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Counselor Q&A: How to Be Smart When Planning for College During the Pandemic

There's a lot of uncertainty in college admission due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some answers to common student questions from an expert counselor.

It’s amazing how fast life has changed. When we rang in 2020 and a new decade, there were 41 cases of a mysterious pneumonia in China. There was little to no concern in America. Two months later, on Leap Day, the first death on American soil was noted. On March 10, I was preparing to present a seminar on college admission to the PTA of a local school. One-Stop College Counseling was still running some in-person meetings with students and families, although we had recently stopped shaking hands, and there was antibacterial hand spray all over the office. At the presentation, it was evident that a change was beginning. People sitting in the audience were more spread out, and I felt compelled to keep the Q&A session that follows the presentation brief. I don’t think any of us could predict how quickly our lives would be altered. The next day, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus to be a pandemic, and on March 13, the US declared a national emergency—and everything became virtual.

Fortunately, I’m used to working with students all over the country, so it wasn’t difficult to transition to online meetings—but things were changing rapidly. Colleges were closing their doors, students were sent home, they couldn’t take standardized tests, and college admission officers began running daily webinars for counselors with offerings of virtual opportunities for students. They also explained how they expected social distancing to affect admission both this year and next. Many colleges have already started accepting students from their wait lists as they don’t expect their yield to meet their enrollment predictions.

With all of this, my inbox has exploded with questions from concerned parents and students that my team are answering daily. We thought it might be helpful to address some of the most common questions we’re receiving.

How is this virus going to affect my future college applications?

The answer to this is still unknown. For high school seniors, many colleges have extended the commitment deadline to June 1. Some students are rethinking whether they want to attend a college that requires a plane flight; others, worried they may have to begin their college experience online, are considering a gap year. It’s possible that some colleges will not fill their freshman class.

Related: What Are Schools Doing About COVID-19?

With more seniors currently planning gap years, will there be fewer spaces at colleges in the future?

There’s no definitive response to this yet, but high school juniors are legitimately worried that if more seniors join the college Class of 2025, then gaining admission will be harder for them. We've been speaking to multiple colleges daily, ranging from highly selective to moderately selective. So far, domestic students are not currently flooding admission officers with requests to take a gap year. (International students may have problems obtaining a visa, but that's a separate issue.) Things may change if colleges announce an online fall semester, but currently, this shouldn’t be a point of concern. If too many students request to defer a year, colleges may have to take a stance and create new policies. But students need to avoid focusing on what they can’t control. It’ll play out however it plays out, and younger students will make informed decisions later on.

Should students still take AP exams, and will colleges award credit for these?

This year, AP exams will only cover about 75% of the traditionally tested material. Although these new online, at-home exams may not be comprehensive of your knowledge, almost all colleges have agreed to honor the scores you earn. They won’t penalize you for not taking the exam, but if you perform well enough to earn college credit, they’ll accept it. If you want to try taking the tests, continue to study and plan to take them.

Related: COVID-19: AP Test Changes You Need to Know About

How can pass/fail grading highlight my improved grades?

We work with a lot of different high schools, and we’ve heard all sorts of new grading plans. Some are using pass/fail for end-of-year grades; others are giving everyone who participates regularly an “A”; and still others have decided on “do no harm” grading where grades are guaranteed to be equal to or higher than those received earlier in the year. Conversely, we have a few students who are facing tough tests and stringent grading policies while dealing with this whole new world.

We’ve had numerous conversations with college admission officers about grades. They’re committed to working with the information they have—which means evaluating students within the context of their high schools for each unique grading system. A few admission officers have mentioned that senior year grades might play a more important role in the evaluation process than normal, but again, that’s not definitive at this point. Do your research for the colleges that interest you. Many have written letters to students stating that they’ll not be disadvantaged in any way if their high school switches to a pass/fail grading system.

How will canceled standardized tests affect my future admission decision?

Once again, colleges have chosen to be flexible. There have been close to 100 additional colleges that have recently announced they’ll be switching to test-optional policies for their incoming classes. Many have even decided to extend this policy for several years or even permanently. So if you’re unable to take or retake a test, you can still apply to numerous colleges. FairTest has a list that’s being updated regularly, and at last count, there were 1,160 test-optional/flexible institutions. In addition, both the SAT and the ACT have pledged to have at-home, online testing starting in the late fall if testing centers don’t reopen.

Related: How COVID-19 Is Affecting Standardized Tests

My summer program/internship was canceled—what can I do for the next several months?

We receive this question daily. Right now, our country is pretty much at a standstill. Many students were supposed to compete in state/national competitions; others were intending to play their sports or attend highly sought-after summer programs—yet almost everything is being canceled or moved online.  

College admission officers understand that most activities have stopped, and they realize that the spring/summer of 2020 is going to look unusually bare on many future college applications. If your program moves to an online version, you may decide to still participate. And of course, if you were selected for something you’re proud of, you can still list it on your résumé with the words “canceled” in parentheses. Everyone is aware of the situation.

However, there are still ways to make an impact without putting yourself in a public space. Look for opportunities you’re really excited about—things you wouldn't have had a chance to explore if you were following your normal routine. See where your curiosity takes you. Perhaps you’ll learn a new language or come up with a way to add some cheer to your community. There are so many fantastic and unique volunteer roles available right now. You can join a virtual organization or create one of your own. Admission officers have expressed excitement that this down period might turn into a wonderful time of exploration and realization for teenagers despite the unfortunate circumstances.

Related: COVID-19: How to Stay Productive

Students and parents have valid concerns and a lot of questions. But try not to go down the “what if” rabbit hole. Stick to the facts and learn to adapt as they change. Life will eventually return to normal, but in the meantime, use whatever tools you have at your disposal to get through this period of uncertainty. Perhaps, you’ll discover new interests and passions from the comfort of your home—you can explore, experiment, create, and initiate. Don’t worry about things outside your control, and most importantly, stay safe!

For more coronavirus information and advice, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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