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Applying to College During COVID-19 — Advice for High School Seniors and Parents

CollegiateParent


Amy Romm Lockard of Dovetail College Consulting in Portland, Oregon works with high school students nationwide to look at careers, majors, colleges and other post-secondary options as well as all the pieces in between (testing, financial aid, teacher recommendations, scholarship applications and more).

Amy has been writing for CollegiateParent about admissions for a while now and we are so thankful for her contributions, and for her insights and warmth which you can see in this recent video interview, College Admissions During COVID-19: A CollegiateParent Conversation.

We’ve compiled highlights from our conversation with Amy. Read on to catch her best tips for high school seniors applying to college this fall. 

Q: Amy, what's different about the college application process this year?

A: Your student’s college list may change. For a variety of reasons mostly related to the pandemic, more students are looking closer to home.

First, they may want to be able to get home more easily in case of an emergency or another campus closure. In addition, it may also make financial sense, whether they’ll commute from home to save costs on room and board or just save money on airfare. Students are also taking a closer look at public, in-state universities where the price tag may be less.

Q: Do you encourage seniors to expand the list of schools they're applying to?

A: I always recommend that students look at public schools that participate in tuition exchanges in their region, like the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). Every family has different priorities — some of the students I’m working with are sticking closely to their original plan including in many cases aiming for schools that are farther afield.

Q: What's happening with the SAT and ACT, and what's your advice about standardized testing?

A: Standardized testing has really shifted. There was already a trend away from requiring the ACT or SAT, and because of the pandemic more colleges are going test optional or test blind (that means the school doesn’t look at the score even if you submit it).

Some schools are still requiring the tests but this might need to change. Many students weren’t able to get a test score last spring and fall dates could end up being questionable. 

I’m encouraging my students to forge ahead with their testing plan and register for the fall, which has seen an increase in the number of SAT and ACT test dates to accommodate demand. Other things like honors programs, merit aid and scholarships (both institutional and outside scholarships) may require a score, so it’s great to have one in hand to remain eligible for these opportunities.

That said, "test optional" really does mean "test optional" and your student does not need to submit a score to these schools. For more information, read this statement from NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Q: What about the fact that many seniors haven't been able to make campus visits?

A: I’ve enjoyed seeing the way colleges have rallied to provide some type of in-person experience as best they can. On the admissions page, prospective students can often register for an online visit with a real-time student guide and selfie stick. They can attend virtual Q&A panels and info sessions with admissions officers. 

Having established these resources, I expect colleges will maintain them. Visiting campus has always been an equity issue. Even with some schools offering travel stipends, there are so many students who were never going to be able to make it to campus to begin with.

You can also get a good feel for the culture of a campus and its student body by looking at its social media. What does it choose to highlight? What does it value and put forward? How did it respond to COVID-19? 

I love YouVisit and CampusReel, which offer virtual walking tours where you can click arrows, go in different directions and hear student perspectives.

Q: What about fall college fairs and visits to high schools by admissions staff?

A: It isn’t clear if admissions reps will be able to do their usual fall rounds to high schools and fairs which typically provide a chance for in-person conversations closer to home for students, but online college fairs are fun, too. The panels on StriveScan are creative!

If a rep can't visit your town, reach out to the admissions office to see about virtual meetings. On Zoom you can connect with anybody — a cool professor, students who want to tell you about their internships, and more. Your student can actually get a rich sense of the academic and social experience this way. 

Q: How will the pandemic change the application process itself? Will colleges evaluate applicants differently? 

A: The Common Application added an optional 250-word limit question for students who have been affected in a significant way by COVID-19. By this I mean beyond the inconveniences that we’ve all had to endure such as staying indoors, learning at home, etc. If your student has experienced genuine hardship —  a lack of accommodations for learning differences, mental health, financial or health problems in the family — they can communicate it here. 

Not every college requires the Common App; those that don’t may add a supplemental question to their applications. 

As for what is in your student's application (classes/grades, extracurricular activities and work, all of it), colleges expect things will look a bit different and that’s okay. In fact, they've banded together to share a unified message with prospective students: Care Counts in Crisis. It's very much worth reading.

Q: Are certain kinds of institutions more appealing under current circumstances?

A: Online schools are much more attractive right now because they’ve been doing this for a while and have got the process of online learning completely locked down. What about the lack of personal interaction? In actuality many online colleges and universities have done a wonderful job establishing a safe and welcoming community with different cohorts and communities for students. 

Community college is also a fantastic option to save money and complete prerequisite, non-major courses. Make sure the credits will transfer to your student’s intended four-year college. 

A gap year or semester is also an appealing option right now, especially for students who want what they’ve always pictured as the typical four-year college experience. Gap year programs are going to be doing well. 

Q: Pandemic aside, are there other admissions trends students and families should pay attention to?

A: We’re having this time for colleges to experiment with different practices. What will stick and what won’t? Regarding online learning, look at announcements that colleges are making. Will they extend their trial period with remote instruction beyond 2020–21 or is this very temporary? 

On the affordability side, it’s good practice to look at the price tag of colleges and know that’s not necessarily the bottom line. I recommend students apply for financial aid and that families connect with financial aid offices to appeal initial offers. In the past people hesitated to do this, but know that the financial aid office is there to help get your kid to THEIR college. They are empathetic. 

“Demonstrated interest” is an always murky topic. Some schools say openly on their admissions page that they do or don’t consider it while others are silent.

In general, demonstrated interest is how the college perceives the likelihood that your student will accept an offer of admission. Did they visit the website and attend a virtual tour? All this can be tracked — opening email, clicking links, what pages did you visit and how long were you on them, are you following the school on social media, etc. It remains to be seen if tracking and weighing these behaviors will be more important in the coming admissions round because it’s harder for colleges to anticipate who will attend if actually admitted.

What’s the lesson for your student? They should demonstrate interest and do those things — because it’s also a way to gather information about the college rather than just listening to their friends and looking at ranked lists. Finding out more about a school means ending up spending more time on applications that mean more to them.

At the end of the day, this is your student gathering data. See what’s going on on a campus! Colleges are taking time to put this together — see what’s important enough to them that they’re communicating it to you. Ultimately the way a school communicates with students and families reflects their values and how they will nurture your student’s growth.

Amy Romm Lockard, independent college counselor in Portland, OregonFounder of Dovetail College Consulting, Amy Romm Lockard is a trusted college admission expert who helps students identify their best fits in careers, colleges and other post-secondary options.
A former school counselor, college counselor and teacher, Amy advises students of all personalities, backgrounds, identities and needs. She makes her home in the Pacific Northwest and loves to hear from readers. Contact her her at [email protected].
CollegiateParent supports you on your own personal journey during your student's college years. We answer questions, share stories and connect you to life on campus. Reach out to us at any time!
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