For Montclair Local

Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Visit the archives at for her tips on writing memorable essays, finding financial aid, compiling a realistic college list, and more. For information on online essay


coaching, visit and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram. And consider joining the Facebook group “Montclair High Schools College Admissions,” (, a new forum where students, parents, and independent college consultants share and discuss resources related to the college admissions process.


COVID-19 has all but blown up the once-reliable model for getting into college. Academic achievement remains a given, but virtually every other aspect of the application process has been turned on its ear. 

Standardized testing has become optional at many colleges, including at some of the most competitive, and sports competitions are on hold. The same goes for many extra-currics, depending on the activity. 

You can still find a significant way to spend your summer as long as you can do it remotely or while wearing a mask. (Tufts, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins, among other colleges and universities, offer summer online courses to high school students, some for free.) 

And jobs? Well, it’s a long line.

So how are members of the Class of 2021 to navigate this still-shifting landscape and persuade colleges they are suitable candidates? Anticipate a possible overhaul of what college applications typically want from you, an article in the Wall Street Journal suggested last week ( 

What colleges want could include samples of schoolwork and live video interviews, the article stated. But what applications will actually look like remains to be seen. In the meantime, chances are good that how you’re spending these extraordinary days will matter. 





But let’s first take a second to acknowledge how extraordinary. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, sheltering in place while the scientific and medical communities do what they do. It’s difficult for most of us to wrap our brains around the fact that staying safe and protecting our loved ones is currently our top priority. It’s imperative that we move through the world with more caution than we’re used to, but it’s also frustrating.  

College admissions officers see what you’re going through. They understand that your activities are on hold for now. What they want to know is how you’ve adapted to the crisis. Adaptability is, after all, a sign of maturity and college readiness. 

Are you making the most of isolation? Have you considered what, in the past, you never had time for — the books you’ve been meaning to read, the skills you’ve always wanted to learn, the long-distance friends and family members you don’t want to lose touch with? (Hint: Maybe there’s an essay topic in there somewhere.)  

Think too about those things you say are your passions. You may have heard that some schools appreciate students whose activities align with a particular interest, say, biology or classical music. Keep in mind it will be harder to make the case that you are passionate about poetry if you haven’t spent at least some of this time writing and reading a fair amount of verse.

If you planned to visit colleges over spring break, well, that didn’t happen — unless you took virtual tours. Schools are ramping up, adding as-if-you-were-here webinar, video conferencing and info session options to help you answer the question “Is this school right for me?” 

Showing up at these online events will raise your profile with a school — and you haven’t had to leave your couch. As you develop your list, make sure you check websites or call admissions offices directly to find out what’s new. 

And speaking of the virtual world, start following the Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter accounts of those schools you’re curious about. (Note: Many admissions offices have their own accounts.) Schools are posting for your benefit, to keep you abreast of how they are addressing applicants’ needs.

You’ll want to follow other resources, too, like the College Board and ACT for standardized testing info and the Common App, which has just updated its application form with an optional Covid-19 section. This new section gives students a chance to specify whether they experienced “illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and shifting family obligations” due to the pandemic. There’s also a 250-word essay prompt (also optional) on how your life may have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

Speaking of essays, it’s safe to say, given all you haven’t been able to do these months, that your voice, as expressed through the main essay and supplement portions of your applications, will carry more weight than in a typical application season. 

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to identify a topic, whether you start now or wait till summer to begin developing your thoughts. Stumped as to how to get started? Ask yourself, what makes me happy? Aim to be positive and forward-looking. 

And think twice before featuring the pandemic. I’m not saying don’t do it under any circumstance, but as hard as these months have been, there’s more to your life than COVID-19. And as I said, if you were hurt by the coronavirus, there’s a prompt for that.

It’s too soon to get consensus on what the financial aid picture will look like for students entering college in the fall of 2021. At least the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) will reflect the economic adversity families experienced in this calendar year. But the pandemic isn’t nearly over, plus there’s an election this fall, and both events are likely to impact whatever federal funding will be available. As for what a college can contribute to a student’s education, that will depend on the financial strength of each institution.   

These are stressful days for everyone. Use the stillness to look inward and get to know yourself better, suggests independent college consultant Robin Abramowitz. 

And look around. Have you an older neighbor who is unable to be outside, whose lawn could use mowing or who’d appreciate some fresh-baked cookies? Maybe you have family friends with young children who’d welcome your reading to their kids over FaceTime. Your small gestures could have big impacts on other people’s lives, whether or not there’s a prompt for that.