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Academics
Academic Vision

Virtually Possible: Locking Down The College Search In A Global Pandemic

Brennan Barnard
This is virtually impossible my daughter blurts out from the next room, adding, who thought geometry was important anyway? Actually, I respond with my under-appreciated dad irony, it is virtually possible. Deciding to spare her the lecture on how Euclid and Descartes thought geometry was pretty important, instead, I urge her to set up a virtual meeting with her teacher to work through her confusion with the theorem. This is the new normal for students throughout the country as they settle into pandemic-enforced distance learning. Young people are adapting to online classrooms and virtual meetings while also confronting the disappointment of missed opportunities at school and out in their world.

We are living in uncertain times, and as a high school educator, I am watching students (from my appropriate social distance) start to come to terms with the feelings of loss that the novel coronavirus has introduced into their lives. As the reality sets in of the short and long term changes this pandemic is bringing, they are experiencing a range of emotions. Time in class, in the halls, competing in sport, on stage, at prom and other hallmarks of spring in high school are quickly disappearing. While we must acknowledge the visceral feelings of loss young people are experiencing and support them, we must also encourage them to look for new opportunities and approaches to the milestones in their schooling and lives. One of these, for many high school juniors, is the search for a college. Despite the inevitable virus-induced challenges, it is virtually possible. Consider these tips for beginning your stay-at-home college search:

Mindset
In any year, the college search and application experience is a marathon, not a sprint. This year, it will especially require patience, stamina, and longevity and it is useful to remember that though challenging, we are (hopefully) living through a finite period. There are many miles to go before juniors apply to college and fortunately new opportunities are evolving to learn about schools. If students can stay nimble and open to the idea that their college search will look different than an elder sibling or older friend’s might have been, it will be less frustrating and more rewarding.

Groundwork 
The reality of the current challenges does not change the foundation upon which students will want to build their college search. This global crisis provides an opportunity to slow down, step back, and to consider some key questions. Whether you have been ordered to stay at home or you are just doing so for the social good, here are two short videos that you should not miss. The first is a TED talk by Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why”. Watch this inspiring speech and then ask yourself a series of “why” questions:
  • Why have you made the academic choices you made in high school?
  • Why are you involved in the activities you are?
  • Why do you surround yourself with the friends you do?
  • Why do you want to go to college?
  • Why is earning a degree important for you?
The second video is from Jaime Casap, Google’s chief education evangelist, who encourages us all to ask: “what problem do you want to solve?” You might not have all the answers, or maybe not any of them, but the process of considering the questions and discussing them with those close to you will help frame your understanding of the experience you want to have in college and the criteria around which you will conduct your search. Amy Cembor is a senior associate dean of admission at Providence College. She says “one of my favorite things during this time of year in admission is talking to students and families who are just starting the college process and helping them think about where to begin. I usually encourage them to start by making a list of what is important to them and what they love—what is it that they think they will need in a college community to be their best selves.” She adds, “being stuck at home like this allows you to think about that…what do you miss most? What kinds of things can you simply not wait to get back to? I’d add those to my list without a doubt!”

Ground Rules 
Even for the most harmonious family, being together 24/7 can test relationships. As the father of two teenagers, I know this intimately as we enter what seems like day one thousand of our state’s stay-at-home order. In a normal year, college admission can make people do funny things and react in unexpected ways. As parents, we can be a little overbearing and students can act out or push away. With a few ground rules set early on, you can establish a healthy foundation for your college search, which keeps you on speaking terms with your—not so virtual—housemates. Communication is key and identifying roles and parameters will maintain an open dialogue. Pick one day a week (or maybe every two weeks to start) for an hour when you will discuss college admission and any hopes or concerns parents and students might have. This prevents every interaction from becoming another opportunity to discuss the college search. Talk openly and honestly about expectations, limitations, and finances. Waiting to have these conversations until senior year will only build resentment and discord. 

“Visit” Schools
Many college-bound juniors were hoping to visit colleges and universities over school vacations and throughout this spring. This is disappointing, but all is not lost. As you are researching schools virtually, the following sites will help you learn more about schools in which you are interested:

Individual colleges are also ramping up their virtual campus visit experiences, including virtual “open house” programs for prospective students. This list, complied by Rebecca Chabrow, MA, links to virtual tours, admission programs and webinars, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also has a searchable tool on its website. Individual schools will be pushing out their events directly to students, so be sure to take a closer look to see what the schools on your list are offering, sign up for their notifications, and check back later in the spring to see if additional programming has been added.

Lisa Keegan, assistant vice president and dean of undergraduate admission at Elon University tells students that “this is a perfect time to begin following social media posts by schools you are considering.” She adds, “you can tell a lot about the values of an institution by paying attention to what kind of messages they are sharing right now. Are they showcasing innovative virtual-teaching by faculty? Are they finding ways to celebrate the campus community?” Keegan explains that “while you may not be able to go on a traditional college visit this spring, you have a lot of resources at your fingertips. By accessing those, you might just find you have a more carefully curated college list by summer.” While you are “on campus” look for online copies of their student newspaper or alumni magazine to get a more unfiltered perspective.

