Life as we know it is fundamentally different from how it was last year. What’s happening right now is. not. normal. No matter what we say, all of you know that’s true, and to brush past what’s going on does a disservice to each and every one of your unique experiences as you navigate this very important process.
So, where do we go from here?
No one has all of the answers for how things are going to shake out, particularly with regard to your college experience. We completely understand the anxieties surrounding this huge transition at the best of times, and certainly at times like these. Still, we want to advocate for the “don’t panic” method of thinking and try to alleviate some of your concerns as you evaluate your future plans.
Start By Giving Yourself a Break
Take a minute to acknowledge the context we’re in, and then move forward by asking yourself, “What can I accomplish, to the best of my abilities, during this time?”
If you can crank out applications and conduct virtual visits right now, fantastic. If you need to take a step back and reconsider how your college experience may look in the coming years—or if college even makes sense for you right now—that’s completely fine, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making the college search process and the big decisions that go along with it more difficult for everyone, even those folks who have seemingly been revising their application essays for the Ivy League since the second grade. You are not alone during this process.
Consider the Possibilities
During the “before” times, narrowing your college choices was an act of balance. You had to equally weigh any individual college’s location, cost of attendance, and academic and social opportunities not only against other colleges, but also your own ideal picture of what your college experience would look like.
Now, you still have to do all of that and consider the rapidly changing circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shifting family matters, varying financial aid eligibility, and uncertainty of safe cross-country travel are all new realities that incoming college students will have to deal with when beginning their college search process.
We’re not trying to sound alarmist here, merely realistic. Critical thinking is a skill that can always be strengthened, and the college search process is an excellent time to really exercise that mental muscle. Thoroughly consider exactly what you want to get out of your college experience. Speak to family members about changing expectations related to college. Talk to an admissions counselor at the institutions you’re interested in. Do what you think is best to set yourself up for success in your search.
Now that we’ve got the vague, life-advicey musings out of the way, it’s time to get into some more concrete questions and their answers. One that has continually popped up during these past months is “How can I know whether a college is a good fit for me without visiting?”
Physically being on a campus is an experience that cannot be replicated and is a cornerstone of the college search process for many prospective students. And unfortunately, many schools aren’t offering in-person campus visits right now.
The good news is that colleges (including ours!) do provide ways to explore both their culture and campus in a virtual setting. These include options like online presentations and student panels, one-on-one talks with counselors, virtual tours of campus, and more.
We understand that a virtual experience isn’t a replacement for an actual, on-the-ground tour, but these opportunities can act as a pretty sound alternative during such turbulent times. As always, questions abound, so don’t be shy in reaching out to the colleges on your list directly. They want to help you find the right fit, too.
Testing (Yes, That Kind)
The last two years of your high school experience, among other things, are largely defined by testing—specifically, the ACT and SAT, which may play a part in your admission to certain colleges.
Unfortunately, and we really don’t have to break this to you, but COVID-19 also threw a wrench in the plans of your typical ACT and SAT schedule. Certain testing sessions were canceled outright, and others were moved until later or reduced in capacity. For rising seniors, this has potentially played havoc on your application strategy.
In our effort to ease your worries, we want to let you in on some important information: Many schools have pushed deadlines back and/or elected to allow first-year applicants to forego sending in their ACT and SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. This includes UIUC.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should completely skip taking these tests if you’re interested in and able to take them, but it does lessen the burden on those of you seniors who are anxious about not being able to complete this part of the college application process.
When It Comes Time to Apply
If you’re stressing about applying to colleges in the middle of a pandemic, please don’t. Or at least know that colleges are going to have different expectations of applicants and allow for greater flexibility when it comes to the application process this year, and likely longer.
We’re continuously adjusting things on our end (like the dates and test score requirements we mentioned above) as necessary to help. Keep an eye out for communications from your colleges that detail any new or updated information for applicants, and always reach out directly to a college if you have a concern they haven’t addressed. We really do make decisions based on your needs and feedback.
In addition, most college applications include an optional section to allow students an opportunity to explain any academic challenges they’ve faced. If COVID-19 has affected your academic history in some way, don’t be afraid to share it. It’s the only way we’ll know.
We’re all facing unique challenges on the day-to-day level, and we know you’re not exempt. From cancelled standardized testing to an ever-changing understanding of where (or if) to apply, you’re facing down an unprecedented end and beginning to your high school and college careers—a true bummer if there ever was one.
Still, you should be excited for college and all of the amazing opportunities and experiences contained within it, even during these strange days. Examining your needs and expectations, visiting campuses virtually, and doing your best to complete your standardized tests and college application are great ways to continue your journey, but they aren’t the only things you can do.
Have meaningful conversations, reflect on where you are and where you want to end up, and, most importantly, relax. We know you’ll find the best path for you.