How to Use Your Coronavirus (COVID-19) Shelter-in-Place Time to Boost Your College Admissions Chances

If you’re a high school sophomore or junior, you’re probably feeling like your plans for developing your college application have come to a screeching halt due to the global pandemic (COVID-19, aka coronavirus). After all, school has closed and you’ve already discovered that online instruction just doesn’t cut it. The SAT and ACT tests that you were going to take in the spring were cancelled. On top of that, all your extracurricular activities — clubs, sports, service work – all stopped the minute school closed.

What’s a college-bound sophomore or junior to do?

Instead of seeing this time as a barrier, use it to boost your college admissions chances

Without question, a high schooler’s sophomore and junior years are the most critical in terms of their college applications. When you apply to college, college admissions officers are going to review your grades from these years and look to see how you challenged yourself. They are also going to look at your SAT, ACT, and AP test scores. But the thing they are going to scrutinize most is your extracurricular list.

What are they looking for? When college admissions officers assess your extracurricular list, they are looking for evidence of leadership, initiative, and independent thinking.  They want to see that you’ve developed a passionate interest outside of school, and that you’ve been able to do something with that interest. 

So, what can you do, even during a coronavirus pandemic, to boost your college admissions chances?

Turn lemons into lemonade.

The coronavirus pandemic is terrible, but the time you spend sheltering in place provides you with a rich opportunity to develop your extracurricular profile so that when you apply to college, you can show admissions officers how you stand out from everyone else. Think about it: Coronavirus (COVID-19), as unfortunate as it is, is leveling the playing field, and it’s providing a terrific opportunity for the most creative and independent students to show how they excel.

While working in admissions at Vassar College  evaluating applicants, I always tried to determine who made the most of the time and the resources they had prior to applying. Who, among all the tens of thousands of students who applied, was the one student who was able to take whatever was at hand and turn straw into gold?

Now, as an independent college admissions consultant and tutor, I’m still assessing students’ application profiles to evaluate how the applicant was able to handle new challenges and problems. Why? Because that’s just what admissions officers are going to do when the student applies.

Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Dr. Osborn to learn how The Writing Center of Princeton can help your child.

How to Use Downtime to Advance Your College Admissions Chances

Even while sheltering in place, there are two things sophomores and juniors can do right now to boost their college admissions chances.

1. Think beyond the box. Your school choir or sports team is no longer be meeting, but there are a lot of things you can do to build and enhance your college application profile. When thinking how best to use your shelter-in-place time to boost your admissions chances, remember that you want to find a way to show the three cardinal qualities admissions officers look for in applicants: leadership, initiative, and independence.


Susan is wonderful! She’s everything you want in counselor: She’s smart, strategic, and dedicated. She inspired our son to do his best, and we’re proud to say that he’s starting his first year at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall.

Anika and Anant, West Windsor, NJ 

What can you do to show evidence of leadership, initiative, and independence? What about writing and then self-publishing a memoir of life during the through the COVID-19/coronavirus crisis? If you’re interested in science, use some part of your yard to plant and experiment with new flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Document your observations and results. Then see how that data can be useful to local schools and community gardens. If you are interested in environmental science and climate change, design a meteorological station in your back yard, collect data, and then feed it to your local cable news channel for broadcast. Consider creating a list of friends who would work with you to provide for the needs of your elderly neighbors. One student with whom I’m working, a vocalist, is using her extra coronavirus/COVID-19 time to produce videos of herself singing upbeat tunes that she will then donate to local assisted living homes. Challenge yourself to develop a new service opportunity such as free grocery delivery service for people who live communities that have less access to resources than you do.

Because there’s no GPS to help us navigate through the coronavirus crisis, you’ll have to find your own way. But that’s exactly the point. Remember, when college admissions officers evaluate extracurricular profiles, they are searching for the few students who, when presented with a new problem, found an ingenious way to tackle that challenge and then ran with it.

2. Think local. During the last ten to fifteen years, more and more students have exploited so-called “pay-to-play” service work opportunities such as week-long excursions to developing countries to do service work. But during this time, admissions officers have become wise to that strategy and recognized it for what it often was: evidence of application padding, not evidence of commitment, intelligence, and creativity.

Look around you. Your effort doesn’t have to be a world-changing one. You don’t have to connect with a global organization to make an impact on college admissions officers. In fact, I encourage you to think small. For example, can you use your Instagram or Facebook account to show how you can make a nutritious and tasty meal from whatever you’ve got in your pantry? Count your views and followers, and document what happens. Maybe you’ll have a cookbook at the end of it! If you are interested in art and photography, consider walking around your town or neighborhood documenting how your neighbors are managing coronavirus/COVID-19. Then consider publishing your results. Have you thought to Skype or Zoom with your neighbors to interview how they are managing to stay sane and healthy? If so, document what you learned and share it in on your blog or distribute it as a neighborhood guide.

Students often think they have to cure cancer to get into the Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities. But that’s not true, and it never has been. One student with whom I worked last application season wrote his Common App essay about building three bird houses after a super storm knocked down the trees where the birds had lived. In the fall, he’s headed to the Ivy League.

Even though the whole world seems on pause right now, our shelter-at-home time is a valuable time for you to develop your extracurricular profile so that when you apply to college, you look like a leader, like someone who can face a crisis head on.

Need help building your extracurricular profile? Ready to begin writing your Common App essay? Call me! I’m always ready to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.