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Blog entry by Emily Schell

How COVID-19 Will Change U.S. College Admissions : Tips from a Former Ivy League Admissions Officer

Imagine a world where people are not allowed to meet face to face, where countries are shutting their borders to people entering for education or work, or where economies become increasingly unsteady, uprooted by forces that few can predict or control. It’s not that hard to imagine this world, actually, as it is the world in which we currently live. COVID-19 has brought noticeable and likely long-lasting changes to the way we conduct business, explore the world, and even relate to one another interpersonally. In this time of uncertainty, it can be hard to think about the upcoming admission’s cycle or how to best prepare as admissions to elite U.S. universities continues to get increasingly difficult. Admissions offers themselves are struggling to grapple with the potential possibility of a remote admissions cycle and what that would mean for the way they evaluate applicants. That said: you are not alone. 

I’m a former Ivy League Admissions Officer from Brown University and a current lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. On a day-to-day basis, I get to interact with and teach many incredible college students from around the world. At Brown University, I worked in the Admissions Office, helping them find the next best and brightest in very competitive applicant pools. It was a tough job, and I’ve brought my years of expertise to bear as a college consultant, with more than 80% of my clients gaining admission to Ivy League schools over the last two years. 

One of the questions I’ve gotten most often in the last few weeks is how exactly COVID-19 will impact the U.S. college admissions process. The most honest answer: not much, and potentially also a lot. The Ivy-Plus universities--Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, UPenn, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, Duke, UChicago, and Stanford--released their Class of 2024 decisions on time. As of right now, they will still be operating on their intended timeline for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, albeit with the caveat that the first round of decisions may need to be done remotely if American universities have not returned to their pre-COVID state by the fall. Accordingly, in terms of changes to the timeline and the competitiveness of this process, I do not expect things to shift drastically. If anything, we may see students apply at even higher levels to Ivy-Plus institutions that are “need-blind” based on families who may be entering dire financial straits in a post-COVID American economy.

However, where I do expect to see a change in the process is in the “in-person” element of the process: the alumni or admissions officer interview. Already, we have seen many prestigious U.S. universities, including Brown, move away from the interview, which requires a significant amount of human-power in the form of alumni interviewers, hours spent conducting and reporting about those interviews, and hours spent reading those reports. What has taken the interview’s place? In the case of Brown, many students were asked to submit a two-minute video about themselves and anything that was not already represented in their application. Some of my clients panicked at this request: two minutes – what can I do with that? How can I make myself stand out among the hundreds of thousands of other “video snippets” admissions officers will be seeing? My answer: a great applicant can do a lot with a little. This video was, and will continue to be, the element of applications where the great public speakers are separated from the mediocre ones.

To the parents reading this who are nervous about the college admissions process: debate and public speaking experience are two of the best ways you can prepare your child for success in an increasingly digital application process. Debate, in particular, offers ideal preparation. Under tight time constraints, debaters are forced to make a succinct, persuasive argument in favor of the cause they support. I ask: what is a cause that you and your child support? In my own experience, I have seen the way that former debaters and public speakers shined in the video and other interpersonal elements of their application. For example, I had a student who had impressive things to talk about - original marine biology research that he piloted in the Bahamas - fail to impress in his video because of poor, rambling delivery that did not give me a good sense for the passion that student felt towards his research. Conversely, another student who had great training from a rigorous Speech and Debate program talked about a far less impressive topic - her experience on her basketball team - but managed to deliver the topic in such an engaging way that I wanted to be on the basketball team with her. Even though the former student had more impressive grades and resume on many fronts than the latter, the former was not accepted into Top 10 U.S. schools that required a video, whereas the latter was accepted into all the Top 10 U.S. to which she applied. It may only be a few minutes, but it can mean the difference of the next four years, especially now.

For more information or questions, feel free to reach out to me at!

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