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The college admissions cycle that is (slowly) finishing for students entering in the fall has been unlike anything admissions officers have seen before. With campuses empty, colleges had to recruit admitted applicants without being able to do anything in person. A further complication was that most students applied before the pandemic but were asked to commit to a college as coronavirus spread. One way or another, the process is coming a close over the summer.

But as unusual as this year has been, admissions officials are gearing up for one that may be more challenging. In the upcoming cycle, some students will still be studying online, some students physically in their high schools and some in a combination of the two. They will be looking at colleges in every state of operation -- with some planning for classes in person, some not and some planning for a combination. Students' families have been suffering as well -- from the health impacts of COVID-19 and the economic impact of the pandemic and the recession.

As a result, more than 250 admissions deans (and the number is growing) have come together with the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to issue "Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19."

In the document, the admissions officials attempt to reassure students -- and themselves -- about what's really important this year.

The first item mentioned in the statement is self-care.

"Self-care is of high importance, especially in times of crisis," the deans write. "We recognize that many students, economically struggling and facing losses and hardships of many kinds, are simply seeking to get by. We also recognize that this time is stressful and demanding for a wide range of students for many different reasons. We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time."

Next is academic work, but with reference to what students may not be able to do. "We will assess your academic achievements in the context of these obstacles. In addition, we will assess your academic achievements mainly based on your academic performance before and after this pandemic. No student will be disadvantaged because of a change in commitments or a change in plans because of this outbreak, their school’s decisions about transcripts, the absence of AP or IB tests, their lack of access to standardized tests (although many of the colleges represented here don’t require these tests) or their inability to visit campus. We will also view students in the context of the curriculum, academic resources, and supports available to them."

Then the deans turn to service. They endorse the idea of serving those in need but are realistic about possibilities for students in stress. They conclude by saying, "No student will be disadvantaged during this time who is not in a position to provide these contributions. We will review these students for admissions in terms of other aspects of their applications."

The deans also care about families. "Many students may be supervising younger siblings, for example, or caring for sick relatives or working to provide family income, and we recognize that these responsibilities may have increased during these times," they write. "We view substantial family contributions as very important, and we encourage students to report them in their applications. It will only positively impact the review of their application."

And the deans conclude with extracurricular activities. "No student will be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurricular activities during this time. We also understand that many plans for summer have been impacted by this pandemic and students will not be disadvantaged for lost possibilities for involvement," they write. "Potential internship opportunities, summer jobs, camp experiences, classes, and other types of meaningful engagement have been cancelled or altered. We have never had specific expectations for any one type of extracurricular activities or summer experience and realize that each student’s circumstances allow for different opportunities."

There are signatories from every Ivy League institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago; from leading liberal arts colleges such as Bowdoin, Carleton, Colorado, Davidson, Haverford, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges; and from public research universities like the University of Arizona, Colorado at Boulder, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and Texas at Austin.

E. Whitney Soule, senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin, said via email that the statement aims to help students.

"Without COVID-19, there is already plenty of anxiety churning for students preparing to apply to college. There’s the anxiety around which courses and how many, which tests and how many, which activities and should they be broad or deep?" said Soule. "And all of those questions swirl around an anxious exercise of trying to estimate and maximize chances of admission. For many students, the interference of COVID-19 doesn’t interrupt that anxiety circuit, it powers it. The point of this deans’ statement is to explicitly state that we understand, that we already apply context to our review, and that we will apply flexibility to meet that context in application review. I hope that our written statement is reassuring and can reduce anxiety."

Rachelle Hernandez, senior vice provost for enrollment management and student success at the University of Texas at Austin, said, "We don’t want students worrying that limitations to their activities, or other opportunities due to the pandemic, will negatively impact them or our consideration of their application. We hope the statement is encouraging to high school students and their families, and importantly conveys that we value the many ways that students are continuing to prepare for their futures, despite the challenges of the pandemic, by successfully completing their coursework, taking care of themselves, and helping their families or volunteering in their communities."

Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, said, "I signed the deans' statement because I believe that the most important thing for students to do right now is to take care of themselves and those around them, and not to overworry about how this will all affect their college application. Collaborative statements may have more impact than individual voices."

Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer in education at Harvard University, who helped coordinate the effort, said it was intended "to help students and parents who were unclear about what was expected" and also admissions leaders themselves. "They have statements about self-care in their websites but want to state what it means."

To Weissbourd, the biggest thematic item out of the statement was about context. "We're not trying to create a pandemic service Olympics," he said. "But we want students to talk about themselves," and that includes things like caring for family members who are sick or lost their jobs. Students have been taught not to reveal such information, he said.

The real question, he said, is whether different students will be admitted than would have been otherwise. "I don't know," he said.

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