Navigating Your Way Forward

The typical college journey in 2020 might have begun as a leisurely five-mile hike, surveying and taking in the college landscape.  Then along came March, and the trail students were on suddenly was washed out, forcing them to find new paths. Just like any hike in the backcountry, resourcefulness and flexibility will help students navigate these new trails to continue their journeys, and ultimately reach their goals.

If you’re a sophomore or junior, the proverbial washed out trail may have come in the form of changes from grades moving to Pass/Fail, canceled standardized tests, or shifting from in-person to virtual college visits.  What’s important to know is that you are not alone on this hike. College admissions leaders are deeply aware and concerned about students. The message they want to convey is 1) take care of yourself first, 2) the upcoming SAT, ACT dates and formats may continue to change but will in time become more concrete, and 3) many colleges are prepared to address shifts in grading models for prospective applicants. If you have questions about what this all means, ask the experts -  your high school counselor, college admissions reps, and other college admission professionals. Getting accurate information so you can begin to take “worry” off your daily diet will help support a healthy approach to the college journey. 

For students, the shift from letter grades to Pass/Fail seems to be near the top of the list of concerns. Students still have opportunities to achieve any goals they had set for spring 2020. That will require paying attention to how colleges will factor in grades but also other attributes that are important during the upcoming application cycle. Understanding the larger landscape will also help students direct their efforts for the remainder of the school year and going forward. 

Colleges look at many qualities of applicants. Learning how each college may value or weigh different qualities according to their institutional mission is something that can be done now. Colleges are well versed in the varied range of grading systems that exist in the U.S. and globally, and are quite capable of discerning a student’s success in high school beyond their grades. While GPA is often considered a primary predictive factor for determining college success, understanding the context of a GPA is equally essential. Admission reps will know your high school and be able to know if students are limited to what courses they can choose, when they can take them, how many weighted classes are offered, and if there are capped limits on weighted classes. Context is essential when looking at what the GPA reflects.  Admissions representatives will be asking questions like: 

o    Are the courses they take rigorous with any honors or weighted classes?

o    Is the student an athlete or a participant in some, many, or a lot of extracurriculars?  

o    Does the student have family commitments?  

o    Are they a first-gen student or have limited access to educational opportunities?  

o    Do they come from a rural community, a large public high school, or a small private school? 

o    Did they only take the minimum required courses?

o    Do their courses reflect their interests?

Whether you’re a student with a pristine GPA, one who has a mix of As and Bs, or one who is an emerging learner, those same questions will be applied, and admission teams will look for trends or patterns in class choices and mastery.  GPA is only one metric. Spring 2020 GPA for high school students may be a “blip” on the radar screen or an asterisk, and colleges will be offering a lot of “grace” according to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech. Colleges and Admission teams know that every high school student is experiencing a historical event that is significantly shifting the high school experience. Just as they are attuned to the students attending their college now, they recognize that each student, college and high school, will respond in a way that is personal and defined by their circumstances. This may mean that other aspects that reflect who a student is may carry more weight when colleges are reviewing student applications to determine if a student will be a good fit for their school. Teacher and counselor recommendations could give more importance to frame a student’s academic trajectory and engagement. (Pro-tip: don’t shoot the messenger or burn any bridges with people who may be your best allies come application season.)  

Part of the transformative nature of the college journey is in developing abilities to adjust to the unknown, to self-reflect, and to adjust expectations that align with aspirations. While it’s too soon to know what all of the lessons will be learned from Spring 2020, virtual education, and sheltering in place, we can be sure this is a moment to pause, reflect, survey the trail in front of us and think about how to catapult forward.

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