. If the DS person doesn’t mention one they want, they should ask about whether it might be available. The DS staffer may say it’s available but not be able to promise that the student will receive it. Or they may say it’s an accommodation they don’t typically grant.

  3. What role do students play in the arrangement of their accommodations? (i.e. If you need a note-taker, do you have to find someone or does the disabilities office find you someone? Is it anonymous? Do you have to fill out a form every time you have a test for which you need accommodations?) 

  4. Do you have a student that receives services that would be willing to speak with me? If DS can connect them to someone, students might want to ask about their experience of getting accommodations, the process, and what is the experience like giving your accommodations info/letter to your professor. They may also want to ask if students and professors determine where and when they take your exams or whether DS arranges this.

IE: Summer is typically the moment for projects, pre-college programs, programs for college credit, internships, volunteering, inspired travel, etc. With the potential for stay at home orders to continue through part or all of the summer, what do you recommend students do?

BN: Read. Read. Read. There’s a book out there for everyone. I’ve never met a teenager I couldn’t get to read something. Okay, maybe one. But I got him to dive deeply into documentaries and he’s now a film friend I can rely on for good recommendations. I’m always eager to recommend books. Most teenagers are tired of required reading and all teenagers already get too little sleep, so it might not initially appeal to every student if it’s a message delivered by the parents. If, however, it comes from another trusted adult, it might not be met with as much resistance.  

AI: Admissions officers aren't going to hold it against you that this coming summer is going to be very constrained. They’ll still have other summers to look at when evaluating your application. During the summer, just make sure you do something productive that you can do at home. Devote time to a solo hobby, help your parents manage the household (maybe you could cook meals, clean, or occupy a younger sibling), or find a way to do some community service (shop for and deliver groceries to a family who is quarantined or self-isolated, make calls to the elderly to make sure they are okay, etc.). Admissions officers will look favorably on those who were productive despite these unusual constraints. Plus, you will get bored and depressed if you do nothing but stare at a screen! Keep your brain active and have something to show for it.

KW: There is still a great deal of uncertainty about what the summer will hold for all of us.  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.  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.  Trust me, you will be glad you got a head start when school begins in the fall.   

NF: First, we are all in this together, and realize that the same in person opportunities for service to the community and other enrichment options are not available. As these activities relate to resumes for admissions, applicants should not worry about their limited ability to participate, as these are the same set of opportunities for all applicants.

Instead, I encourage students to think about what opportunities may exist during this period that may not have presented themselves previously. Given so many institutions are moving content online, it could be that we have opportunities to access curriculum from institutions far from home more readily than before. There may be opportunities to study things locally, albeit independently, that we could not study before. One such example is that this environment of social distancing is reportedly having on the environment. For example, a student now has a great chance to measure pollutants in rivers and streams during a time of social distancing and reduced carbon consumption, and do so going forward, observing the impact as we return to normal life after COVID-19 has passed.

In short, for motivated students wishing to engage in some form of enrichment over the summer, we encourage you to be creative and open-minded about how you do so. Where a number of options are unavailable, there are some unique opportunities present as a result of our current circumstances.

CD: There’s no doubt that the current stay-at-home orders have been difficult for students and have forced us to change plans, agendas and itineraries for the coming months. I think it’s important for students to recognize how hard they’ve worked academically and how the quick shift from “normal” life to “quarantine” life was a difficult one; maintaining a rigorous course load virtually isn’t easy! If a student wants to explore virtual experiences over the summer as it relates to their intended major or interests, go for it! It’s a great way to stay connected with like-minded peers while you have some downtime. But for the student who needs a break from their computer, tablet, phone, television – enjoy the things you’ve been putting off and don’t feel guilty about it! Enjoy that book you haven’t had time to read, savor time with family and relatives (if able!), create a vision board for your next chapter, find a favorite podcast! Prepare for the things you may not be ready for when you get to college – learning how to do laundry, putting together a budget for expenses. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s driven by your curiosity and interest and not what you think an admission committee wants to see. It’s a great time to reflect on how you’ve been able to support yourself and others through a difficult time!

IE: Gap years are becoming increasingly popular. With COVID19, do you think there will be an uptick? Are you recommending gap years to students due to the uncertainty of campus life for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021?

AI: There will almost certainly be an uptick in deferrals and gap years. For a lot of students, the on-campus, coming-of-age and social experience is an important aspect of college. If you can defer your start date for a year and they are guaranteeing that they are saving your spot, then we have no problem with that. If your deferred start date isn't guaranteed by the school, then it's much riskier. We expect a lot of people to be putting off college off by a year, and so there will be a lot more people competing for spots in that later year.

