Keep Your College Search on Track: Advice For High School Juniors During COVID-19

Junior year of high school is often considered to be the most important year for college planning. This year’s junior class has suddenly been forced to deal with an unprecedented development:  COVID-19.

Stephanie Klein Wassink is the founder of Winning Applications

GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications, a Wilton-based college admissions consulting firm. She offers free, 15-minute “chats” to help families navigating their college search in these tumultuous times, which can be scheduled on the Winning Applications website, (click “Book Now”, scroll down and select “WA 15 Minute Call”).

She shared her insights with GMW on how the pandemic is impacting high school juniors in their college search process–and what they can do to compensate.

Testing

In a typical year, students can take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT in March and April. However, due to COVID-19, the 2020 spring test dates were canceled. In light of that, many colleges quickly announced they would drop test requirements for their next round of applications.

But if you think COVID-19 has given you a get-out-of-testing-free card, not so fast, Klein Wassink warns juniors.  

“I would not recommend students stop prepping for standardized tests,” she stated. “It’s very possible new test dates will be added. If testing revs up and it becomes more widely available, then not testing could have negative consequences.”  

While standardized tests might not be required by some schools, Klein Wassink believes it may still be advantageous to include test results on applications. “[Colleges] are only so forgiving,” she explained. “If you can roll through this [pandemic] and still pull out solid test scores, that will help you.”

Klein Wassink points out that many students “peak” in their test scores early in senior year. Fall testing should be part of the plan for rising seniors, she believes, so focusing on test prep this spring and summer is recommended.

Klein Wassink highlighted certain colleges that have traditionally placed high importance on SAT II Subject Tests. She predicted these requirements could loosen, as colleges recognize the difficulty for students to schedule multiple subject tests, and may focus on the SAT I or ACT.

More generally, the recent cancellation of test dates could help accelerate the trend away from standardized tests. Even before COVID-19, an increasing number of colleges have either eliminated test requirements or become test-optional. This has been due in part to controversies over whether the tests favor the affluent or whether they are predictive of success in college, as well as various “admissions scandals” leading to scrutiny of the integrity and fairness of the admissions process.

Klein Wassink recognizes that the College Board and ACT Student organizations are businesses. She doesn’t believe testing is going away completely but anticipates that colleges will at least reconsider the weight they have historically placed on test scores in acceptance decisions. When COVID-19 forces them to consider factors other than test scores, perhaps, Klein Wassink hypothesized, colleges will realize they no longer need to rely on those measures to accept or reject qualified applicants.

Applicant Pools

COVID-19 could change the size and composition of the student body applying to colleges next year. Economic uncertainty, skyrocketing unemployment, and significant losses in invested college savings could make college unaffordable for many.

The mix of domestic and (often full-pay) international students in the applicant pool might change as well. Klein Wassink senses there could be ”a wait and see attitude” among international students, particularly those from China. In addition to concerns about discrimination (the fear that people may be blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.), some students may have concerns about traveling to another country if there is a real possibility of future waves of the pandemic. 

“Colleges have been courting international students for years,” said Klein Wassink. “[Having fewer international students] will hurt many colleges. But it may also make it easier for some U.S. students to gain admission to highly competitive schools.”

Campus Visits

Klein Wassink acknowledged one of the pandemic’s most significant effects on college searches: “Obviously, students can’t visit [a campus] right now.” 

This short-term reality can create an added challenge for students who have to postpone their visits until summer when it’s more difficult to sense the real vibe on campus. As Klein Wassink observed, “You get a really different impression about a school when it is not in session.”

Colleges have responded to COVID-19 by offering students virtual tours and online information sessions. While students can’t visit the admissions office, Klein Wassink strongly suggests they take advantage of online offerings and sign in to/attend virtual tours and information sessions:  “They are the only option for demonstrated interest right now, an important part of the process.

Klein Wassink believes marketing tools like virtual tours are here to stay, even when campuses eventually re-open, and will be extremely useful for students to screen and explore schools that might fit their target list (and without the road trip).

Teacher Recommendations and The Common App

COVID-19 hasn’t changed Klein Wassink’s usual advice to high school juniors when it comes to 1) asking teachers for recommendations and 2) getting started on the Common Application.  

“Just get these things done,” urged Klein Wassink, adding that the Common App saves your work-in-progress. Students can complete the demographics and activities sections and cross these tasks off their to-do list. They can also use this time to get started on essays.

As The Saying Goes: “Stay Calm and Carry On”

COVID-19 has added even more anxiety to the already fraught college application process. To help calm that, Klein Wassink is encouraging students and parents to “be prepared.”  This applies not just to the notion of test prep, but the expectation that COVID-19 could still prompt new developments and further changes in the application process.  

“Be prepared as it changes. To make it less stressful, be prepared for all eventualities,” she advised. “You have to roll with the punches.”

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