Admissions Officers Should Consider Resilience

COVID-19 makes it all the more important, writes Matthew Pietrafetta.

February 16, 2021
 
Maria Stavreva/Getty Images

Since the start of the pandemic, the so-called COVID slide has been a prominent topic of conversation among those invested in the nation’s education system -- with good reason. Stay-at-home orders forced school systems to improvise remote solutions, most educators received little or no specific training and many students lack access to the technology necessary for remote learning.

Indeed, districts around the country have seen increased rates of class failure during the fall 2020 semester. College admissions also took a hit: the Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications through Nov. 2 compared to the previous year, and 60 percent of its 921 members reported declines in new applications. While applications to elite schools are up, applications from first-generation students and students who can’t afford application fees are falling.

That’s the troubling news. The silver lining may be that the pandemic has pushed members of the Class of 2021 to develop nonacademic skills and traits that will be incredibly useful to them in their college careers and beyond. Chief among these is resilience. When considering applications this year, college admissions officers should consider student resilience alongside more traditional metrics. In this article, I’ll explain why and offer some strategies for evaluating the resilience of applicants.

The Value of Resilience

Resilience is the ability to maintain persistence and passion toward long-term goals, even in the face of adversity. Resilience is innate to all of us, built into the human brain, body and experience. That said, the pandemic has provided the opportunity for students to access and strengthen their innate resilience, ideally allowing them to build the tools that will allow them to continue to thrive in challenging times in the future. Those most successfully accessing and demonstrating resilience typically demonstrate a combination of determination, attitude, positive habits, learning from negative experiences and gratitude for the positive things in one’s life.

Resilience, then, is a skill that is useful in every setting -- educational, interpersonal, professional, etc. When resilient students get a poor grade on their first college assignment, for example, they may change their study habits, attend office hours, seek peer tutoring or otherwise adjust their practices to improve. In other words, resilient students have the qualities they need to adjust to life in college, even if that life is vastly different from what they experienced in high school.

Put differently: if test scores are akin to a student’s mile time, resilience is akin to their overall fitness. The mile time evaluates how they performed at a fixed point in the past, whereas fitness is a predictor of how they’ll perform on a variety of physical feats in the future.

Because of all the ways college is different from high school, resilience is key to helping students succeed as they make this educational and lifestyle transition. The difficulty, of course, is evaluating this valuable trait from college admissions documents. I recommend looking at these three elements of the application.

The Essay

Essays provide key insights into student resilience because they focus on stories about the student’s life. It’s in these narratives where evidence of resilience lives: the B-plus grade that was an F at midterms, the good-but-not-great SAT score that a student earned despite significant test anxiety or a learning difference.

What’s more, many of the Common App essay prompts ask, directly or indirectly, about ways students have overcome adversity. Schools that use their own prompts often ask for similar narrative elements. While not all applicants are great writers, the positioning and tone of an essay can communicate a lot about the writer’s resilience. An important element of resilience is a student’s “self-explanatory style,” or how he or she chooses to tell themselves the story of why an experience happened the way it did. This is especially important in adverse events -- how you tell yourself a story about an event can affect your future performance. The most resilient people reinforce their own agency by explaining challenges not as chance but in a way that makes them feel in control.

When evaluating essays for evidence of resilience, admissions officers should look for positive takes on negative outcomes (what students have learned, how they have adapted), evidence that students are giving themselves agency to impact the situation moving forward, and the attitude that obstacles are a part -- and even an essential part -- of achieving success.

Recommendation Letters

Just as important as the ways students portray themselves and their experiences are the insights included in their recommendation letters.

These letters serve in part as a character reference for applicants; because resilience is a character trait, recommendation letters are a great place to look for students with a particular strength. When seeking such evidence, admissions officers should look for signals that students have worked particularly hard for their achievements, as well as explicit mentions of obstacles students have overcome.

Recommendation letters provide a helpful foil to essays because adult recommenders may to have more perspective than students. A student whose modesty, for example, may prevent their essay from signaling exceptional resilience, may shine as a bastion of resilience in a letter from a counselor who has watched them clear hurdle after hurdle.

Student Background

Both essays and recommendation letters can provide valuable clues to resilience; however, both are subjective. Considering them in conjunction with an applicant’s background and school profile can offer important context for the described experiences in both documents.

Students coming from lower-income backgrounds typically face significantly more obstacles on their path to college than their higher-income peers. As a result, poor students are less likely to enroll and attend college when compared to academically similar peers. However, it’s important to reflect on how these students may have grown from the challenges they’ve faced; their frequent encounters with adversity provide them ample opportunity to grow as resilient, persistent individuals.

In order to build resilience, students must encounter adversity -- and adapt. Low-income and first-generation college students have often had more ample experience in overcoming barriers. They’ve had to develop resilience on the path to their achievement that their wealthier peers likely have not. Colleges should celebrate these students (while providing support to them in the admission and enrollment processes to address the existing opportunity gaps) and what they will bring to their campuses.

In 2021, Evidence of Resilience Matters More Than Ever

Resilience is always a helpful trait, in both college and life after graduation. In the era of COVID-19, when pandemic restrictions have prevented many students from reaching the milestones or earning the grades and test scores that traditionally signal college readiness, admissions officers should seek evidence of resilience in applications.

By admitting a more resilient Class of 2025, colleges and universities can look forward to students and alumni who thrive in whatever personal, national and global circumstances await them during college and beyond.

Bio

Matthew Pietrafetta founded Academic Approach in 2001 and currently serves as its chief executive officer.

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