COVID-19 has caused the college search and application process to present surreal challenges.
The COVID College Search
In-person college visits are not yet available at most colleges and may not be available at any point during the summer. I think that this lack of opportunity to see campuses, combined with the general shock we all experienced from stay-at-home orders, has caused many students’ college searches to stall.
The problem is that this is the time of year when rising seniors, and even some intrepid rising juniors, can see campuses without high school-related conflicts interfering with scheduling. It’s true that a summer college visit is not ideal because even in normal times, campuses are relatively devoid of students, but the best time to visit colleges is when you can…and for many families that has been in the summer.
The good news is that colleges are developing much more robust online visit and information experiences on their websites. This was long overdue even absent COVID 19, as there is a limit to how much physical travel a family can do when researching colleges. Colleges, especially smaller ones, are making it easy to contact professors in specific departments in order to learn about different academic programs. They are offering such things as live information sessions, virtual campus visits, students to correspond with, and a variety of webinars.
Students should be sure to sign-up online with each college they look at so that they can initiate the process of demonstrating interest. Colleges can track visits to their website after that. In the absence of physical visits to campus (the king of demonstrating interest), in-person meetings with admissions officers at high schools and college fairs, making known visits multiple times to websites and attending programs (assume colleges can track how long you are online with them) will be important indicators of true interest in a school. As in pre-COVID times, colleges often will include level of interest on the part of the applicant in their calculations about whom to admit.
The COVID Application
Let’s talk about the application process. True, some of the changes in admission practices (e.g. less emphasis on standardized testing, less emphasis on extracurricular involvement and less confidence in the meaning of grades given during virtual schooling) that COVID is triggering may cause admissions officers to broaden and deepen how they evaluate applicants. On the other hand, the loss of clear factors informing admission decisions will surely make predicting admission results more difficult for counselors and applicants.
Admissions officers will be looking for indicators of grit (perseverance), honesty, generosity, kindness, intellectual engagement and other qualities. A student’s own essays, along with teacher and counselor recommendations, will provide clues concerning these things. It is important for high school students to make an effort to know their teachers and counselor well, something that will require more effort given the interruption in physical school last spring, and possibly this fall. The essay will be particularly difficult to write this year. COVID-19 and its fallout represent perhaps the greatest disruption students have faced in their lives—moreover, the isolation wrought by stay-at-home orders and social distancing has made it nearly impossible for students to have interesting experiences during the spring and this summer. But writing the main Common Application essay on COVID 19 is ill advised in all but the most unusual circumstances. No admissions officer will want to read thousands of essays on the the same topic that has been a theme of their own lives for months.
Finally, balancing the college list this year will require some new thinking. Is it possible that some highly selective colleges will be less selective due to more students taking gap years, choosing to attend local state schools at lower cost, or perhaps going to college closer to home just to feel safer? Yes. Those super-selective places are not going to swing their doors wide open, but they may crack them a slight bit wider. It could be worth applying to one or two more of those. On the other side of the equation, colleges on the safety side of the list may have less need-based aid available because of budget crunches. If financing college is a concern, making more safety applications may be prudent. In fact, adding one or two more safety schools for anyone would be smart, as no one knows exactly how college decisions will change through the use of different criteria for admission.
High school counselors who have the time to dedicate themselves to college admissions will have been studying all of these new wrinkles. If you have access to such a person in your high school, tap their wisdom as much as you can. It is going to be a wild year.