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article imageQ&A: Making the best university application during the COVID era Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 23, 2020 in Lifestyle
For many students, attending high school is part of a larger goal: to attend a university whose education and community will shape one’s life. But what is the best way to apply and how has this changed under COVID-19?
Under normal circumstances the application process for elite schools can be daunting: agonizing over grades, multiple rounds of standardized tests, and filling in a long list of extracurricular activities—telling one’s character story—to win over a discerning set of admissions officers.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the process has been turned on its head:
Standardized tests have been hard to find, since many SAT/ACT testing centers were closed due to the pandemic, and many colleges have temporarily foregone the requirement to submit test scores.
Students vying for top grades who were forced into remote learning unwittingly had their “A-plusses” turned into simple “Passes."
Many spring and fall 2020 extracurricular activities were cut short, curtailed or cancelled.
So, how can students applying to college this fall (for the 2021-22 school year) stand out from hundreds of thousands of other students? Digital Journal sat down with Hafeez Lakhani, Founder and President of Lakhani Coaching, to help put some perspective on this year’s chaotic, post-COVID college application process.
Digital Journal: How has the college application process changed due to COVID-19?
Hafeez Lakhani: Selective admissions will remain selective—that aspect isn’t going anywhere. But given SAT/ACT cancellations, colleges in many cases will be forced to make decisions even more so on academics and character. Now more than ever, two things matter: a transcript that speaks to excellence and challenging course selection; and one’s character story.
Digital Journal: What do you mean by “character story”?
Lakhani: Say Harvard is a dinner table, with a limited number of seats. What makes our student the most interesting person to deserve that last spot? What does he/she add to the dinner table conversation? This is how we help students think beyond simply extracurricular activities, and focus on their larger contribution to an intellectual community. Note that in cases where students are able to test safely and secure excellence, we encourage them to send in those SAT/ACT results, even if a school has gone test optional. That excellence remains a way to stand out among other qualified candidates. But in all other cases, we continue to focus on Lakhani Coaching philosophy – the fulfilling high school career.
DJ: What is a fulfilling high school career?
Lakhani: Lakhani Coaching philosophy consists of three “paradigms” for a fulfilling high school career: Academics, Problem-solving ability and Character. We like to teach that your grades and test scores get you in to the “good” pile, but it’s your character that helps you stand out from the good pile. Notice we say Academics, not grades, because we care just as much about performance as about your contributions to a class discussion, or dining hall debate. We care about problem solving ability, as a big picture application of standardized testing, because if we put a student into Game Theory for the first time, or Comparative Politics for the first time, we’ll want to know if the student is comfortable moving at 100 mph, 80 mph, or 60 mph. And of course for Character, we’re always asking, what makes our student the most interesting person to deserve that last spot at the dinner table.
DJ: What do you tell a student if he or she does not perform well on a standardized test?
Lakhani: I try to explain to students that it’s a slow and steady race, not a sprint to the finish line. Improvement on standardized testing is like practicing any other skill, practicing being the key word. Consider training for a marathon. Can I study or train all night tonight and be ready for a marathon tomorrow? No way. You train for multiple weeks, months or sometimes years. And if you approach improvement one step at a time, ideally with an instructor who can guide you through each step, you will get better. If you have one bad run, it doesn’t mean every time will be bad, it is just a bump in the road to overall improvement. This is exactly why colleges consider a student’s highest SAT or ACT score from multiple attempts – allowing a student to beat their personal best.
DJ: Do you have a favorite “student turn-around” story?
Lakhani: There are several, but one story that comes up often is that of an art student with a B average who came to me as a sophomore with her dream school being Cornell. Though it is unheard-of for a B-student to aim for an Ivy League, I wasn’t completely deterred, seeing how her commitment as a young artist was simply incredible. As I said previously, improvement takes time. Over the next two years, we helped her focus on excellence in academics, both in grades and through a rigorous course load. Her summers consisted of her taking college-level art classes and assisting a professional artist on a photoshoot in Central Asia. She worked actively to raise her SAT score to a 1520 out of 1600, a 450-point jump from her starting point. Her hard work eventually paid off: she was accepted to Cornell alongside her other top choices, RISD, UCLA, and USC, making it one of the most remarkable success stories I have yet to see.
DJ: Hiring a college coach can be expensive. How do you help students who can’t afford your services?
Lakhani: Here at Lakhani Coaching we want every individual to be given an equal chance. That is why, in 2018, I proudly launched Lakhani Scholars, a scholarship awarding $10,000 of our coaching services to high-achieving, low-income students from across the U.S. In fact, our first scholarship winner, Lisa David, just started her fall semester (remotely) at George Washington University, her first-choice college. We are currently registering for 501(c)(3) status and are hoping by 2025 to serve 100 low-income students per year (that would be half of our roster), at zero cost to those families. The Lakhani Scholars deadline for the 2021 school year is October 1, so there is still time to apply.
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