BN: I love gap years. I think they’re important and healthy. Like my answer about testing, though, I never necessarily bring it up to students. I don’t feel that has been my role. Now, however, if universities decide in late July or early August that fall semester will be virtual, I will absolutely encourage my seniors this year to do the gap year or at least a semester. Some of my seniors are beginning to look into this as an option now, and I think that’s thoughtful of them. Of course, specific gap programs are also suffering so that part of what we have considered a “gap year” in many instances also may not happen. I have always thought that if a student wants to travel, read, work, or just give themselves some time to decompress, that’s never a bad thing. I am a huge proponent of teenagers being given that space and grace. Did I mention I love gap years and think they’re important and healthy?

MM: While I have no crystal ball, I am expecting an uptick in the number of students taking gap years next year.  I am not recommending gap years, but I am asking all my students to consider the possibility of taking one.  Events continue to unfold, and very few colleges have announced their plans for the fall.  A gap year is one possible response students might make in light of what their particular college decides to do for the coming academic year.  I think all students should have this as a contingency plan.  But for now, we’re just waiting to see what colleges decide to do.  Their decisions will provide the context in which we can make our personal decisions.  Again, there is no sense in getting uptight right now—we can’t control what colleges do. But we can tease out our options so that we are mentally ready to make the decision that is right for each one of us when the time is ripe.

IE: COVID19 is clearly impacting the experiences of high school students. Do you think they should write about it in their Common App essay?

BN: Likely not. Of course, I don’t really make sweeping pronouncements, but generally speaking the essays are not about addressing such issues as much as they are about telling a story which lets the reader go deeper into the mind and experience of the applicant. That said, if there’s a really interesting aspect of this new normal that an applicant is eager to turn into a story, go for it. The general rule I adhere to: don’t tell me exactly what you want me to think; tell me a great story and allow me to infer your personality and character. An example I have always used for writing the essay is the moment one is crossing a street. Tell me what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Transport me to this moment and let me, the reader, have that sensory experience with you. It’s mundane and that’s the point. A person who can turn the banal into something fascinating is the applicant who will be admitted. 

Okay, so here’s the second part of this answer. There is an additional information essay within the Common Application’s writing section, which is totally optional. Insider tip: my students ALWAYS write this. It’s another opportunity to tell an interesting story and allow the readers to come into your experience as a young person. This will likely be the place where the COVID essay shows up. That said, it should be to highlight something specific, a challenge faced from this, or a reason why plans had to change or one’s timeline shifted. As a quick example, let’s imagine a student had an internship lined up for this summer which is now canceled. In that essay, they could explain this and then, possibly, invite someone from the internship to contribute an “other recommender” recommendation in the Common App. That’s just me giving a hypothetical, of course, but … aren’t we all just pitching hypotheticals now?!  

AI: It might make for an interesting essay depending on your experience and what you have to say about it, but know that many applicants will be writing a COVID19 essay, and so it will inherently be a tough way to stand out. Honestly, we're already feeling sorry for admissions officers who are going to be reading so many of them, because there will be a lot of bad COVID19 essays that they'll have to read. The same thing happens in other large-scale catastrophes, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. But the topic isn't off the table if you want to tell that story. Execution will be everything, so it will have to be really good.

MM: I recommend that students not put Covid-19 at the center of their essay.  Of course, it will likely play a role in the background.  We are all living through this period in our own, unique ways.  But the focal point of your essay should be you, not Covid-19.  If particular circumstances or challenges (or, perhaps, opportunities!) arose in your life as a result of Covid-19, and your reaction to these circumstances or challenges help us to understand who you are as person—and help distinguish you from all the other high school juniors who are living through the exact same pandemic—then write about those.  Your experience of Covid-19 is unique, but Covid-19 is an experience we all share.  Your essay needs to focus on what is unique about you.

IE: Anything else you would like for students to know?

BN: I am proud of you. Uncertainty makes us feel helpless and helplessness makes us feel like we don’t matter. But nothing could be further from the truth. You matter very much. Your future awaits you. The world might look a bit different right now but from difference and chaos comes … your greatness. Chins up. Books open. Be you and it will get better.

KW: For most students, the college search and application process is both exciting and confusing.  There will be starts and stops; ups and downs; even some dead ends along the way – after all, it’s a journey.  But, despite the uncertainty, I can promise you that the process works and I’m confident that every student will find the right school for them.

