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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Silbernagel

Navigating College Prep During A Pandemic

Updated: Nov 24, 2020


High school seniors are wrapping up their applications in what is likely the most unprecedented college admissions season in history.

Ninth, tenth, and eleventh-grade students are engaged in their own novel experiences -- preparing for college during a pandemic. Many juniors are studying for standardized tests that may not even occur. All students are navigating an untested learning paradigm. The uncertainty is unsettling.

Yet two fundamental aspects of college admissions have not changed over the past ten months (nor over the past ten years!) College prep steps that stem from this foundation will lead to success.

1. There is a college for everyone

The majority of colleges admit most students who apply (Pew Research Center). In fact, of the approximately 4,000 colleges and universities, only 200 have an acceptance rate below 50 percent. Be curious in the college search process, expand your view beyond the colleges you know.

Takeaway -- Build a balanced list that includes target schools where you will be happy, successful, and thrive.

2. Grades rule

For decades, grades in college preparatory courses have been the primary factor in college admissions. This has not changed.

grades on a chalkboard

Colleges know that how students perform in their courses over their high school career is the best predictor of how well they will perform over the course of their college career. While performance on standardized tests has some predictive value, the tests typically point only to how well the student will do their freshman year at college. Colleges are looking for students who will succeed beyond that first year.

Student Takeaway -- Engage in your classes. If you are struggling, attend study sessions, ask for help. Make yourself a goal to improve and create specific actions steps to help you achieve your goal (see below). Admissions officers notice (and like) upward trends. Improvement over time demonstrates concerted effort and commitment.

Course rigor (strength of curriculum) is the second most important consideration in college acceptance. Admissions officers look to see if students have progressively challenged themselves.

Student Takeaway -- Assess your progress, consider which subjects you may want to challenge yourself in next year. Take action to make progress in areas of weakness.

Touchstone Tip

Be a front-row student, even in this virtual world, and especially if you find you are struggling. Demonstrate your commitment to your studies by going to virtual office hours -- it's essentially free tutoring. If you are doing poorly on tests and assignments, meet with your teacher to learn how you can improve.

Ask your teacher to help you identify where you are experiencing the disconnect. Is it a matter of not understanding the content? Are you having trouble transferring your knowledge from assignments to exams? Do you need more practice with the content? Is there something about the new learning environment that trips you up? Teachers are invested in your success. If you do well, it demonstrates that they are doing well as teachers. Ask your teacher for specific suggestions. Instead of focusing on grades, put the emphasis on learning. Ask if you can resubmit an assignment or if there are extra credit assignments.

If you are receiving additional tutoring, mention it to your teacher. Let her know that you are working hard to improve and learn.

Juniors, take note that in a few short months you will ask one or two core teachers to write you a letter of recommendation. Now is the time to lay the foundation. Give them something to write about. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Chances are another student has the same question.

Demonstrate your commitment to learning and show them your character. Pop into an office hour just to say hi. Send them an encouraging email.

Consider how you feel when you get an “attaboy” or a “well done” comment. Let your teachers know when a lesson really hit home or if they explained something particularly well.

Find some common, relatable topic to connect over -- a book, a movie, a YouTube video.

Character does count in the admissions process for many colleges and universities. Students have a prime opportunity to help their teachers learn more about their unique character traits simply by engaging with them during these unusual times. A little interaction can make a big difference.


Do you have questions about preparing for college? Let's talk!


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