The “back-to-school” season is upon us, but with surging coronavirus cases across the country, this will not be an ordinary fall. Many unknowns about the school year ahead remain.
But what is certain is that high school seniors will face a unique challenge: navigating the college admissions process during a pandemic.
With early decision application deadlines as soon as November 1, students will be adjusting to a new—and very different—school year at the same time they’ll be building their applications.
The good news is that many of the steps in applying to college remain the same. But there are several critical changes students should be aware of early as they prepare to apply to college this fall.
Affordability Will Matter Even More Than Ever
Affordability is a major factor for many students every year, but this year families are dealing with unexpected financial hardships related to the pandemic.
It’s always a good idea to look at public colleges in your home state when building a college list, as they tend to have lower tuition.
But when it comes to higher education, determining which option is most affordable requires more than a comparison of tuition and room and board fees. Net cost, which takes into account likely financial aid, including grants, is a better indicator.
All colleges have a net price calculator that can help provide an estimate of what actual out of pocket expenses will look like. And in many cases, a private college will win out.
Other factors, like how well and how quickly colleges graduate students (i.e. four and six-year graduation rates) can be indicators of the total cost of a degree, as well as how many supports those colleges have in place to help students graduate on time, with fewer expenses.
“In many cases, the difference between ‘sticker price’ and what students are expected to pay is significant,” says Monica Inzer, vice president for enrollment at Hamilton College, “so it is important that families utilize cost estimators and explore the generous financial aid that is available before they rule out any colleges or universities. Don’t miss the opportunity to be considered by great colleges and universities that are willing to invest in you.”
Visiting Campus Might Still Be a Challenge
Campus visits have traditionally been a major factor in students’ college choices.
Last spring almost all campuses were closed and visits suspended, but this fall will feature a wide range of policies including colleges that are operating normally and those that remain completely closed.
Options will vary from institution to institution, even within the same state, so visits should be considered carefully, with thorough research, to avoid disappointment and unnecessary travel costs.
Fortunately, many schools have introduced new, virtual opportunities to connect with campus and current students that rival in-person experiences.
Students can even participate in college fairs virtually, providing the opportunity to interact with hundreds of colleges at once.
“Events like virtual college fairs make it possible for students and their families to gain personal access to university representatives and gain key information about our academic programs and the university experience,” says Rachelle Hernandez, senior vice provost for enrollment management at The University of Texas at Austin. “During this challenging time for students, colleges are focused on removing barriers to college enrollment information and showcasing their educational experiences through digital programs and tools that can be accessed on a student’s phone or other mobile device. These resources not only allow you to explore the campus, but like UT Austin has done, offer a wide range of virtual options to get to know faculty, interact with current students, sit in on mock lectures and engage in augmented reality tours.”
Test Scores at Many Colleges Are Now Optional
Because the pandemic caused many in-person ACT and SAT exams to be cancelled around the country, a growing list of colleges will not require standardized test scores as part of their admissions criteria next year.
Boston University, for example, decided early on to adopt a test-optional policy for the fall 2021 admissions cycle.
“By going test optional, BU’s goal was to minimize the stress and anxiety that students often experience with standardized testing,” says Kelly Walter, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions. Adopting a test-optional policy also provided BU Admissions with the opportunity to redefine achievement in a way that spotlights students who may have been previously overlooked in the admissions process and to celebrate excellence and effort in academic endeavors that goes beyond test scores.”
Be sure to read testing information on admissions websites for details about each school’s policy, including whether scholarships are tied to test scores.
Colleges Understand Applicants’ Challenges
College admissions professionals realize how challenging this time is for many students and have adapted their processes.
Countless high school students are not able to participate in extracurricular activities, including volunteer and part-time jobs this year, and that’s okay.
Many high schools didn’t offer grades last spring and instead used a pass/fail system, which complicates class rank, among other academic measures.
And many others have been very personally impacted by sick family members, job loss, or unreliable internet needed for remote learning. The landscape is different now. Colleges know this and are using different metrics to evaluate applications.
In fact, individual schools, as well as popular shared applications, like the Coalition for College application, now include questions about the impact of COVID-19 on students’ personal and academic lives as a way to garner additional insight into students’ unique situations.
Students will not be penalized for circumstances beyond their control.
Eric Maguire, the vice president for enrollment at Wake Forest echoes this sentiment. “The admission colleagues I have spoken with understand the disruption that COVID-19 has brought to high school students and their learning environments. We empathize with those challenges and want to learn more about those unique circumstances as we begin to consider applicants for the coming academic year.”
One other thing to keep in mind is how often things are changing. Campuses that aren’t offering in-person visits now, may be able to later in the year.
Important dates and deadlines may continue to shift as colleges adapt to new information. Testing policies could be updated.
It will be more important than ever to stay connected virtually, through email and social media, to get the latest information. And never hesitate to pick up the phone and call the admissions office.
Sometimes a conversation can offer reassurance and advice that isn’t available online. Just like any other year, students need to remember if they stay flexible and open, they will find the right college for them.
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