Connect
You have no doubt heard about “social-distancing” during this health crisis, but I prefer what some have suggested as an alternative: “physical-distancing”. After all, while we want to avoid direct contact, we need each other socially now more than ever. Take advantage of this time at home to tap into the human resources that abound on social media, email and virtual platforms. Here are a few connections to cultivate:
  • Teachers: As learning shifts online, clearly your interactions with teachers will also take on new dynamics. Be intentional about reaching out to them, attend virtual office hours and use them as a resource. You will also be asking some of your teachers to write letters of recommendation on your behalf for admission. Start to think about who you might ask (ideally teachers from junior or senior year, and at least one from a writing-intensive subject like English or history). Make sure these teachers get to know you and can speak to your academic engagement, even in a virtual learning environment.

  • School Counselors: This person will be one of your greatest advocates in the admission experience, so make sure you get to know them. At some schools, counselors have huge numbers of students that they are responsible for, so you might have to be persistent about connecting with them, but make sure you are communicating often and asking for the help you need. If you do not have good access to a counselor, find a trusted adult or mentor at your school or in your community to support you as you search for and apply to college. Set up a virtual meeting to put a plan in place and get suggestions.

  • Peers: You are inevitably connected to your classmates and friends through text, social media, etc. Share your ideas and tips for the college search. What helpful resources have you found or approaches you have taken to learn about schools? Ask for your peers’ strategies and talk about the hidden gems you discovered, which might be colleges and universities others had not thought of either. Resist the hype around college admission being stressful and instead share the joy around imagining the opportunities.

  • Alumni: An often overlooked resource in the college search are students who have graduated from your school and gone onto the colleges that you are considering. Ask your counselor to connect you with former students so that you can reach out to them to learn about their experiences on college campuses. They will be able to talk about their transition, specifically from your high school. Keep in mind, every student has unique circumstances, so don’t take their input as absolutes, but rather more information to round out your search. LinkedIn is an amazing tool for facilitating these connections, so create an account and start to explore.

  • College Admission Officers: Mary Wagner is the assistant vice president for enrollment management and executive director of undergraduate admission at the University of South Carolina. She advises that “students aren't the only ones who cannot travel and visit schools. We're in the same boat, and we are just as interested in talking to students as they are in talking to us. Take advantage of our undivided attention while we aren't on the road all the time.” Search on the college’s admission website or ask your counselor to find the name and contact information for the admission officer for your area. Email them to introduce yourself and ask thoughtful questions about their school.
Explore a Major
All of this time at home presents a good opportunity to enroll in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) to explore a subject that you might be interested in studying in college or that you are curious about. Yale University has opened up free access to its most popular course “The Science of Well-Being”, so you might consider enrolling in this class to learn how “to increase your own happiness and build more productive habits.” Do you have your heart set on becoming a doctor? Maybe you can find an Organic Chemistry or Anatomy and Physiology class to take. Interested in a future as a programmer? Sign-up to learn a new computer language.

Extracurriculars
I have good news and bad news. The bad news first: It looks highly unlikely that sports, clubs, and other activities will meet in person this spring and that is disappointing for many students who were looking forward to these opportunities. Now the good news: Colleges and universities are not looking at one moment of your high school experience to see how you are involved, nor are they looking for the student with the most activities. 

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines extracurricular as: "not falling within the scope of a regular curriculum.” The good news is there's nothing regular this spring so everything's on the table. Your extracurricular activity could be picking up trash along the side of the road near your house. It could also be continuing to coordinate a club or organization online. For many students, it will be taking care of a younger sibling or elderly relative while parents work at home or in an “essential” job. Providence College’s Cembor advises students to “use this as an opportunity. Your time is not scheduled for you and you have flexibility—something we don’t usually have during the school year. Use it to think about what drives you—what you want to spend your time doing, and what you are excited about getting back to when life returns to normal.” Still not convinced? Consider these words from Yale University’s admission update:
“The outbreak has caused the cancellation of innumerable events, activities, and programs. It has caused disruptions to family lives and livelihoods with wide-ranging effects on students’ schedules. It has changed nearly everyone’s priorities and opportunities with remarkable speed. We expect that most students' extracurricular activities and learning opportunities outside of school have been, or will be, affected. We share your disappointment about canceled performances and sporting events, service projects and mission trips, school activities and conferences. While we wish that all students could continue pursuing their interests and commitments as they did before the outbreak, for most students this will not be possible.
We also recognize that many students will need to take on additional responsibilities at home or at a family business during this time. Yale’s application platforms provide ample space to provide contextual information that can help the Committee understand the factors that shaped students’ opportunities and commitments. Rest assured that Yale will take each student’s unique context into account when reviewing applications. No student will be penalized because of a change in commitments or a change to plans because of the outbreak.”
Testing
The ACT and SAT have canceled their test dates for April and May. If you were planning to take tests during these administrations, you should switch to the June/July test dates as soon as possible, as test centers are filling up fast. Stay tuned, as depending on the impact and duration of the crisis, future dates could be canceled as well. Please remember, all students are in the same situation and colleges and universities are adapting accordingly. You can always use some of this time at home to review and prepare for testing so that when tests are available, you will be ready.

