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By Betsy Ellsworth, Director of College Counseling at Greenhills School

As if the process of considering and applying for colleges doesn’t feel overwhelming enough for students and parents, COVID-19 has added an extra variable that is leaving many feeling uncertain about what to do. College Counseling departments like ours have continued to communicate with colleges across the country, and we want to share with you some of the things we’ve learned. 

The silver lining is that it’s not all gloom and doom. While COVID-19 has brought a level of uncertainty about the immediate future, students are also seeing new opportunities that didn’t exist just weeks ago.

1. Websites and Online Resources are Becoming Better
As has always been the case, your first resource for learning about a specific college or university is their website. Many are now offering online information sessions, and most have virtual tours of their campus as well, both on their own websites and sites like YouVisit. Check out Williams, Bowdoin, and the University of Miami for examples of websites doing remote admissions well.

You’ll also find schools using social media more extensively and in new ways. Facebook pages like Darthmouth’s are a great window into what’s happening at a school. Scrolling through a school’s posts can tell a lot about where a school is excelling and what they value, and you will find similar content in a photo-rich format on Instagram pages like Duke’s

Crowdsourcing has also become an incredible resource for learning about what it’s “really” like at a college. Online forums for students, parents, and professionals, such as Reddit and College Confidential, aggregate informal impressions from around the world. Campusreel is another great resource for content that is primarily sourced by students, and there is no shortage of YouTube content like this

2. Students Have a Better Chance of Getting Off Wait Lists
Colleges nationwide are anticipating significant challenges with enrollment and budgets, prompting them to take another look at their applicant pool. Admitted students are also reconsidering their choices for a variety of reasons. As a result, many applicants are moving off wait lists and students, particularly those from the high school class of 2020, may have more choices. 

3. Colleges are Being Flexible with Expectations
Given the timing of the pandemic, many in the Class of 2021 are concerned about spring semester grades and testing. This letter from Harvard, sent to college counselors around the country, should reassure you that colleges will meet you where you are. In other words, you will not be penalized for your school moving to pass/fail grades or your decision to focus on finding a date to take either the SAT or ACT as opposed to the SAT Subject Tests. 

4. Standardized Testing May Be Optional
More than 1,000 colleges and universities are currently test-optional and their number is growing almost daily. At the conservative extreme, Boston University “will adopt a test-optional policy” for candidates for the Class of 2025 only. Nearby, Tufts University will institute a three-year test-optional “experiment” while MIT has seized the moment to drop its SAT Subject Test requirement entirely. A similar decision by the two leading West Coast STEM colleges, Harvey Mudd and Caltech, may have prompted MIT’s decision as the last major university to require SAT Subject Tests.

A word of warning: Unless a college states clearly that the SAT, ACT, or the SAT Subject Tests will not be considered, let the buyer beware. Shades of language in application instructions may include words and phrases like “considered, recommended, encouraged” but will also clearly state that a candidate is at no disadvantage for exercising their option to not submit. 

5. Colleges are Eager to Help Financially
Families should be honest with the colleges you’re planning to attend if COVID-19 has had a significant impact on your financial status. As this Forbes article points out, it is completely fine to request additional financial aid if your situation has changed, even during a pandemic. As the old adage goes, you can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Many schools are making additional financial aid and accommodations available, often as temporary support for families with furloughed parents or owners of businesses experiencing hardship. A great example is Pomona College, which has created a one time Summer Contribution Emergency Grant to help incoming students receiving financial aid cover expenses. Other schools like Davidson are allowing families to defer their fall payments for up to a year. 

The best advice we have for families is to take a deep breath and continue to move forward. Now is the perfect time to consider your priorities when it comes to college and explore your options. Remember that choosing the right school is never a one-size-fits-all proposition, even in these unprecedented times, and choosing based on name or prestige is never in a student’s best interest. 

Schools with college counseling departments are particularly adept at helping students identify the best fit, and are eager to answer questions from students and parents. High school guidance counselors are valuable sources of information too. They may not be as laser-focused on the college process as a dedicated college counselor, but they have their own wealth of experience to pull from. And don’t forget about college admissions representatives. Though they have a vested interest in presenting the positives of their school so students apply, the best are focused on finding good-fit students. 

Even in the wake of COVID-19, trust that higher education is vital and will continue. It may look different, and we are all eager to return to the “new normal,” but don’t let this deviation keep you from finding and attending the best school for you.

About the AuthorAfter earning her MA at Duke University, Betsy Ellsworth spent 10 years as the Senior Associate Dean of Admissions at Reed College. In 2005 she joined Greenhills School as the Director of Admission and Financial Aid before becoming Greenhills’ Director of College Counseling in 2017. Betsy is also the proud parent or two children graduating from Greenhills with the class of 2020, and is acutely aware of the challenges parents and students are facing during this unique time.

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