Pandemic? Grades? College? Help!

Waterloo Portfolio Deep Dive Square TITLE

If we’re honest, the college application process over the last ten years has seemed to get worse for students without improving the outcomes. Higher stakes for tests, grades, and resumes to feed a more competitive application process (partially because students apply to twice as many colleges as they once did). Add to that a pandemic, and one might think it will only get worse. Right?

Well, it certainly makes school difficult. But if there is good in the pandemic is turning education upside down, it’s that the college application process was already upside down—maybe this actually might improve things!

For the next two classes—high school juniors and seniors—I think it might. They are applying to college with an academic record that will have a lot of asterisks on the numbers. Why? The numbers just won’t mean what they used to:

Spring 2020 grades* Pass/fail, grades frozen in March, or earned in an at-home learning context that was being created on the fly. Put an asterisk next to them.


Standardized test scores* Most colleges and universities won’t require SATs or ACTs (which is good because most students haven’t taken it yet!) and will not hold that against students admission. That alone may be great news as they have a lousy track record of indication future potential.

How about the hour long at-home AP tests taken this spring, which the College Board insists are equivalent to their standardized hours-long marathons? only raises the question of their validity further to any admissions office with a critical mind. Put an asterisk next to them.

2020-2021 School year grades* It looks like they will suffer the same fate as last spring—earned in inconsistent and varying contexts under abnormal and stressful circumstances. Put an asterisk next to them.

So why do I think this can be good for students applying to college?

The truth has always been (and any good college counselor with a soul tells their students) that colleges care about the full picture of each student, not just grades. Colleges want to admit students who will , and so they look for:

– Students who they can tell will succeed in college. What abilities and character qualities show that?
– Students who will add to the diversity of personality, character, talent, and perspective. What matters to this student? What makes them unique and valuable?
– Students who will be good classmates, roommates, and friends. How can I tell this person is kind?

And let’s face it, grades and test scores can sort of, kind of tell that story, though they’re better used to just filter out a big pool into a smaller pool. (I am guessing they will still do that, but that smaller pool will not be as small as it has been to allow for the unreliability of the grades that make up the GPA).

Which means the rest of what matters in college admissions is your abilities, character, and interests. The good stuff! The stuff that matters—the stuff that makes you… YOU. The stuff every pereson should always be developing, because we are always growing.

You have three things to share with colleges that show that part of you. Everyone will have the first two, and they will matter more—a recommendation letter from a teacher and your personal essays.

The third can be a real difference maker—a digital portfolio that can show what the letter, essays, and grades can only hint at: what you know and what you can do with it.

Any student can make one, and we encourage every student to do so. At Waterloo, everyone will. All our classes work toward students completing a project that can be presented in a digital showcase. (After searching the options, we’re using bulbapp.com for our digital portfolios). The class starts with a driving question that to be able to answer, you need to know and understand the content of the course. And the question invites you to create something—worth creating! Beginning this year, students will actually create and maintain a process portfolio as well as produce a showcase for their project to develop their abilities and improve learning. The two work together to help students develop skills, learn through trial and error, and grow comfortable with an audience for their work beyond just a teacher.

Real-world products, that are authentic, beautiful, and purposeful. Practice creating them is practice for what they will do as adults. And being able to share them with college admissions reps gives students a chance to show that, while the pandemic turned things upside-down—they kept growing their abilities, their character, and their interests, making them a great future-ready person.

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.