Go Outside the Box and Go Local

High school juniors need new strategies for applying to college in the coronavirus era, writes Susan Chan Shifflett.

March 30, 2020
 
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Let’s say you’re a junior in high school and your plans for preparing for your college application have been upended because of the global pandemic. Your school has closed or gone remote for the rest of your school year. The SAT you were going to take got canceled. And all your extracurricular activities -- clubs, sports, etc. -- have ceased. Junior year is arguably the most critical year for your college application. What can you do during this time, and what does this mean for your chances at college admissions?

Instead of seeing this time as a barrier, it’s a ripe opportunity to stand out. The coronavirus crisis is leveling the playing field, and it’s a chance for the most creative and independent students to shine. When I was an admissions officer at Yale University evaluating applications, I was trying to figure out, “who made the most lemonade out of lemons?” or “who made the most of the resources available to them?”

Now as an independent college admissions consultant, one of the most common questions I get from students and their families is what extracurricular activities will help them to stand out in the college admissions process. And particularly now, many of my juniors and their families are anxious to know what they should be doing during this time with seemingly limited options.

I have two tips for juniors. My first tip: think out of the box. Your debate or sports team may no longer be meeting, but it turns out there’s a lot of other things you can do. Pitch an op-ed, self-publish a memoir of living through the coronavirus, pick up a hobby, learn to play the ukulele via YouTube videos, plant new crop varieties in your backyard, create a phone tree to mobilize your classmates to reach out to the elderly in your community. Participate in new service efforts, such as Invisible Hands, a free grocery delivery service for at-risk communities, founded by two 20-year-olds.

We’re in uncharted territory, so there’s no clear path. But that’s precisely what admissions officers look for -- the students who pave a new path -- instead of taking the highways and main roads that have already been well traveled.

In recent years, there’s been an explosion in terms of the number of pay-to-play services, such as paying thousands of dollars to go build a well in a developing country. But some of the best and most standout activities are the ones where you’re not paying to play. On the Common Application or Coalition Application activities list, you can list activities that have to do with independent research, hobbies and significant family commitments (if you need to help out with taking care of your siblings or other family members). It doesn’t have to be a formal organization.

My second tip: think local. Help your peers out -- use your Instagram account to show how you can make a nice meal from canned and dried foods, and count how many views or followers you get. Many communities of faith, such as the one I attend -- McLean Bible Church in the greater Washington area -- are coordinating efforts for care package distribution. Drive around town and become a photojournalist, documenting how the town is surviving the coronavirus.

Between hand washing and hand sanitizing, try out delivery and takeout from different local restaurants and write reviews. Or interview your neighbors with Zoom and write up vignettes about how different people in your neighborhood are coping with the virus. Blog about the different local businesses in your area and their creative ways of adapting to this constantly changing situation.

Oftentimes, students think they have to win a national award to get into a school like Yale. Sure, that’s one way. But another way you can demonstrate impact in your community is by going hyperlocal. If you can’t be the McDonald’s of restaurants, then specialize, like the local ice cream store in your town that sources its dairy from neighboring farms.

We’ll all having to adapt in these times. Medical professionals are trying out telehealth, doggy daycares are going to curbside pickup, many restaurants are being forced to go into delivery/takeout/drive-through mode only. This is precisely the time that you can show your creativity, resilience and ability to adapt. Admissions officers are looking for students who are resourceful and who create a new path where there seems to be a dead end. So be a trailblazer, and begin with your local community.

Bio

Susan Chan Shifflett is a former assistant director of admissions at Yale University and current college consultant at InGenius Prep.

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