It remains to be seen what role standardized testing will play in this admission cycle but what we do know is that a growing number of schools are implementing test-optional policies. In fact, as of March 31st, more than 17 schools had adopted new policies, including Tufts University, Boston University, Davidson College, Scripps College and the whole public university system in Oregon. This is evolving every day and you can visit www.fairtest.org for a current list of schools that have test-optional admission.

Essays
Do you know what has not changed this year? The Common App essay prompts. The same membership organization that brought us joy in applying to college now brings us consistency amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic. But, do yourself a favor and do not begin by reading the essay prompts. Trust me on this, you can read them later and whatever you write will fit (spoiler alert: one of the prompts is “topic of your choice”), but if you read the prompts it is tempting to overthink your response and anticipate what you imagine the admission office wants to hear. Instead, write the story that needs to be told about you and who you are. 

Given the fact that testing, spring grades and many other aspects of the application are in flux, this opportunity to share more about yourself just became all that much more important. It is going to be tempting for this fall’s applicants to write about COVID-19 as it has had such a profound impact on each of us and our society. While it is not taboo as an essay topic, put yourself in the place of an application reviewer and consider whether you would want to read hundreds of coronavirus stories. Talk about post-traumatic stress! Take advantage of your home confinement to do some free writing and initial essay drafts. Your future self will thank you. Wagner at the University of South Carolina says, “this is a great time to take up the practice of journaling, or at least jotting down periodic thoughts.”

Dig. Learn. Explore. 
For a recent piece on “Redesigning College Admission,” Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College said, “I believe we should never let a crisis go to waste. While we are taking care of immediate needs, we should also be asking ourselves—what are the opportunities for the long term?” This is as true for applicants as it is for institutions. As students settle into new routines and adapt to having more unscheduled time, you might ask yourselves, “What is something I have always wanted to do more of?” For some that might be learning or practicing a musical instrument. Others might want to do more creative writing or research a topic of interest. Maybe you have something you want to build or a new skill you want to learn. Take advantage of this opportunity to pursue these areas. You might even want to explore the Crown Education Challenge, a contest organized by students at Harvard and Stanford in response to coronavirus related school closures. Their mission is to “sustain global learning, no matter the circumstances, encourage students to take a stake in global challenges, and offer hope in challenging times.”

Virtual Reality
As with all of the other news streaming at us about the health crisis, it is often hard to know what is real and what is misinformation. Go directly to the source and check each college’s website to learn about any potential changes to their admission process or requirements. Rely on your school counselor to help you filter out the noise. You also might find some comfort and wisdom in these pieces from college admission leaders:
  • Jeff Schiffman is the director of admission at Tulane University. His latest blog post is “Coping in the Time of Corona.”

  • Rick Clark is the director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech. His latest blog post is “Change is the Only Constant.” 

  • James Nondorf is the dean of admission and financial aid and vice president for enrollment and student advancement at The University of Chicago. His letter to prospective students gives a sense of how most colleges and universities are approaching this challenging time.
Finally, some advice from Emily Roper-Doten, dean of admission and financial aid at Olin College of Engineering:
“Treat this time as a gift. We—those of us who will eventually read your application—know that life is slowing down around you and that your plans may be coming undone. Every junior out there is in the same boat: school is online, you can’t participate in your spring sport or try out for a role in the musical, test dates are canceled. Take the time to mourn these things and when you’ve done that, think about what you CAN do in this time.
Can you spend time with family? Can you read that book you haven’t had time for? Can you learn to play the guitar or learn to draw cartoons from one of the amazing free tutorials that are online? Can you learn how to change the oil in the family car? Can you shave that minute off your 10K time? Can you learn to make dinner for your family? Can you write letters to loved ones or residents of a local nursing home? This is not dissimilar from the advice I give students who are considering a gap year or when it’s time to take back your Saturdays and NOT take the SAT or ACT again. I don’t want you to think about what the college admission process wants; I want you to think about how to be a whole, connected human.”
You see, it is virtually possible to search for a college and to do so in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Ideally, the summer sun will find us all emerging from our homes and college campuses once again open for visits. In the meantime, make the most of this moment by being creative, open, intentional and curious. Support, and lean on, those around you in this unprecedented time. As you engage in your college search, don’t focus on the barriers, take advantage of the possibilities.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post
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