Traditionally, the Common App has required students to list their extracurricular activities; often, as a supplement, colleges ask them to pick the one that is most important and expound upon it. What we have all (hopefully) realized in the last 12 months is that what was once required of students, what was once a part of their daily routines, has changed, perhaps forever. We are asking students to define themselves by a past they didn’t have, at the very moment we require them to identify a future where they can thrive. Encouraging students to define themselves by rules and frameworks that are no longer compatible with the world in which they live is not only a disservice to the students, but to the institutions with which they wish to engage.
The class of 2022, and the classes of 2023 and 2024, will have spent more than a quarter of their high school careers in quarantine, many limited to distance learning. NACAC members on all sides of the desk should take this opportunity to step back and reconsider the message that’s being sent to these students. In a time where they’ve had virtually no control, and during which many have faced unanticipated challenges to health, accessibility, and finances, the Common App should engage with these students where they are. Continuing the traditional enumeration of extracurricular activities, and potentially asking them to focus on a single “special” one, will not necessarily help an institution understand its incoming students and may only cause greater undue stress and anxiety to teenagers who have already experienced far more than their share. The ultimate result is a diminished sense of accomplishment or confidence.
How can a student illustrate their commitment to an extracurricular they didn’t participate in for a full four years? How can they showcase an activity where they missed the chance to be a captain, or even engage in a full season? Canceled performances, virtual clubs, limited community service, and increased family obligations are the new normal. College-bound students should not have to worry that living through a pandemic will make them a less desirable applicant. Yet these fears are voiced over and over. In the “before” times, some students found the 10 slots allotted for activities on the Common App insufficient. Now, those 10 blank lines are daunting for most.
To add to the distress, students are then asked to pick an activity by which to define themselves, when they’ve lived through an unprecedented global event that has defined them far more substantially. Yes, the Common App offers a 250-word “COVID essay,” but that is optional, and many students see it as a platform reserved for others who have lost loved ones, lost homes, or been ill. And few are confident that a COVID essay will serve as a worthy, equal substitute for the ritual, more elaborate request “How did you spend your time?” With the decreased focus on standardized tests, and the constant litany about holistic admission, it is no wonder that students are evermore concerned about not being enough.
Perhaps, as higher education is reimagined to better prepare students and the world for the jobs and challenges of the future, this is the time to take a breath and a good hard look at the questions we are asking. It would do all of us good to re-examine the continued relevance and perpetual focus on the factors which, especially during the pandemic, are beyond the attention and the reach of most students. This can be a true opportunity to re-examine our expectations as well as the impact those traditional questions have during a most singular time.
NACAC member Jodi Rosenshein Atkin is an independent college admission consultant based in Rochester, New York.