Focusing on Your College Path and Embracing Change

The predictions about what fall 2020 will look like for first-year college students have been circulating for months. We could have guessed that it would not be until August before colleges had formulated decisions and plans on what classes and campus life would look like. Waiting to hear is hard, and in many ways it echoes the feeling of waiting to hear about college admissions decisions. That's what I was thinking when I started writing this post back in April. As mid-summer days baked in, taking bets on what fall would look like - no matter what schools were saying - was a little like pulling daisy petals and singing "classes online, classes not online,” "campus open, campus not open."  Hidden in this shift could be a stripping away of the manufactured buildup of what going to college is supposed to look like. Buried in all of this uncertainty of what the upcoming school year will look like may help students begin to develop new expectations that cultivate skills to help manage transitions and the unexpected.

Each year, first-year students arrive on college campuses wrapped in anticipation of what college will be like, ranging from choosing classes to embracing independence. For many, this is their longest stretch, away from home. Colleges typically offer orientation programs, host club days, and dorm events to help new and returning students engage in campus culture, find their people, and settle into their temporary homes for the next 3 ½ months. We tend to forget that every year can be a new or different version of the college experience. Some colleges repackage orientation weeks to weekends, and create hybrids of a few in-person days with an online course and class registration day, usually based on evaluating prior year outcomes. This fall, college students can be assured there will be changes. Instead of adjustments built solely on reviewing past results, colleges will be developing programs to support students based on predictions and multiple scenarios to embed flexibility and provide the best possible outcomes to support student academic success and health.  

For the class of 2020, COVID-19 has made playing the hand that's been dealt for attending college this fall challenging. Every week the latest news about what colleges are doing or not doing for fall 2020 gets released that reflects the tone at the time, but are not necessarily predictive of what the full 2020-21 school year will look like forcing students to develop and shift plans, from looking for Gap Year options, reapplying to colleges closer to home, forming pods with friends, or attending a community college as ways to control the unpredictability that leaves so many uncomfortable. What seems to be forgotten in this unfamiliar landscape is that the future, including the college experience, is not entirely certain, pandemic or not. 

Juniors and sophomores in high school have the benefit of time right now. They can watch and see how everything rolls out and adjust their decisions, research, and expectations accordingly. Standardized testing has been a moving target, and almost impossible to pin down, requiring patience and continued preparation. With multiple colleges declaring themselves test-optional and a few moving to piloting test-blind policies, paying attention to requirements for the upcoming application cycles may be the strongest play for the hand you’re holding.

What might be different in this application cycle? Will Early Decision (ED) and Early Application (EA) dates change? Will supplemental essays be the same, become more targeted, or be reduced to help students? Will ED, EA, Demonstrated Interest, or Wait Lists become more critical as colleges try to assess which students are sincerely interested? Will colleges trying to strike a balance between offering grace to students applying during a pandemic and meeting their enrollment yields, communicate what will be most important during this application cycle? All of these questions require considerable attention to ensure that students are well informed and prepared to pursue their plan and timeline. Even with this new reality of what college will look like in the future, students applying to college still need to pay attention to:

  • College List – Covid-19 might have refocused priorities in terms of how far away from home you want to be, if the cost aligns with your family's budget, or the pathway to help you achieve your goals. Building a college list that lines up with your educational aspirations and needs is still essential.

  • Application and Essays – Key to working on applications and essays is building time into your weekly schedule. You may want to think about the application season as one short, additional course you are taking with weekly projects that need to be completed. 

  • Testing – Does your testing plan need to be adjusted? If so, what steps need to be taken e.g., confirm that the colleges you are applying to are test-optional. What is the timing to submit test scores? Have any of the colleges you are applying to changed to a test-blind policy?

  • Deadlines – Calendar the deadlines for submitting applications, and verify if schools on your list have created new application dates for Regular Decision (RD) Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA), Early Decision II (EDII), or something completely different.

  • Demonstrated Interest – In the past several years, a number of schools have moved away from Demonstrated Interest (DI), but in the year of Covid-19, some colleges are looking for ways to gauge student interest and to predict which students will enroll if offered a spot. Find out if schools on your list care about DI, and if so, show them you're interested.

The college journey for 2020-21 looks remarkably different from years past, but it may provide flexibility to re-shift expectations for both incoming first-year students planning their arrival and high school students building a college list. A significant aspect of the college journey is learning how to make decisions and assessing tradeoffs, but the weight of the choices this year may feel more important. What often feels linear is, in reality, not as rigid and constricted as one might think. In fact, students might even begin to see that more clearly in 2020 than in past years. Remaining patient and playing the hand that is dealt may put students in the best position to move forward through this historical time.

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