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The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the high school experience and education in general. As prospective university students look towards the fall of 2021 and the institutions they hope to be attending for the first time, be that remotely or in-person, they likely have some questions about how the pandemic has changed the process of university application. 

An undertaking that many young people already found intimidating has become even more confusing. Thankfully, high school graduates can take comfort in the fact that their peers are all confronting the same obstacles. Let’s look at a few of the overarching trends reshaping college applications in 2021 and beyond.  

Every school is facing unique challenges 

The number one thing to keep in mind is that every institution has to cope with unique circumstances, in addition to varying regulations and restrictions. 

Any student looking to apply should refer to the updated information and specifications on the school’s website. In what has already been an incredibly chaotic year, admissions officers will look kindly on those who are precise in adhering to updated application guidelines. 

Missing test scores are not a disadvantage 

The admissions criteria are going to look different this year, and that is ok. Students must remember that just because their high school’s evaluation structure has changed, it does not mean universities are not equipped to deal with it. 

Universities are used to receiving various criteria to judge from and know how to evaluate material from students with diverse learning backgrounds. As Whitney Soule, Sr Vice President and Dean of Admissions & Student Aid at Bowdoin College, explained to The Conversation, “some high schools do not ever assign grades, so colleges review a transcript that consists purely of their teachers’ comments. 

Other students have attended multiple high schools, which means that their transcripts have different grading scales. Bottom line: All of the academic work leading up to the pandemic still matters and can help frame the work in the past couple of months.”

Schools are aware of the changes to the IB calendar 

Soule goes on to highlight the fact that almost 400 colleges have stated that the lack of test scores is not an admissions disadvantage. Students should be aware that colleges understand and are prepared to address the predicament of canceled Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate testing. 

Referring to a published document from Making Caring Common (a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education), Soule emphasized that “these colleges have signed an agreement that states the absence of AP or IB results will not put applicants at a disadvantage. They will ‘view students in the context of the curriculum, academic resources and supports available to them.’”

Recommendations letter etiquette and importance is evolving 

Universities have always had differing requirements for letters of recommendation. From specific subject-areas to letters from a teacher versus counselor, conditions can vary significantly by school. What is essential for students to be aware of in fulfilling these requirements is that the etiquette for approaching a potential reference has changed due to the pandemic. 

Admission officers rely on letters of recommendation to glean insight into a student’s learning style and strengths, which is more important than ever with the absence of test results and entrance exams. Although in the past, it would generally not be advisable for a student to request a letter from someone they had never met in person—that is no longer the case. Even if all interaction has been virtual, teachers can characterize the student as a learner in an online environment. 

Virtual education is likely to become a more integrated part of post-secondary education, and admissions officers are interested in the teacher’s view on how a student functions in this capacity.

With all that in mind, it can be tempting for students to go overboard and reach out to every teacher or counselor with whom they have had a positive experience. This approach can end up backfiring. Most application specialists stick to a rule of one above the required amount. 

Therefore, if a college requires two letters of recommendation, students should submit no more than three. Admissions officers already have a momentous task in sorting through the enormous amount of information they receive, so too many recommendations may overwhelm the reader or convey signs of insecurity on the part of the applicant. 

Showing a bit of personality is more important than ever

As noted above, reference letters are likely to carry more weight than usual in an application package that may be short on test results and extracurricular accomplishments. In this context, it is vital for an applicant to let their personality shine through. Admission forms and personal essays provide an opportunity for students to share their passions, interests, and goals for the future. 

As the University of Waterloo states in their application information, these materials “enables us to get a better picture of [a student’s] interests, goals, hobbies, and any jobs or other activities [they] may have been involved in. We’re not looking for specific extracurricular activities since they depend on your interests and the opportunities available through schools and the community.”

A positive attitude will be rewarded

Inevitably, many application essays will include reflections on the past year. Although there is nothing wrong with being honest about the challenges that one has faced, students would be well advised to include their thoughts on current educational opportunities. 

The pandemic has forced schools of all structures and sizes to break out of old habits and create learning methodologies that take advantage of technology and this moment. Higher education is also on track to become more accessible as institutions further diversify their online programming. Schools are looking to invite students that can help them imagine a brighter and more inclusive environment for all attendees. 

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