Now that California’s schools will not open until fall, many high school students have been left confused and reeling: What does this mean for college admissions? Will I be at a disadvantage? Are there still steps I can take to strengthen my application?
First, let’s be clear that students should not feel compelled to take on additional responsibilities if they or their families are struggling with physical or mental health challenges. Be realistic and honest. If you’re still coming to terms with what’s going on in the world, the best solution may be just to take a break. But for those who are bored and yearning for more to do, here are some suggestions:
- Take an online community college class.
Most community colleges including Foothill and College of San Mateo are holding spring quarter classes online. Explore a new interest or learn more about an existing academic passion. Colleges love to see students who are intellectually driven and enjoy learning for its own sake. Select classes that are UC transferable if you want UC schools to add them to your GPA and weight them as AP classes. Some high schools like Palo Alto High have decided no spring term off-campus classes will be added to the high school transcript, but students can still submit college transcripts separately during the admissions process.
- Pursue an academic passion. Go deep. Write a research paper.
With some high schools making all school work optional and giving students Pass/ Fail grading, you may be eager to continue pushing the boundaries of your knowledge. You can do this with an independent project designed and supervised by you, a teacher, parent, or other trusted adult. Once you’ve identified what topic you’d like to explore (Artificial intelligence? Space exploration? Russian literature?), make a list of informational sources: digital and traditional books (many still available on Amazon), online resources (Ted Talks, Kahn Academy, college departments such as Stanford, many of which are making interesting seminars and lectures free to the public), and even academic publications and magazines (access through local libraries).
- Prepare for upcoming competitions.
There are many annual competitions in every field imaginable, so after you’ve identified a compelling topic you’d like to research, think about how you might be able to submit your work to a contest. Just a few examples: the AAN Neuroscience Research Prize, Davidson Fellows, Google Science Fair, Intel Science Fair, MIT Think Scholars, Congressional App Challenge, and National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. For humanities buffs, there are also a wide assortment of speech, short story (Bluefire), essay (Growing up Asian in America) and poetry contests (Santa Clara County Library just announced theirs). Many literary magazines have sections designated for high school authors (Young Voices, PANK Future Fridays, Hanging Loose). Keep in mind that if you’ve missed a deadline, most contests recur at the same time every year. How about working on a submission now so that once school is back in session, you’ll already have it done and ready to submit?
- Start or continue with extracurricular activities online
Miss social interaction and all those school and community activities you used to pursue? Let’s get creative. Would it be possible to take those clubs online and meet in a virtual format? Book clubs, literary magazines, and even school newspapers can all have a digital format. What about community service? Is it possible to write letters to the hospital patients, veterans, or seniors you used to visit? Could you give free Zoom concerts if you’re a talented piano player? Offer free Zoom piano lessons to low-income kids? Maybe you can even start a new initiative that you feel passionately about. Now more than ever the world needs the talent and optimism of the next generation. How do you envision making an impact or even organizing fellow high school students in your community to lead an effort that would touch the many people now in need?
- Study for the SAT
While maybe not at the top of any high school student’s list, studying for the SAT can give students a head start for the fall, when it’s very likely SAT exams will restart even if schools do not reopen. While many colleges have switched to a test-optional policy for the Class of 2021, such as the UC system, Vassar, and Pomona, students with average GPAs who are strong test takers will still benefit by submitting SAT scores. When a college makes an admissions decision without test scores, they are necessarily weighing a student’s GPA even more because that is now the sole indicator of a student’s academic potential. This can help some students while hurting others. For those that want to take advantage of fall testing, now is the time to prepare both for the SAT I and SAT II subject tests. If you’ve already been through a preparation course, you’ll probably do fine studying on your own as long as you stay disciplined and follow a schedule. There’s a lot of great content online you can review, such as Prep Scholar’s free blogs, as well as SAT prep books such as Dr. Jang's SAT 800 Math Workbook, Erica Meltzer’s Critical Reader, Kallis’ SAT Pattern Strategy, and the SAT Prep Black Book.
- Start your college application early!
Calling all juniors… while you are the students hurt the most by pass/fail grading for the last full term that colleges will consider (senior grades tend to carry less weight), you can take advantage of this extra time by starting college applications early. So many students wait until the fall of senior year to begin drafting college essays. This is a big mistake, particularly because that’s also when most seniors are taking their final SAT exams while juggling school and extracurricular activities. Start now by researching colleges, developing a college list with reach, target, and safety schools, and beginning your Common or Coalition Application. You should also communicate with teachers to confirm who will be writing your recommendations and send them materials to help them write the letter (resume, brag sheet, college essay, etc.). Finally, brainstorming, developing, and polishing all your application essays can take countless hours and dozens of revisions. Start early and save yourself a lot of headache and stress—you’ll also ensure you give yourself the best possible chance at being accepted at your first choice college!
(Jennifer Wang, of Chinese-Indian descent, is an independent college counselor who has been guiding students through the college admissions process since 1999. After graduating from Stanford, she founded Insight College Prep Centers, one of the pioneering counseling firms in the Bay Area. Her students have gained admission to Stanford, USC, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the UC system. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she has since returned to the Bay Area and resumed her passion of helping students achieve their college goals at her boutique practice Summa Counseling (www.summacounseling.com) in Redwood City.)