College Admissions Expert Offers 5 Tips to Gain Advantage During School Closures

Trish Sammer Updated on March 18, 2020

Dear NitroCollege readers,

I never write blog posts in a letter format, but it somehow seems fitting right now. With so many of us practicing "social distancing," we could probably all use a bit of human connection wherever we can get it.

I have two kids in high school. The school's Facebook page is full of questions, confusion, and fear. In our district, students are scrambling to figure out what to do about ACT and SAT cancelations. People want to know if prom is still going to happen. And what about the musical? And spring sports?

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While I can't answer all of your questions, I'd like to be helpful where I can. That 's why I decided to reach out to a true guru for some real talk on what impact Coronavirus may have on college admissions.

David Smith is a college admissions expert. A lot of people use the word "expert" these days and I often question whether the term applies, but the label definitely fits in David's case. He grew up in a tiny town in West Virginia and was the sole student from his high school class to secure admission to Harvard. After a long career in business and political consulting, David switched gears to follow his passion: Helping students navigate the college selection and admissions processes. 

David and I spoke at length about how college-bound students of all ages can use this uncertain time to their advantage. I'll be sharing much of this with my own kids. I hope that you — whether you're a parent or a student — will find this info as helpful as I did. Below is a portion of our Q&A. (And look for more insights from David in future articles.)

Tip #1: Get personal

Nitro: Many students are concerned about how school closures will impact college admissions. A lot of things are out of their control. Is there anything they can do to boost their prospects if their schools are closed for extended periods? 

David: I was half-jokingly commenting the other day that "how I spent my coronavirus quarantine" is going to become the new version of "what I did on my summer vacation." College admissions boards are going to be inundated with essays about students who collected canned goods and brought them to the local shelter or food pantry. And listen, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from sincerely donating their time, money, or resources, but know that everyone has a volunteer or community-service angle on their college applications these days, and a garden-variety essay won’t cut it. 

What's really going to resonate with colleges is a deep level of sincerity about the student's experience. Maybe a student was worried about grandma being isolated, so they taught her how to Facetime, or went and stayed with her for the duration — learning more about their family lore in the bargain. Maybe someone has anxiety and spent some time with mom or dad planting a backyard garden, and that helped ease some fears.

Those kinds of simple, touching, getting-back-to-basics stories are going to be meaningful when it comes to college essays.

Tip #2: Keep a journal (but be flexible on what that looks like)

Nitro: I imagine it can be challenging for students to get personal in their essays when they're more accustomed to writing text-dependent analyses or term papers.

David: It can be. That's why I strongly urge all parents to encourage their kids to keep journals from a very young age, even if they're only doing it sporadically.  It gets them in the habit of talking about themselves and talking about their feelings.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to have kids read The Diary of Anne Frank.  It's a road map of how to keep a journal, and it allows you to see how Anne's writing matured over time. 

What's great is that keeping a journal doesn't need to be a chore and kids can use their technology. Some people still think that a journal has to be a cloth-bound book, but if a kid keeps a running “note” on their iPad, laptop, or phone, it's accomplishing the exact same thing. They can even use speech-to-text. If Anne Frank had had a smartphone, she would've been using speech-to-text!

Plus, the Anne Frank discussion can help keep things in perspective over the next few weeks. "OK, we're all cooped up, but we can all go take a walk on a trail because we’re not locked up like she was." I mean, they were in that attic for years. Kids as young as eight can gain a historical perspective from this. 

See also: How to Start a Scholarship Essay

Tip #3: Learn the family lore

Nitro: In a quarantine situation, we're all going to be spending a lot more time online. How can students use that time in a more meaningful way?

David: If I were an admissions officer, I'd love to read an essay comparing someone's current quarantine situation to what it might have looked during the Spanish Flu in 1918 — and have it be as personal as possible. It would be interesting for students to investigate where their ancestors were at the time. Did their family tree split because of it? Did one of their ancestral pairings happen in part because of the pandemic? If you think about it, we’re all probably alive today because at least one of our ancestral pairings happened, in part, due to the Spanish flu. Thinking about what we might like to say to our own descendants 100 years from now would make for a neat time capsule essay, if you think about it.

Or maybe a student finds an ancestor whose story really resonates with them. They could investigate how that person coped without all of the advances of the last 100 years. Again, this is another exercise that can provide some perspective and reassurance. Parents can reinforce the message of: "Look here! We come from a truly resilient group of people. This is how your great-great-grandparents survived, and they had a lot less than we do."

If people have older living relatives, they could interview them about the stories they heard growing up. Perhaps someone's grandmother remembers her mother talking about how the Spanish flu swept through their community.

Tip #4: Volunteer in more meaningful ways

Nitro: Are there activities that might help students gain some insight into their career choices during this time?

David: This could be an opportunity for kids to gain authentic experience in certain fields they might be interested in. The medical field is an obvious example. They could call a local doctor's office and ask to volunteer to help file or do something else to help the regular staff keep the office running, or to get caught back up once the all-clear is given in their community. That way, they can get a sense of what it's really like inside a busy, frantic doctor's office. And, realistically, we could all probably stand to take an online CPR or first aid course. 

I also expect to see a massive surge of out-of-the-house activities after this is over. That would be a great time to help out with local athletics or arts programs, which are going to need extra hands on deck. Childcare programs may need help as more parents go back to work to make up for lost income. Students should look for opportunities to participate in their future field, even if it's only on the periphery. Just being in certain settings can provide a lot of insight. 

Tip #5: Break out of 'learned helplessness'

Nitro: Are there other things college-bound students should be thinking about right now?

David: Other cultures do a far better job of integrating older people within the family. This situation is forcing us to look at things through an inter-generational perspective. It may give us all a chance to cherish our elders a little more.

We have all succumbed to a bit of learned helplessness over the last few decades. This is an opportunity for all of us to shake this off, and to reconnect with our roots. We all have a lot more resilience, talents, and capabilities than we realize. We can discover the self-sufficiency within, which is a helpful tool for kids to have before they go away to school. Writing about how they discovered or rediscovered their own sense of can-do would make for worthwhile reading, come next fall.

Follow us on social media to read more ...

We'll have more insights from our chat with David Smith in the coming days. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to be alerted to new articles. 

About the Author
Trish Sammer

Trish Sammer is Nitro's managing editor. Her work has appeared in Woman’s Day, Redbook, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Forbes. She has also written for various corporate clients, including the tech giant SAP, The Franklin Institute, and PSE&G. When Trish isn’t busy acting as a writing ninja for other people, you can find her … well, writing about other stuff, like divorce and blended family life. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband, their combined brood, and the world’s laziest dog. Read more by Trish Sammer

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