As the coronavirus upends our daily lives, weighs down our health-care system, and threatens our most vulnerable citizens, the subject of college admissions might seem trivial. We all have other things to think about right now.
Yet, as director of a college admissions-based nonprofit and a private college counselor, I have been inundated with calls, texts, and emails from frazzled parents and anxious students trying to understand how the pandemic will affect one of the most important periods of their lives. While we as a society are justifiably preoccupied with the disease that is currently ravaging cities around the world, other parts of our lives still matter. With that in mind, I have some advice for college-bound high schoolers, particularly juniors and seniors.
First, for all you seniors who are wrestling with indecision after receiving your college acceptances: your anxiety is understandable. Just remember that, while the excitement of these spring months — usually a time of celebration and anticipation — may have been tempered by events beyond your control, your college acceptances still represent the culmination of years of diligent academic effort on your part. You should be proud of how hard you’ve worked, and how far you’ve come, and the doors you’ve opened for your future self.
Under normal circumstances, many of you would spend the month of April visiting college campuses to help you decide which school is right for you. The pandemic has made that impossible. Most colleges, however, are doing their best to help you make that decision through online information sessions and virtual tours. Online research will almost certainly fall short of the real thing, but under the circumstances it may be enough to help you make a sound, informed decision. Check the admissions websites of the schools that accepted you to see whether they offer any sort of enhanced online recruitment materials.
Additionally, many schools have extended their enrollment period beyond National Decision Day (the usual May 1 deadline). They understand that times are uncertain, so they are affording applicants more time to figure things out. Be aware, however, that some colleges are holding to the usual deadline. Keep in mind that this is an evolving situation, so you should be meticulous in the coming weeks about checking for emails from the schools that accepted you. Like everyone, admissions offices are doing their best to cope with the fallout from this pandemic, so what is true today might not be the case tomorrow.
For you juniors, many of whom would normally be doing their initial college visits this spring, the same online resources can be used to help you build or refine your college list, which will be the foundation of your entire admissions season. Be as tireless and enthusiastic with your online research as you would have been with your college visits. Hopefully a time will come soon when you can actually do an in-person visit, but it’s better to assume otherwise.
For juniors, the testing component may be the most difficult factor in the foreseeable future. The April ACT and May SAT were canceled; the June SAT may be next on the chopping block; and the College Board is about to administer heavily truncated 45-minute at-home AP exams for hundreds of thousands of students throughout the country. With so many test dates and formats in flux, we may be facing a situation where many students are unable to take their first SAT until late summer or early fall of their senior year, and even that is far from certain.
The good news is that colleges understand this, and are shifting accordingly. The UC schools recently announced that they will no longer require the SAT or ACT for applicants applying for fall 2021 admission. Out-of-state colleges like Boston University, Amherst College, and Williams College made similar announcements. Santa Clara University has dropped their SAT/ACT requirement for two years, Tufts for three years, and others have taken this opportunity to drop their testing requirement permanently (see: University of Oregon). More schools are adjusting their testing requirements on a daily basis, so keeping abreast of news and announcements from the colleges on your list is more important than ever.
Juniors should also be prepared for a rocky, unpredictable fall semester of senior year. Although we can’t know what the coming months will bring with any certainty, epidemiologists and public officials warn that the current pandemic may come in waves, and that school closures and renewed periods of social distancing may be a part of our lives for a year or more while a vaccine is developed. With that in mind, members of the Class of 2021 should spend the summer doing what I badger my students to do every year: start their essays early and have a sound strategy in place for application season. Preparedness and flexibility are more important now than ever.
I’d like to mention one more thing. Philanthropy has long been a foundational aspect of Santa Barbara’s distinctive local culture, and education-oriented nonprofits form an important part of that social bedrock. Educational organizations like mine (Mission Scholars), along with Program for Effective Access to College (PEAC), the Santa Barbara School of Squash, and others would crumble without the ongoing support of their volunteers and generous donors. As parents strive to support their students in navigating the coming period of uncertainty, I hope they will consider reaching out and supporting our local education nonprofits as well. Doing so will help ensure the long-term success of the students we serve — many of whose families will be very hard hit by the events unfolding today.
While it’s true that COVID-19 rules our present, our future still hinges, as it always has, upon our community’s tireless dedication to education, and our impulse to help those among us who need it. We find ourselves now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, but this, too, shall pass: and when it does, the need for generosity and compassion will be greater than ever.