College Applications: What Part Do Extracurricular Activities Play During a Pandemic?

June 25, 2020

By: Kelly Alblinger

Staff Writer

college applications, college applications process

Every prospective college student understands that extracurricular activities have traditionally played a pivotal role in boosting an applicant’s status in the competition for college admission. Institutions of higher learning are looking for well-rounded individuals, students who are motivated to devote time to pursuits beyond academia. These are the students who represent their colleges well, and who become steadfast alumni.

But in this time of pandemic and social distancing, what does extracurricular look like when the world is operating under “safer at home” orders? What are admissions officers seeking, and has the importance of these activities (or lack of activities) changed in light of the current situation?

According to Stacey Kostell, CEO of Coalition for College, a group of public and private colleges and universities that work to improve the application and admissions process at institutions throughout the US, “The COVID-19 pandemic …offers new opportunities for students to build strong and creative college resumes.” In essence, demonstrating extracurricular activity is even more important now than in previous years, since colleges are being forced to accept credit/no-credit grades and a lack of standardized testing results when considering applications.

Since early March, students have found themselves with a lot of extra time due to the closure of schools and cancellation of events and activities. Creative use of that time will help differentiate equally academically-matched students from their peers. Those who added new hobbies or interests during their downtime, learning to knit or learning how to build a website, cooking or baking from scratch, mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, for example, demonstrate motivation and an eagerness for education in a variety of modalities. Volunteering in the community, always an important factor will remain an asset; especially in more creative and virtual forms, such as tutoring via FaceTime or Skype, sewing face masks or making sack lunches for frontline workers or first responders, even maintaining contact with the ill or elderly, for whom the personal connection is vitally important.

Kostell also notes that keeping a journal, akin to a personal historical record, aids in developing creative writing skills, and provides students with a boost when it comes to composing college application essays. Having access to observations and emotions recorded in the moment, whether on-paper, social media posts, or videos, provides a remarkable archive for application essays which demand self-reflection. James B. Massey Jr., Director of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of Maryland, says, “We’ll be encouraging students to make the most of the open-ended questions on the application that give them a chance to tell us more about how the pandemic affected their curricular and co-curricular activities. We want students to be honest with us and to share how this affected them and their overall student experience.”

A sampling of colleges and universities revealed the following statements about what institutions are seeking from applicants:


Yale University

“Yale’s application platforms provide ample space to provide contextual information that can help the Committee understand the factors that shaped students’ opportunities and commitments. Rest assured that Yale will take each student’s unique context into account when reviewing applications. No student will be penalized because of a change in commitments or a change to plans because of the outbreak. Our advice to candidates during this time remains the same: demonstrate a deep commitment to and genuine appreciation for whatever you spend your time doing.”

University of Pennsylvania

“Our whole-person review process has always relied on a comprehensive look at each student’s specific context and the environment as we learn about their achievements and experiences. This approach will continue in the age of COVID-19, as we seek to understand how student’s lives have had to shift, including as it relates to activities, responsibilities, and commitments outside of the classroom. We encourage students to practice self-care during this time and to rest assured that a change in their typical activities due to coronavirus adaptations will not harm their application to Penn.”

Stanford University

“Please know we are committed to working with you and offering as much flexibility as possible. One of our core values is to practice holistic admission, and we will continue to review all pieces in the application as an integrated whole, in the context of the unprecedented events we are living through now.”

The bottom line is that co-curricular and extracurricular activities have always mattered to schools seeking to create holistic educational experiences for students. And during this critical juncture in history, when the usual standards do not apply, schools are looking for students who distinguish themselves in areas other than academics. Jeremy Alder, the founder of College Consensus, aptly sums it up, “Students are going to have to be creative in finding ways to make themselves stand out.”

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