With the backdrop of the pandemic, parents of high school juniors and seniors might think the current college admissions process is going to be more complicated than usual. While there is certainly lots of news about how Covid-19 is affecting colleges, the truth is that applying for college is still going to entail the same number of steps, says college counselor Kelly Herrington.
“I think people believe the process is going to be dramatically different, but so many of the pieces remain the same. Still, there are a few new considerations that parents and students should understand,” says Herrington, the director of College Counseling at University Prep, a 6–12 independent school in northeast Seattle.
He likes to remind parents to set a family intention: Decide what type of family do you want to be during this process, and then break the process down into clear, manageable steps. As a college counselor with more than 20 years of experience, Herrington and his team have developed a College Handbook with valuable recommendations. Below he shares six myths and realities about applying to college during this pandemic, along with how they affect the college search.
- Myth: Colleges have not addressed online learning needs of their students
Reality: While I certainly think many colleges were caught unprepared for online learning last spring, they have focused on becoming experts at online learning all summer. Like so many public and private high schools, colleges and universities have had to develop more robust online learning platforms. Colleges have been working around the clock to develop new instructional models to better reach students. Since American higher education is prized around the globe, colleges know that the stakes for them to offer a quality education during this pandemic is high. They have to get online learning right. While the media focuses on Covid-19 testing and the cases on campuses, they aren’t telling us how colleges have invested significant financial resources and training into improving their delivery of online learning.
- Myth: This is the death of standardized testing
The reality is somewhere in the middle of yes and no. Many public institutions on the West coast are moving in the direction of being test-optional—meaning students can submit test scores but they are not required to submit tests—to test blind, meaning colleges will not look at any standardized testing as part of the admissions process. For a subset of institutions, standardized testing is dead. However, many highly selective colleges will remain either test-optional or revert to requiring standardized tests when the pandemic is over. Universities with a huge application volume who spend only a few minutes on every application still need a common yardstick by which to evaluate candidates. The common yardstick will continue to be standardized testing. Standardized testing is under threat right now, and we are going to see changes.
- Myth: There is no substitute for visiting a college campus
The reality is that an entire system has sprung up that allows students to connect with colleges virtually, due to Covid-19. There are a number of virtual visit opportunities—from online college fairs and individual admission counselor visits to alumni panels and YouTube tours. Learn more about specific colleges through YouVisit, where a student gives a narrated tour of the campus; College Niche, which has student written reviews of college campuses; and a new comprehensive open-sourced Google doc created by college counselors from around the country. Additionally, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling is offering a series of virtual colleges fairs all fall. Also, if they’re not closed to the public, many colleges provide self-guided walking tours that you can download directly from their admissions office website. A few colleges have set up robust live virtual college tours that are guided by current students, allowing prospective students to talk with current students as they tour the campus remotely.
- Myth: Colleges are dying
Reality: Yes, some colleges will be impacted by the financial fallout from COVID-19. It is predicted that between 10 to 20% of colleges could go out of business or merge with more financially sound institutions. A new interactive tool from the Hechinger Report and NBC News evaluates colleges’ financial stress. Most colleges will keep their doors wide open, but they might, due to financial considerations, cut athletic teams, curtail the construction of new buildings, and close study abroad centers. The financial ramifications of Covid-19 will be most acute in the extracurricular areas of collegiate life.
- Myth: Character matters more than ever
Reality: Yes, it does! With colleges making standardized testing optional and access to extracurricular activities limited, the role “character” plays in college admissions is finally having its moment. Self-generated activities are going to carry a lot of weight, and the students who are able to craft something for themselves in which they have genuine interest—whether that’s reading, helping a neighbor, or taking a class online in an area that excites them—will have an advantage. Colleges want to know about these activities, and how students spend their time and what they are passionate about matters. As they craft a class, colleges are increasingly looking at non-cognitive variables like resilience, work ethic, kindness, and authenticity, which are seen in how students write about themselves in their college essays and the co-curricular pursuits they list in their applications.
- Myth: This generation of students is going to crumble because of the pandemic
Reality: No! This is a generation already attuned to life’s hardships. Born just after 9/11, this class came of age in a more fearful national culture, endured the 2008 economic downturn, and has always known a country at war. Yes, Covid-19 is an extreme disruption to their lives, but they already knew they would face a challenging future. The gig economy means that many will work as individual economic entities, without the safety nets of long-term employment or company-funded retirement and health benefits. The climate crisis will either be addressed or fail during their adult lives. The exponential growth of college costs mean that most will carry debt deep into adulthood. This class was already destined to find a unique path. But it is not all doom and gloom. In many ways, today’s generation of high school students has the technical capacities and social skills that meet the Covid-19 moment. Adults need to recognize the power of this particular group of students to both navigate the rapidly changing world of college admissions and thrive in college once they arrive.
Applying to college is a manageable process, albeit one that entails a few more considerations during a worldwide pandemic. Over the years, it has been gratifying to see students, time and again, accomplish the tasks associated with applying to college. With guidance and support, each student (and family) works through the inevitable but very predictable and reasonable sequence of tasks associated with the college process. So, set your intention around applying to college, which hopefully entails words like perspective, thoughtfulness and fun, and enjoy the journey.