Even before the pandemic, there was plenty of anxiety surrounding college admissions. My students would often describe the lump in their throat when adults asked them where they were going to college or what they’d be majoring in. They would often feel overwhelmed and inadequate because people expected them to have everything figured out.

Such anxiety was especially common this time of year. When August arrived, so did college application season. All of sudden, things got real. Everything students had been working toward throughout high school came to a head, and they would find themselves inundated with college essays and application deadlines. Even for the best-prepared student, the fall of senior year has always been a tense, turbulent time.

Cassie Lancaster | Credit: Courtesy

That was before the pandemic. Today, traditional worries about college application season seem quaint. Today, there’s COVID, and social isolation, and “distance learning.” Instead of students fretting over college acceptances, many feel that the college experience itself is fading from view.

I recently spoke to Spencer Barr, the College and Career Counselor at Santa Barbara High School, about the current state of affairs, and he told me that he’s been noticing something unexpected. Surprisingly, at a time when his guidance is needed more than ever, Barr is getting fewer calls and emails than before. He attributes it, in part, to the isolation.

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“Kids get so much energy from the social aspect of high school — from hanging out with friends — and they haven’t been able to do that,” he said.

In other words, the lack of community is depriving college-bound students of the nervous excitement that normally surrounds application season, while leaving in place all of the usual anxiety and then some. For many students, the social component of high school has suddenly evaporated, and the resulting vacuum is being filled with lethargy and resignation.

I believe it’s up to us — the parents, teachers, and counselors — to combat this despondency, and one way we can do that is by finding ways to restore some semblance of the camaraderie that used to exist during application season. We need to bring students back together so they don’t feel like they’re going through this process alone.

I’ve seen the group dynamic succeed many times over the years: The simple act of working together, of having friends down in the trenches with them, helps to inspire students, relieve anxiety, and generate energy.

At Mission Scholars, a community organization I cofounded to help exceptional, low-income students maximize their college options, we’re putting this into play by securing outdoor space so that our students can safely congregate for the guidance we would otherwise offer indoors. We’re also conducting Zoom workshops that will allow our Scholars to connect with one another as they navigate college application season.

Parents can adopt a similar approach. They can come together virtually to exchange ideas, compare notes, and share information. They can encourage small student meetups that observe social distancing protocol — three friends meeting at the park to work on their college essays, for instance — and they can facilitate online meetups where students can share in the drudgery of filling out their college applications.

Families can also capitalize on the resources offered by SBUSD, which are more abundant than many realize. Counselors have been working hard to pivot during this time of unprecedented uncertainty, and they are eager to help students figure things out.

Normally, there would be workshops held on a drop-in basis, Barr told me during our conversation. This year, they’ll be doing something similar in virtual form. They’ll also be reaching out to students individually to ensure that none fall through the cracks, and to make sure that they are immediately aware of any changes to the college admissions landscape.

The one caveat, of course, is that communication is a two-way street. When I asked him for the single most important thing students could do to keep abreast of this ever-changing situation, Barr was quick to answer.

“Check your district email,” he said. “District email is often the only way we can contact kids, and sometimes they don’t check it for weeks.”

None of this is normal. It sometimes feels as if time is standing still, as if we are all stuck in our own personal version of Groundhog Day, and as if life is on pause, waiting to be rebooted at some unspecified future date.

But that’s an illusion. College admissions season is upon us, and what students do in the next few months will have a profound effect on how they spend one of the most rewarding periods of their lives. It’s time to shake off the malaise and find ways to rekindle the sense of hope and anticipation that is such a crucial part of the college application process.

Cassie Lancaster is the executive director of Mission Scholars, a program of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation.

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