In a typical year for high school juniors and their college counselors, March would usher in a plethora of activity. Families would visit colleges up and down the East Coast and across the country, taking advantage of prospective student programs. Students and their parents would visit college fairs, meeting regional admissions representatives from hundreds of colleges and universities. Students would then filter in and out of their college counselors’ offices, sharing information, reporting their impressions and getting advice.
When the coronavirus hit, effectively shutting down high schools and college campuses across the country in early March, all of that changed.
Campus tours and information sessions went virtual, with families digitally traversing campuses instead of walking through college grounds and buildings. College fairs moved online, such as the one hosted by StriveScan, which recently provided a virtual platform for over 300 colleges and universities offering 96 presentations including application tips, choosing the right fit school, navigating financial aid, and the parents’ role in the college process.
What has not changed is the high school college counselor’s role in helping families navigate what can – even in the best of times – seem like a confusing process. Starting in January, counselors meet with juniors and their families to create lists of prospective colleges to research and visit. These lists are based on many factors, including the student’s interests, academic portfolio, standardized test scores and financial needs, to name a few.
Follow-up meetings on Zoom take a bit more planning during the virtual school day than in-person sessions. A Beth Tfiloh junior commented that she and her parents met with her college counselor virtually “to debrief and organize my college list, to refine it and discuss the next steps in the college process.” She added that “this connection has made it so that the level of support in college guidance has remained steadfast.”
Another Beth Tfiloh junior found email to be a helpful tool in seeking advice from her college counselor. “Through several email exchanges with my dedicated college counselor, I was able to reach out and explore various schools. My counselor suggested numerous ways to virtually gather information, such as attending college fair sessions,” she said.
Often in these meetings, students will discuss ways to make themselves stand out from the thousands of competing applicants. This year, students can expect that colleges will ask how they spent their free time during their mandated shelter at home. College admissions offices will likely want to see students reaching out to help others in whatever capacity available to them.
At Beth Tfiloh, some juniors are making “Thinking of You” cards to safely deliver to senior living communities and nursing homes whose residents may no longer have visitors. Others are making enrichment toys for shelter animals and offering classmates Zoom baking demonstrations, cooking classes and workout sessions.
One student is earning money to donate to families in need by selling calendars and planners online. Many students are demonstrating their multi-tasking and organizational skills by helping to manage younger siblings while parents are working at home.
While the focus on college counseling during COVID-19 has clearly been on juniors, seniors have had to adjust how they negotiate the end of their application cycle — deciding which school to attend. Most colleges do not yet have a definitive picture of what the fall semester will look like regarding in-person versus online classes and feasibility of dorm living. Students will need to keep in contact with admissions offices as they and their families make their decisions.
As they do so, their college counselors will continue to help them. A BT senior described how her counselor helped in deciding between two colleges where she had been accepted: “We discussed the academic pros and cons of each school and considered other experiences offered by each school, such as interning opportunities and research programs. Additionally, she suggested some other questions to contemplate, like what I would ‘miss’ about each school if I chose not to attend. The thought-provoking advice combined with the comforting ‘Zoom space’ enabled me to feel supported during my decision process and confident in my college decision, despite the circumstances.”
Halaine Steinberg is director of college guidance at Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
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