Prepping for college in the new normal

Students in the high school class of 2021 certainly have some unique challenges ahead of them as they head toward graduation. 


With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down classrooms, sports teams, field trips, and other school events, it’ll be more difficult for students to participate in the extracurricular activities that help set them apart in the college admissions hunt. Additionally, with a growing number of institutions waiving or phasing out standardized testing requirements, how will they “show their smarts”?

Here are some tips for you and your child. 

1. Grades matter. It can be hard to pay attention on a Zoom call, but since many schools will be holding classes online, it’s important for your child to stay engaged. With reduced activities, a student’s GPA will likely count more than ever. If your child has a class that’s particularly easy, have he or she ask the teacher what he or she can do to receive extra credit. If a certain class is difficult, don’t hesitate to ask for extra help. Remind your child that a little hard work will pay greater dividends than leveling up on Fortnite.

2. Essays will be more important than ever. Remember those essays from your college applications? Probably not. But they’re significant to admissions officers. The 650-word Common App is only one of the many your child will have to write, but it’s one of the most important, as it’ll be seen by most of the schools he or she applies to. College admissions coach Nancy Steenson advises her clients to write essays that reflect a personal narrative. “This essay is their opportunity to show the colleges who they are because fewer colleges are interviewing,” she said.

It’s a good idea to have your child start drafting his or her Common App essay early in the school year and then have one trusted source give feedback. Also, be sure your child doesn’t repeat the subject of the Common App essay in his or her other essays. Have your child start a list of potential topics and review them.

3. Show some initiative. Has all the stay-at-home time during the pandemic turned your child into a fledgling chef or baker? Or has he or she spent time in the garage building or repairing something? Any new skill—playing the guitar, studying a new language, writing code—will help show the admissions office that your child enjoys learning. Plus, it’ll make a great topic for one of his or her essays.

4. Volunteer. Opportunities to make the world a better place still abound. Helping stock food banks, delivering groceries to elderly residents, organizing blood drives, tutoring or offering lessons online; all of these activities can make a difference, both in your community and for your child. 

Finally, even though we’re living through a pandemic, there’s still time to contribute to your child’s education fund, whether it’s a 529 college savings plan or other type of account. If you or your spouse is out of work, consider asking family members for support. Also, be sure to speak with your financial professional, who can help tailor a plan that meets your needs.