Class of 2021: What 315 College Admissions Deans are Looking for This Year

For the high school seniors of the Class of 2021 and their parents, “uncertainty” has been the theme when it comes to the impending college admissions process. 

“I have a lot of concerns about what the holistic review process will look like for the Class of 2021,” said Claudine Olsen, the mother of a rising high school senior in a New York City suburb. 

“My daughter didn’t get the chance to sit for the SAT or ACT yet, and while she is signed up for three dates in the fall, I am worried they may be canceled or that she may not do her best under the circumstances if she has to wear a mask during the test. If she doesn’t have scores to submit but another student does, how does that impact my daughter’s chances of being admitted?” she asked.

“Our rising seniors will also be missing key activities and experiences they had planned on during the summer and school year, so there will not be as much on their applications to differentiate themselves,” Olsen added. 

Olsen is far from alone. When students submit their college applications this fall, they might look different than in years past. What does that mean for the Class of 2021? Will the colleges really understand? 

More than 300 college deans have signed a statement to Class of 2021 about admissions next year. (Twenty20 AAAS)

College admissions deans know that this year is different

The answer, according to 315 college admissions deans, is a resounding YES: They will understand that this year has not been business as usual, and they want the Class of 2021 to prioritize caring for themselves and others over conventional achievement standards in a continuing time of crisis for our country. 

In “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19,” the Making Caring Common project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education clarifies exactly what college admissions deans expect from high school seniors this fall in a collective statement signed by representatives from colleges all over the country. 

“We want students to know that we recognize that we’re living in extraordinary times,” Princeton University Dean of Admissions Karen Richardson said. “This year is like no other. And we’re going to take that into consideration when evaluating academic credentials and how students have spent their time. We can’t expect that everything will be the same, because it’s not.”

Richardson said she signed Making Caring Common’s statement because she hopes that it will help students take a step back and give themselves the permission to do what’s best for them and their families in the coming months. 

“From my perspective, we’re always about meeting students where they are and wanting to know WHO they are (not who they think we want them to be),” she said. “And this year makes it that much more important to underscore it.”

Five things college admissions deans are looking for from this year’s applicants

In the statement, college admissions deans from Rutgers to Vanderbilt, Central Michigan to Holy Cross, Pepperdine to the University of Florida agreed that these qualities are what they will value in a year when nothing has gone has planned for anyone:

  • Self care. “We recognize that many students, economically struggling and facing losses and hardships of many kinds, are simply seeking to get by,” the statement reads. “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.” Jody Glassman, the Director of University Admissions at Florida International University, wants everyone to take a deep breath. For years, Glassman has advocated for students to prioritize their mental health and well-being, especially in the college admissions process –– in part because she has struggled with it herself.  “I know what it feels like to feel like you are not ‘enough,’” she said. “I’m glad to see so many ‘name-brand’ institutions also taking this stance right now and saying to parents and students, ‘It’s OK. Take a beat.’ 
  •  Academic work. As always, colleges will care about applicants’ academic work and engagement. However, they also understand that families have faced obstacles during the pandemic that might affect students’ performance. “We will assess your academic achievements mainly based on your academic performance before and after this pandemic,” the statement reads. “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.” With so much out of their own power, Princeton’s Richardson suggested students take control of the things they can, like spending time on essays and thinking carefully about who will write their recommendations. 
  • Service and contributions to others. Even now, there are many ways for students to contribute to their communities, the deans acknowledge –– tutoring, contract tracing, supporting senior citizens, volunteering for political campaigns, or working to stop racial injustice. But they don’t want students to see service as a competition.  “Our interest is not in whether students created a new project or demonstrated leadership during this period,” they wrote. “We, emphatically, do not seek to create a competitive public service ‘Olympics’ in response to this pandemic. What matters to us is whether students’ contribution or service is authentic and meaningful to them and to others, whether that contribution is writing regular notes to frontline workers or checking in with neighbors who are isolated.”
  • Family Contributions. The deans recognize that some students may now carry increased responsibilities at home effecting their ability to engage in school or other activities. Schools will view “substantial family contributions as very important and encourage students to report them in their applications.”
  • Extracurricular and summer activities. The college admissions officers know that many students’ summer plans –– whether they were internships, summer camp, classes, travel abroad, or opportunities for leadership experiences –– disappeared this summer due to social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 regulations. “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,” read the statement. It also emphasized the value of work or family responsibilities.

Glassman wants the members of the Class of 2021 and their parents to remember that all 315 of these college admissions deans are going through this global pandemic with them. “We’re working from home in our yoga pants just like you are,” she said. 

“It’s a shame it took a global pandemic to slow people down,” she added. “But take care of yourselves, take care of your families. Let’s focus on what’s really important right now.”

More to Read:

Pediatrician and Mom Says This is What You Can Expect at School This Fall

Allison Slater Tate is a freelance writer and editor in Central Florida. She has four children ranging in age from 17 to 7, and she bears all the scars –– emotional and physical –– that come with them. Let the record show she is in no way, shape, or form a Boomer. Allison has been featured on TODAY.com, nbcnews.com, Scary Mommy, Brain, Child and Brain, Teen Magazine, Your Teen for Parents, the Washington Post, and the NY Times and in the Grown and Flown book!!! You can find her on Facebook.

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