The playing field has essentially been leveled. Students aren't attending elite summer university programs, conducting research, participating in community service projects or mission trips, traveling to distant lands or growing in life-changing outdoor programs. Let's be real: They also aren't competing in sports, debating, tutoring, mentoring and pretty much everything else that could help them distinguish themselves in their college applications.
There is no question that colleges will be flexible when examining a student's activity list. Colleges have assured parents and students that they get it; they understand that students haven't had opportunities to explore, lead, participate and develop skills they would have had if we weren't dealing with a worldwide pandemic.
So, just be honest on the applications. If you feel compelled to share all the things you would have done, if it hadn't been for COVID-19, then write the optional COVID essay. But most students can relax and know that colleges understand and have adjusted their expectations.
But we still want to know how colleges make their admissions decisions. What goes on beyond those closed doors? While there's a lot we don't know, for the most part the admissions process is rational. Decisions are based on two basic sets of student qualifications: objective and subjective criteria.
Rigor of coursework: This is the most important factor. Colleges want to know that students challenged themselves. Colleges see a student's full transcript. That means even though they don't see senior-year grades, they are aware of course selection. Be sure not to load the senior year with lightweight classes, thinking colleges won't find out or won't care.
Grade point average (GPA), rank in class (RIC) and school profile: Have you excelled in your classes? Has there been improvement from freshman to sophomore year and sophomore to junior year? How do you compare with other students from your own school? How does your school compare with others?
Standardized testing: What are your best math/verbal, critical reading and writing scores? Are your scores competitive with the college's pool of applicants?
This is where students are able to set themselves apart from other applicants.