COVID Boosts Impact of Writing in College Admissions

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Madeleine Karydes
Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine attended UC Berkeley and double-majored in English and Media Studies. She is now an integral part of the Empowerly team.

The COVID pandemic has changed the college admissions landscape dramatically. Still, one of the most notable changes in the last few months has been the exclusion of standardized test scores. It’s true, these exams, like the SAT and ACT, have long held a place of honor in the admissions process. Now, an increasing number of campuses turned to test-optional or test-blind policies. In the wake of these adjustments, more weight falls upon the “soft factors” of the application; most notably, upon the personal essays. As the New York Times reports, the importance and impact of writing in college admissions is now under close scrutiny. Let’s dig in to how this is playing out for students today.

A Noble Goal

The COVID pandemic was the catalyst that led to large-scale cancellations of test dates. Since students couldn’t sit for the exams in-person, a whole graduating class of high school seniors faced brand-new uncertainties. Would exams be required? Would admissions officers understand the barriers? Some students even flew to neighboring states to find a test opportunity, before schools fully shut down test administration. 

As many colleges ultimately determined, there was simply no way to make the submission of standardized test scores with the college application an equitable process. As a result, many colleges simply put that requirement on pause. 

The goal, at its heart, intended to equalize the opportunity for students from a wider range of backgrounds. Access to a college education, they argued, should not be a class privilege. The effects of this change are still playing out. The classes of 2020, 2021, and likely 2022 will undergo a radically different college experience.

Shift in Discourse: Soft Factors

Now, the focus in college admissions shifted from numerical, quantitative data to more nebulous qualitative materials. “Grading” or “chancing” a student’s odds of acceptance became slipperier, since there is no hard rubric for these soft components. Similarly, the challenge of determining which students deserve acceptance has only gotten harder for colleges themselves. 

Nonetheless, the college essay has always been a leading element, and therefore has taken the helm. Writing in college admissions has perhaps never mattered more than today. Advocates for this shift argue that the personal essay is a student’s chance to tell their story in their own words; therefore, doing so should support greater diversity in the coming freshman classes.

A Reason, by Any Other Name?

Indeed, for those primarily concerned with equity and “holistic” admissions, this seems to be a boon of good fortune. However, it’s rarely so simple. Even writing in college admissions is subject to some forms of bias.

The New York Times article points out that “essays can be polished by a paid professional third party, or helped along by an upper-middle-class parent,” therefore further enacting the very same economic divides as test scores. For financially secure families, writing skills can become well-honed far in advance of senior year. 

Not only that, but as this report explains, the topics that students from high-income families write about vary drastically – and clearly  – from student’s topics from lower-income families. In other words, we have yet to fully equalize the playing ground.

The New Frontier

Understanding how college admissions officers read applicant’s supplemental essays is a relatively new art. Placing greater emphasis on uniqueness, originality, and authenticity, counselors and coaches encourage students to express their voice. And while there is no hard-and-fast formula for the perfect college essay, experts increasingly understand what makes an essay successful, or run-of-the-mill. 

More than ever before, writing a stellar essay to land your college acceptance letters has become a pivot point for many college hopefuls.

How Empowerly is Responding

Thankfully, the team at Empowerly has always valued the importance and impact of the student essay. As a result, they developed the Empowerly Score, a ground-breaking new technological tool, to fully analyze all factors of the application. This tool has changed the game. Participating students can actually see evidence of their own goals, strengths and weaknesses, and what changes they need to make on their application profiles in order to be competitive at their schools of choice. This tool arrived at the perfect time to help students facing down this seemingly-impossible admissions process with as much knowledge and data as possible.

Finally, the Empowerly team also supports working one-on-one with an empathetic counselor. Every student deserves a mentor who can help you develop your story and polish your writing to be the best it possibly can. From line edits to brainstorming sessions, the Empowerly team is dedicated to helping all students put their best foot forward and work towards their dreams.

Tips and Tricks for Students

For those of you facing the essays now, we have some tips and tricks. Be sure to review the following two downloadable resource guides (free of charge!) and share them with students in your life. 

Finally, if you need additional customized support as you work your way through this journey, know that the Empowerly team is in your corner. Reach out to learn more about our program and how we can help your student shine despite the challenges of this last year. We have the expertise to send you on your way with confidence. 

Questions? Let us know!