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Articles / Applying to College / How to Stay on Track with College Prep Plans During COVID-19

How to Stay on Track with College Prep Plans During COVID-19

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 9, 2020
How to Stay on Track with College Prep Plans During COVID-19


I'm an optimist by nature, and have been trying to make the best of the current worldwide COVID-19 crisis. While my empathy extends to all nations, my main focus is on the United States. Within America, my special interest is high school and college students and how this crisis has upended their academic and everyday social lives.

The situation for college students is not only academically disruptive but also financially confusing. Matters of tuition, room and board, and fee refunds are in various stages of settlement. Some collegians were swept out of their dorm rooms with mere days of notice. Some had to evacuate without being able to secure their belongings and had to scramble to find transportation home. Some international students couldn't make the journey home. It has been an unprecedented time on campus.

My focus today, however, is on high school students who have been separated from their classrooms, teachers and friends. College-bound seniors who have received their admission decisions are now trying their best to make enrollment decisions without the advantage of physical visits to prospective campuses. Touring a college via the internet is far from the enjoyable reality of "trodding the sod" in person. Not being able to merge with current students is also a big disadvantage.

Juniors -- and even sophomores -- who are working on their long-range college plans have also been hit with challenges. Some of their best-laid plans have, at a minimum, been put on hold as they find themselves sitting at home dealing with the brave new world of online classes. As the COVID-19 situation evolves, some experts are predicting a long haul that may possibly spill into the coming school year. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Stay Mindful of College Prep Progress

So, what's a high schooler to do during this strange time of isolation? Some excellent answers came to me this week from Stacey Kostell, chief executive officer of the Coalition for College, a diverse group of public and private colleges and universities across the US working to improve the college application and admissions process and promote access to higher education. She sent me a valuable narrative entitled Staying on Track for College During COVID-19: How high school students can use time out of school to build strong college resumes, and gave me permission to post it below. If you're a high schooler headed for college, please read and learn. Here's what Stacey wrote:

The early years of high school are critical for building strong college resumes.

For many students, every decision from course selection to cocurricular involvement to volunteer experiences is made with college applications in mind. This year, coronavirus concerns have upended the process, leaving many students — especially juniors for whom this year is indispensable — worried about how school closures will affect their college plans. Despite all the uncertainty, anxiety and limitations, the COVID-19 pandemic also offers new opportunities for students to build strong and creative college resumes. Here's some advice for high school students wondering how best to prepare for college when traditional pathways are unavailable.

Seek Early College Planning Resources Online

College planning tools have been available online for years, but now it will be more critical than ever to seek them out. The Coalition for College has lots of articles and information about the college process, and also offers a free "Locker" space to help students keep track of school work, extracurricular involvement and accomplishments as early as their first year of high school. RaiseMe is another great resource for younger high school students that also offers microscholarships to students beginning in ninth grade. For access to things like free test prep, check out Khan Academy. And for a wealth of information on scholarships, consult the College Board Opportunity Scholarships program.

Colleges and universities are also moving many resources online during this time, including virtual tours and information sessions. "Sophomores and juniors might consider using these resources during spring and early summer to narrow their college lists," says Mary Wagner, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of South Carolina. "They are free and easy ways to get a quick sense of a college's vibe, and they don't require travel." Students can find information about programs like these on admissions websites.

Plan Ahead

Students should make adjustments to next year's schedule as much as possible in the coming weeks, while also being mindful of the fact that guidance counselors and teachers are working overtime right now to address urgent issues. So, although now is not the time to bombard them with questions and requests about the fall, students could use their time to research the curriculum requirements for their top colleges and plan what courses they may need to include in their schedules for next year. That way no time is wasted when school administrators are ready to help with course selection. High school juniors should pay special attention to the rigor of their classes for next year. While it's tempting to take a lighter load as a senior, next year will be different, and colleges will want to see that students are making the most of a difficult situation and are motivated to challenge themselves when school resumes.

It's also a good time to review plans for taking standardized tests, as both test schedules and schools' requirements are changing. A number of schools are announcing plans to adopt a test-optional policy, which would allow students to choose whether they would like to have their test scores considered as part of their review for admission, including Indiana University, which will make this shift in August 2020. It's a change, says David Johnson, vice provost for enrollment management at Indiana University, "that might support students who will not be able to retake a canceled standardized test in the coming months."

Keep a Journal

Many teachers and other experts are encouraging journaling as a way to capture some of what we're all experiencing and feeling. We are all living through an unprecedented global event, which has drastically altered our lifestyles for now—and could potentially change the course of many lives completely. It's the kind of experience students may choose to reflect on in college essays. Having access to thoughts and emotions in the moment will be useful during the writing process, and it may help students through the uncertainty we're all going through right now. Remember that "journaling" can take many forms. Social media posts, videos and other methods are also good ways to document emotion.

At the same time, keep in mind how many future college essays will likely focus on this topic, says Audrey Smith, vice president for enrollment at Smith College. "Consider carefully to ensure your reflection is distinguished from others." No matter the topic, Smith says, "One piece of advice we like to give students about their essay is to start early. Now is a great time to start taking notes and capturing your topic with lots of detail, which will help bring your writing to life. By doing this work now, you'll have given yourself the gift of time for editing and gathering feedback later on."

Use Extra Time Creatively

With school, activities and events canceled, students are likely finding themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands. How someone uses this time could help differentiate them from peers when it comes time to apply for college. Consider learning something new — how to knit, speak a new language, bake a pie from scratch, play the guitar, change a flat tire, or build a website. Students should think creatively about how to use this time to their advantage, and know that they can always add new hobbies and interests to the activities section of their college application.

"But even under normal circumstances, colleges do not expect all students to be able to fill time away from school with academic work or specific extracurricular activities," says Veronica Hauad, deputy director of admissions at the University of Chicago. "We recognize that many students have significant responsibilities at home and will be called upon to do even more at this time. Take extra care of yourself and of those around you, and know that we are here to help in any way that we can."

Remember, We're All in This Together

College admissions professionals know this year represents unprecedented challenges and anomalies for students, widening equity gaps, new financial challenges, fewer conventional opportunities and more. They're experiencing it too, with their own jobs and families, including school-age children. So, they get it. And they're planning now for the fact that some high schools will move to pass/fail grading systems, testing schedules for IB exams and SATs are shifting, and many students will have large holes in cocurricular activities for this year. The good news is that admissions officers are trained to consider the context of the environment students are in when reading applications. They will work hard not to penalize students for situations beyond their control.

"We'll all remember where we were when corona hit," says James B. Massey Jr., director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland. "We'll be encouraging students to make the most of the open-ended questions on the application that give them a chance to tell us more about how the pandemic affected their curricular and co-curricular activities. We want students to be honest with us and to share how this affected them and their overall student experience."

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students in extraordinary ways, but it is a temporary situation. The next few months provide time to ensure that college plans aren't derailed and that students can continue forward momentum to make their colleges goals a reality.

Great advice. Stay safe and be alert for opportunity, even during adversity.

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Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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