The following article was originally published in U.S. News and World Report on Aug. 21, 2020.
How COVID-19 Is Upending Extracurriculars
Some extracurriculars will go on, but experts say college-bound students should focus on academics and self-care.
By Josh Moody, Reporter
THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS has disrupted much of the educational environment since the pandemic hit the U.S. in the spring, causing colleges and K-12 schools to go online, a status that continues for many schools this fall.
But the ongoing impact of COVID-19 is hardly limited to the classroom. As school buildings remain shuttered in many states and cities, so do opportunities for extracurricular activities, particularly athletics.
And while the fall semester may seem bleak with the absence of some extracurricular activities, admissions experts say that there are still opportunities for high school students to make the most of their situation.
Students should understand the role that extracurricular activities play in college admissions.
“It’s definitely not the most important item, but it has a place,” says Eric Nichols, vice president of enrollment management at Loyola University Maryland. “By no means are they as important as how students are doing in class and what types of classes they’re taking, but it certainly is a component in the admission process.”
At Loyola, for example, Nichols says that students who are involved in extracurricular activities in high school often go on to be active members of the college community, joining student organizations and volunteering. Such participation, he says, tends to boost retention and graduation rates.
Some Extracurricular Activities Will Go on Despite COVID-19
For high school students who wish to be involved in extracurricular activities, not all hope is lost. While the coronavirus has forced athletics and some other activities to be canceled or postponed, others will continue online.
Speech and debate, for example, easily lend themselves to an online format. In fact, the National Speech & Debate Tournament moved online this summer and saw more than 6,600 students compete. Likewise, some drama teachers got creative when the coronavirus caused cancellation of scheduled productions last spring, shifting to recorded audio plays, short films and table readings over video calls, and proving that somehow the show must go on.
“Those of us who deliver services to our youth are being pressed to find new ways to deliver (those services), and that’s a good thing,” says Rick Dalton, president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways, a New York-based nonprofit that helps guide students to college.
The coronavirus, he adds, “is obviously a catalyst for change and good change. But we’re going to struggle, certainly in the initial phases of these changes – but that’s OK, that’s part of learning.”
Even high school sports, deemed too risky in some states, are poised to continue in others.
“High-level high school athletes may be the most affected by COVID-19. To stand out in the recruitment process, athletes need to compete,” Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors, wrote in an email.
“Complicating matters, states and even districts have different rules, so some students are practicing and competing, while other programs are closed. Not being visible and not building an athletic resume can hurt a student’s chances in securing a spot on a collegiate team or earning an athletic scholarship”, she says.
But high school student-athletes should continue to work out, eat well, contact coaches and create video clips highlighting their skills, she says, adding they may use extra time to tackle a more rigorous academic curriculum or another activity.
Other Ways to Build a High School Resume
For students shut out of their preferred activities this fall, there are still chances to stand out to colleges.
Nichols says he’s seen high school students participating in online internships and taking online classes over the summer. Other opportunities include helping with coronavirus contact tracing or working on get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Family contributions also matter, such as caring for siblings or a sick relative, or working a job for added income.”Those are meaningful ways to show involvement that all students can take advantage of,” Nichols says.
Dalton, however, cautions students against investing too much time in a new activity in the hope of impressing admissions officers. “This is not a time for rising seniors to start a new activity if they want that activity to help them get into college,” he says. “Find ways to continue to build your skills and knowledge in a particular area.”
Nichols also says that colleges want to know how the coronavirus disrupted students’ lives. He notes that the Common App recently added an optional question for students to explain how COVID-19 affected them. He encourages students to explain how activities were canceled or other challenges they faced this year.
“What we’ve been saying and a lot of admission officers are saying is that (not participating) won’t be held against a student in the admission process,” Nichols says. “We don’t want them to invent ways to be get involved when, understandably, they may not have that ability because of what’s going on with the pandemic.”
What Students Should Prioritize During COVID-19 Disruptions
Despite the importance of extracurricular activities, high school students should put their focus elsewhere, experts say.
“Students should prioritize their mental health, personal health, and well-being,” Adler says.
She adds that “ignoring or dismissing health issues can lead to poor performance at school, a decline in relationships, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts” and encourages students to focus on self-care. “And don’t despair about college. The world is full of uncertainty, but there is a college available for every student.”
How colleges will evaluate affected students in future admissions cycles is also likely to change.
“Higher ed has got to develop new measures,” Dalton says, noting how COVID-19 has disrupted the sector.
That rings especially true with many colleges going test-optional or test-blind during the pandemic, which Adler says will likely shift the focus to grades, the strength of a high school’s curriculum, essays and letters of recommendation.
Nichols says his office will be as flexible as possible, noting academic work may have suffered when students were forced online or that high school GPAs may have been affected at schools with pass-fail classes.
It’s important, he says, for there to be some grace in the college admissions process.
“A lot of families and students are struggling economically, they’re facing hardships, losses, and they’re just trying to get by,” Nichols says. “We want students to try to take some stress out of the process. And that’s why so many admission folks are trying to de-emphasize things like testing during this time, and the idea of needing to fill your resume with all these activities. Because these are difficult times and we want students that are in a good head space in terms of their academics, but also just in terms of their own self-care.”