Wednesday, September 16, 2020

It’s Really a Brand New Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A local teacher was once the recipient of a prestigious national teaching award.  When asked about his secret to success, his response was fresh, original, and surprising.  “It’s simple” he said.  “After I’m through teaching a particular lesson, I take the notes I painstakingly researched, tear them up, and throw them away.  That way, when I teach the same lesson again, I have to start from scratch.”

If there’s ever a time to apply that lesson to college counseling, it’s this year.  While much of our work is based on past actions—which students got into which colleges with certain credentials—it’s pretty easy to see why this year is going to be different.  This freshness certainly isn’t going to destroy all the axioms we know to be true—there will be certain colleges where a 3.9 student is pretty much going to get in no matter what—but there are enough factors in flux that allow us to throw out some of the rules of the past, and offer new insights into students this year.

Who’s applying  It’s been a challenging year for colleges, as they scramble to meet the needs of admitted international students who can’t get the paperwork they need to be on campus.  A different problem with the same result exists for students whose college funds saw rocky times during the recent stock market upheaval, or those whose families have health or employment issues requiring them to put college on the back burner, at least for now.

Combined with the predicted downturn in the number of high school graduates, these new factors could open up some application options for students.  It’s worth asking the colleges if their recruiting projections are changing at all as a result of these new factors.  No matter what they say, this may make more applications worthwhile for capable students.

What they’re reading, Part I  The best known change is the incredible number of colleges that aren’t requiring test scores this year.  In many ways, this makes sense.  Some students simply aren’t going to get a chance to test, while others may have one set of test scores that was supposed to be a first effort—but now, it’s all they have.

Students need to understand that a college will look at scores that are sent, even if those scores put the student in an unfavorable light.  Some students are convinced colleges will ignore low test scores that are submitted, but that’s not really the case.  To them, that would be like ignoring the D in Algebra 2—once you know it’s there, you have to keep it in mind. Make sure students understand the best time to send test scores, and how to send them in a way that works to their advantage.

What they’re reading, Part II The absence of test scores puts greater weight on the other parts of the application.  At many colleges, much of that weight will get picked up by grades, while other places will look to the essays for a better understanding of the students behind the paperwork.

This means students will want to write as comprehensive a picture of who they are as possible—and that means going easy on the COVID narrative. The pandemic has left a big change on all of us, to be sure, but if all three required essays are all about COVID, colleges won’t help but wonder if there’s anything else in the student’s life.  We wouldn’t have students write three essays on baseball—this is the same thing in many ways.  Make sure the topics of the essays are thematically connected, but individually diverse.

This may not be the first time we’re applying to college, but it’s the first time our students are—so the rules would be new to them, even if they were the same rules as used in past years.  Use this mutual freshness as a springboard for quality advising, even in uncertain times.  As long as students know much of this year is unknown, we can prepare them for whatever lies ahead.

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