CD: We’re living in an uncertain time, but your admission counselors and representatives are here to help you! Even though experiences for prospective applicants have moved to a virtual format for now, we still love connecting with students and families, and highlighting the ways Chapman could be a great fit for you. Websites and print brochures will show off the campus with great pictures, describe the curriculum and illustrate the location, but it’s only when you connect with a person – an admission rep, faculty member or current student, that you can feel the energy and culture of the campus. Our entire admission team is also working remotely, and we miss the connection that comes along with “admission life”, so we’d love to hear from you! Always feel free to reach out – we’d love to connect with you!

NF: There is no doubt that this environment of social distancing has presented us challenges that no one would have subscribed to on their own accord. But as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

I have to believe that coming away from COVID-19 will leave us a stronger society, that has considered new methods of delivering information and collaborating with each other. When we come away from this, I predict we will be far better at optimizing our time with each other in person, building upon meaningful relationships, creating better opportunities to learn from each other and change the way we perceive the world around us.

Finally, I think that we have an opportunity now to connect with our families, and to stay connected with others using the numerous tools available to do so online.

About The Panel


Casey Decker

Casey graduated from Chapman University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance. Upon graduation, she decided to further develop her love of music-theater at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a Master of Music in Opera and Vocal Performance. While actively pursuing and seeking out new performance opportunities, she discovered her desire to support and invest in the talent and gifts of young students. As a Chapman student, she was heavily involved in the School of Music, including domestic and international touring, and loved working as an admission intern for three years. She has been working in enrollment management since 2011 and currently works with applicants applying from the Northeast territory and those interested in the College of Performing Arts. 


Nathan Fuerst

Nathan Fuerst is the Vice President of the Division of Enrollment Planning & Management at UCONN.  A native of Nebraska, Nathan arrived at UConn in 2011 as the Director of Undergraduate Admissions.  As his role expanded to include Orientation Services and the Lodewick Visitors Center, he served in the subsequent role of Assistant Vice President for Enrollment and Director of Undergraduate Admissions.  In May 2018, after a national search, Nathan was named Vice President for Enrollment Planning & Management.  Nathan came to UConn from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he served in various roles in admissions and enrollment.  Nathan earned his Bachelor of Arts (Communication Sciences) and his MBA (Strategic Management) from the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln, NE. Nathan and his spouse, Shelby, reside in Mansfield with their two daughters.


Elizabeth Hamblet

Elizabeth C. Hamblet has been a college learning specialist at the college level for two decades.  In addition to working as a college consultant, she is a nationally-requested speaker and Understood expert on preparing students with disabilities for successful college transition.  Hamblet is the author of From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students With Disabilities, and her work has appeared in numerous journals and online platforms.  Explore her site,, and connect with her at or Twitter @echamblet.


Anna Ivey

A former dean of admissions, Anna Ivey is co-author of the book How to Prepare a Standout College Application. She is also the CEO of Inline for College Apps, a digital tool that empowers you to DIY your college applications at home with the benefit of expert advice for every question and every essay. Created by former admissions officers, it teaches you how to apply like a pro. Learn more about Anna and the Inline team here


Mark Montgomery

Mark Montgomery, Ph.D., is a leading independent university admissions counselor in the United States and the founder of Great College Advice. Dr. Montgomery is an experienced educator, university admissions consultant, and youth mentor advising students around the world in selecting and applying to American universities. To read Mark’s full biography, click here.


Brady Norvall

Brady Norvall is the Founder and C.E.O. of FindaBetterU™, an education life coaching firm with clients across the U.S., Central and South America, and Europe. Norvall has served as a resource for the Young President's Organization (YPO) and consults with corporate partners including banks and executive coaching firms. Norvall mentors teenagers and helps families navigate the processes of education and goal-setting. He empowers students with the right information and a healthy sense of friendship so that they can become their best selves. He speaks on higher education, the transitions families undertake with adolescents, how to create positive communication around the process of education and, specifically, college planning, including the influence of expectation and pop culture in the way we approach the concepts of success and happiness.


Kelly Walter

Kelly A. Walter is the Associate Vice President for Enrollment & Dean of Admissions at Boston University.  With 40 years of experience in enrollment and admissions, Dean Walter is responsible for the overall strategic planning, management, and administration of the undergraduate admissions department.  She provides both leadership and vision for all undergraduate recruitment and enrollment (domestic and international) initiatives and develops marketing strategies designed to inform prospective students and thought leaders in secondary and higher education.  To read Kelly’s full biography, click here.


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