Wendy Sutton, St. Andrew’s College Counselor
In my thirty years of working in the area of college admissions and advising, the basic landscape has remained fairly constant with incremental changes that were manageable. The impact of those changes were felt in gradual ways. The introduction of the college ranking system (i.e. US News and World Report), HOPE scholarship introduced in the early 90’s, the recession of 2008, the shift to a completely on-line application process. The pandemic, however, brought about change in a matter of weeks and months, highlighting flaws in the college system from admission to instructional delivery.
On the high school side of college admissions, the impact of the pandemic created uncertainty. Seniors were making college decisions in the spring without being able to visit the campus. Colleges were unsure about reopening plans, leaving students in limbo. Traditional activities and services were curtailed and some students decided to stay home.
Standardized testing was hit hard by the pandemic. All SAT and ACT tests were cancelled for spring and summer. When dates did reopen for the fall, there were fewer test sites available because many high schools were still closed or opted not to participate. St. Andrew’s continued to be a test site, but with reduced capacity to ensure the safety of students. We also ran an SAT and ACT school day test exclusively for our students so they could get an extra test in before the first set of college deadlines. Over the course of late summer and into the fall, most colleges became test optional. This has been the silver lining in this pandemic. It created more options for students whose scores would have potentially kept them from being a competitive applicant at some schools.
Many colleges are planning to stay test optional for the Class of 2022. Already the College Board has dropped SAT Subject Tests and the essay portion of the SAT. This means colleges put even more weight on your grades, rigor of study and contributions to your community. The experiences and opportunities our students have in the International Baccalaureate program provide ways to stand out from the sea of college applicants. The curriculum asks students to think more deeply and globally, write extensively, and verbally present and defend their ideas. This is not common among many other high school curriculums and colleges know this. The independent research required for the IB Extended Essay is unique among high school students and can be used to further distinguish our students.
Traditional high school visits from colleges did not happen this year and were instead replaced with online zoom sessions. While not ideal, it did enable us to have the most diverse and highest number of visits ever, exposing our students to a wider range of college possibilities. We hosted over 60 colleges, some from as far away as Maine and even Switzerland. This would have never occurred before the pandemic.
How should families prepare for college admission going forward? First, have an honest family conversation about what you can afford. The pandemic has impacted family finances and the amount of disposable income you have for college may have changed. This is why it is important to have a diverse list of colleges to apply to where you have the opportunity for scholarships or financial aid. I maintain a history of scholarship offers our students have received to better inform and educate our families on where they have the best chance for aid.
I’m a proponent of ROI (Return on Investment) when making a college decision. Will the outcomes of your investment yield you the results you want (i.e. employment, grad school, etc.). After the general tour of campus, your next stop should be the college’s career center. When looking at colleges, question the sustainability of particular academic programs. Will those programs be maintained during your four years or are they on the chopping block for budget cuts due to current college financial constraints.
The pandemic revealed some of the outdated methods of instructional delivery on college campuses. Many were not prepared to transition to online learning from either an instructional or technological perspective. Going forward, colleges may consider alternative methods of instructional delivery, more hybrid models, 3 year degrees or different calendar structures. St. Andrew’s students will have the advantage. The technology was in place that allowed for smooth transition to online learning when it became necessary this year. Our students are well versed in it. Recently, my own second grade daughter was quarantined and her teachers had prepared them for the potential of online learning and how to navigate the platforms they would have to access. Her class didn’t skip a beat in their transition from in-person to online learning.
The structure of an independent school like St. Andrew’s allows us to make adjustments to the changing times of education to better serve our families. This past year has been challenging and frustrating at times but we have dedicated staff and faculty in place with an eye on preparing our students for the future they will face.