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College Application in the Time of COVID

Tutt Stapp-McKiernan

Both in Matt McDonough’s College Counseling office at Wakefield and in the admission offices of colleges around the nation and around the world, many things are unchanged as the 2020-21 college application cycle begins: pennants on the wall, FAFSA forms to be muddled over, lists to be compiled, essays and recommendations to be considered, interviews to be conducted, and schools to be visited--both college reps visiting high schools and high school students visiting colleges. Same old, same old, right?

Wrong. Like every other endeavor on earth this fall, the college admissions process is affected by the unwelcome new normal of COVID-19, and high school seniors, their college counselors, and colleges are adapting. 

At Wakefield, Mr. McDonough began the year as he always does: with an evening program to orient seniors--and, especially, their parents--to what’s ahead this year. However, this time, the presentation was virtual--and this of course is the principle way the new college application landscape will differ from the old. According to Mr. McDonough, many, many things will be happening online.

For example, on the list of upcoming college rep visits that Mr. McDonough maintains, detailing opportunities for seniors to visit face to face with a student or recent graduate from a school of interest to them, every single visit--and 20 have been scheduled so far, just between September 2 and October 12--is a virtual one. Mr. McDonough emphasizes that these are not huge Zoom presentations open to the public--these are online meet-ups exclusive to our seniors, so genuine conversation with the college rep can happen. They work just like the on-campus visits of the past, Mr. McDonough says--except with the added advantage that now reps from an unlimited geographical area can easily “visit” Wakefield. Although the majority of these visits are still with Virginia schools, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, the University of South Carolina, and Northeastern are also on the fall lineup.

Another welcome new feature has grown out of the necessity of virtual recruitment--groups of colleges are banding together to offer virtual “college fairs.” Again, this opens up wide variety for students without the need for travel, as the titles of the events reveal--from “Southern Tour for DMV Students” to “Exploring College Options: Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford.” These virtual fairs are also posted on Mr. McDonough’s running list of events for seniors to take advantage of.

Perhaps the most beloved of all changes from the student perspective: the pandemic has hastened a process that was already underway nationally, and that is the growing trend of schools becoming “Test-Optional,” meaning they will accept but no longer require standardized SAT/ACT tests. (N.B.: But this is far from uniform! Check colleges’ websites for the latest information on policies!)

And on and on it goes: virtual interviews, virtual campus tours, even the need to compare different colleges’ and universities’ virtual instruction methodologies, as more and more make the shift to full-time distance learning.  It can feel like a lot to take in. Fortunately for Wakefield students, though--they have the ultimate college counselor.

“Matt was sharp and gave a good presentation,” says Gray Carr Bridgers, Wakefield’s Director of Admission and mom of senior Jack Pieja, referring to the recent Virtual College Night for the Class of 2021. “The biggest asset for parents of seniors right now is the timing of everything and how Matt does the research for you regarding scholarships and funding.  Such a huge help in trying to weed out where to spend your time filling out forms, etc.!”

Of course, not all of this fall’s changes are welcome, and even the juniors are getting caught in the slipstream of the pandemic this year--sadly, the annual College Tour for the juniors during Class Days will not be able to happen. However, Mr. McDonough has planned some excellent on-campus events for juniors that will further their readiness for their own admissions journey to come. 

Nationally recognized college admissions expert Peter Van Buskirk will give two presentations. In “The Admissions Game,” the audience is transformed into the admissions committee at a mythical college and is led through the process--and, importantly, the criteria--by which excruciating admissions decisions are made within a field of equally qualified candidates; participants also learn how applicants can use that understanding to their advantage. In “Defining Your Purpose,” Van Buskirk will discuss the crucial role to admissions committees of a student’s demonstrated sense of purpose, and how students can discover, pursue, and articulate that purpose in their applications. 

In a third Class Days offering for juniors, Barry Bradberry, Associate Dean of Admissions and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Enrollment at Elon University, will share his vast experience gained from more than 40 years of admissions experience at Elon.