College hunting during COVID-19: Many high school seniors are looking for the ideal college in less than ideal circumstances

  • Nancy Brinckerhoff, director of college counseling at Willows Academy in Des Plaines, is coaching seinors through a unique college admissions season because of COVID-19.

    Nancy Brinckerhoff, director of college counseling at Willows Academy in Des Plaines, is coaching seinors through a unique college admissions season because of COVID-19. Courtesy of Kristin Hunt

Submitted by Kristin Hunt
Updated 10/27/2020 9:45 AM

As COVID-19 persists, colleges are evolving their recruitment and admissions processes for next year's incoming classes; and similarly, prospective students are adjusting to a new way of applying to college and deciding where to attend.

"Many things have changed regarding the college admissions process this year, making it a unique experience and frankly, somewhat unpredictable for this class of seniors," said Nancy Brinckerhoff, director of college counseling at Willows Academy, an all-girls Catholic middle and high school in Des Plaines.


College visits go virtual

One of the biggest changes is the shift to virtual campus visits. With many colleges limiting in-person visits for prospective students during the pandemic, high school seniors planning to attend college next fall must seek alternative ways to explore which schools will best suit their future plans. Barbara Burns, a senior at Willows, has yet to have any formal in-person visits at the colleges where she is applying.

"The idea of applying to a school without potentially visiting is a bit scary," Burns said. "I had hoped to get a sense of the school culture, professors' teaching styles and whether I'll fit in with other students by visiting in person. But that hasn't been the case."

Instead, she has attended a host of virtual webinars, presentations, tours and one-on-one meetings with admissions counselors and students since starting her search. In addition, Willows offers a weekly college seminar to seniors, and college representatives have been joining the seminars via Zoom, whereas they would normally visit in person.

Burns is taking it in stride, though, acknowledging she's fortunate to be considering college in the first place when so many cannot, and technology has made it possible to still obtain a glimpse into college life.

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In fact, Burns said the schools have done an excellent job conveying their unique atmospheres and communities. She said they've also kept the lines of communication open and have connected her with already enrolled students via email - allowing her to ask them a host of questions, including what they favor most and least about the institution they attend.

"It's been interesting to see colleges adapt during this time," she said. "I'm just grateful people at these schools have worked so hard to offer these alternatives. I feel like I can make an informed decision considering the circumstances."

Application process shifts, so must students

Virtual visits aren't the only change, though. Since the pandemic began, standardized tests like the ACT and SAT have been consistently canceled. Brinckerhoff said nationwide, many students haven't had the chance to take either test, even once. As such, many colleges have decided test scores will be an optional part of the admissions process, whereas typically, it's required.

Further, inconsistent grading practices across U.S. high schools last Spring - as they grappled with transitioning to remote learning and determining what was reasonable for students to achieve - could mean grade point averages are weighted differently during this year's admissions period.


"These metrics have typically been an important part of the application process. And while I'm sure they will still be taken into consideration, colleges will likely be reviewing students' applications through a different lens this year," Brinckerhoff said. "Without a doubt, the college essay will be a critical part of the admissions process."

Brinckerhoff said essays are students' opportunities to introduce themselves to admissions representatives, and students should be thoughtful about what they write and how they write it. She offered the following tips for writing a great essay:

• Use your voice and be authentic.

• Give colleges a glimpse of your passions or what motivates you.

• Don't try to impress. Tell a simple story that pulls back the curtain of your heart.

• Your story is uniquely your own. Own it.

Burns is heeding Brinckerhoff's advice. Even though she had the opportunity to take both the ACT and SAT, she said getting a spot to take the tests was challenging because they filled up fast. She said rather than try to take either test again, she is focusing on creating solid essays and getting lots of help from Brinckerhoff and other teachers in the review process.

"I'm just trying to show the best version of myself through my writing," she said. "In addition I've done a lot of online research to get a sense of what the schools I'm applying to value, and what they look for in their applicants."

Above all else, don't panic

Brinckerhoff said despite the many changes attached to this year's college application process, students must really try to keep things in perspective and not fret. She said while students should be proactive about reaching out to admissions representatives with questions, they should also be understanding that schools are operating in unique circumstances as well.

"Be patient," she said. "Remember, college admissions reps are people too. Also remember that this application season is like no other. Universities understand students are facing a lot of anxiety, and school representatives want to help."

Brinckerhoff said in the wake of struggles like the pandemic, racial inequality, increasing unemployment rates and a multitude of other factors, students need to focus on what really matters - not just finding the perfect college.

"Where you go to college does not define who you are," she said. "Find the best fit. You will grow into an amazing person wherever you land, so discover the college that fits you best."

Burns said even though she planned on plotting out this next stage in life in a very different way, she is still excited about the college admissions process and the future ahead.

"I have a lot to be thankful for," Burns said. "I know I have a good four years ahead of me wherever they may be, and I'm just trying to appreciate the time I have left with my family and the friends I've had for such a long time."

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