College Prep and Admissions During the Pandemic

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with noted college admissions expert Debra Felix about issues in college prep and admissions during this unprecedented public health crisis. Here are her responses to my questions:

1. What do you see as some of the big changes in college admissions for 2021 due to the global pandemic?

I foresee the biggest changes to be the following:

a. Most applicants will not be able to take the SAT or ACT before they apply to college for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, and most colleges will declare themselves “test optional” as a result. Furthermore, many students will be applying with pass/fail grades for the latter half of their junior year of high school.  This will make it more difficult for applicants to demonstrate their academic potential, but it will still be imperative for them to do so.

b. Most applicants will not be able to visit colleges, take on-campus tours, or visit classes during the fall of 2020, and possibly longer.  In addition, colleges are changing dramatically due to the pandemic. This will make it more difficult for students to figure out which colleges will be a good fit for them, and to show their demonstrated interest for the ones they like.

Because applicants will be submitting applications this year containing limited grades, scores, extracurricular activities, and demonstrated interest, admissions committees will have to evaluate applications differently.  Therefore, applicants will need to undertake a different application strategy in order to be admitted through this new evaluation process.

The implications of these and other changes are enormous and complicated and will affect each applicant differently, making it more important than ever to seek out all the best advice you can get in order to maximize your outcomes in the admission process.   

2. The Common App has added a COVID-19 question to the application. Do you have any strategic advice for students in approaching this question? 

Yes.  Only answer this question at length if the pandemic has affected you in a unique and significant way.  If both parents lost their jobs, you started working as a “shopper” to deliver groceries to high risk neighbors, and then your family had to move in with your grandfather in another state when your grandmother died from COVID-19, that would be unique and significant impact.

Admissions officers will not want to read hundreds of essays from students about how their favorite extracurricular activity was cancelled this spring or summer and how difficult it was to take classes online.  If you think the impact of COVID-19 on you was roughly at the same level as the impact on the vast majority of your peers across the country, just say so briefly.

3. With many colleges offering test optional admissions due to difficulties in testing this year, what would you advise students who might not be able to achieve optimum results due to disruptions in testing?

It will be critical to find other ways to demonstrate your academic level and potential to the admissions committee.  Ace your classes this fall.  Pick the right teachers to write your recommendations and prepare them appropriately to write great ones.  Write superb essays. Selecting the right topics and shaping the essays for maximum impact is critical. Get professional help with all of this if you can.  Speak to college representatives by phone or Zoom so they can witness your personality, hear how articulate you are and see how you think.

4. How can students grow their extracurricular and summer enrichment experiences with so many offerings closed to them this year?

First of all, take the time to mourn the cancellation of the summer activities you were looking forward to.  It is disappointing, maddening, and unfair that they have been taken away from you.  Scream, cry, or whatever you need to do to put that disappointment behind you.  Then, try to move forward.

Be creative in finding things you CAN do.  Research colleges, research things you have always wanted to know more about or you’ve always wanted to learn how to do.  Create something.  Make art or music.  Write.  Plan something you can implement when things open up more.

Admissions officers will be impressed by the applicants who pursue an area of interest, who initiate something, and who don’t just develop themselves, but also contribute positively to the lives of others.  Do something that will give you a great answer to the interview question, “Tell me about a time when you had a positive impact on someone else.”

5. What would you advise students who are considering a gap year rather than matriculate in an uncertain situation? 

Start college, unless you have a far better option for next year.  Even if you were seriously considering taking a gap year before the pandemic occurred, consider starting college instead. This is a terrible time to take a gap year.

Your fall college experience might not be ideal or what you had envisioned a year ago, but it will be fine and you will come out of it that much closer to having a college degree.  Exceptions: If you need to help your family in some way this year with elder care, child care, income to pay bills, etc., then taking a gap year is completely justified.

Finally, you might consider asking for a gap semester and then start college in January.  This might go more smoothly for students who will be attending a large university.

6. How has the pandemic affected how students make their college list when visiting remote colleges may be impossible and staying closer to home might be a new consideration?

Whether a student chooses to go away for college or stay closer to home is a complicated and personal decision.  At the moment, it doesn’t look like many colleges will be open to visitors in the fall, so students will not be able to tour colleges anywhere, near or far.

I find that my clients are leaning on me more heavily right now than in the past to help them pick the colleges at which they might thrive.  I know the colleges; I have been studying them and visiting them for decades.  So, I hope students are open to a wide variety of locations and schools and are getting advice from a professional about what colleges are really like at the core rather than relying on rankings or the college’s subjective website, marketing materials, and admissions staff (including students who work for the admissions office).

I have always encouraged my clients to connect with current students or recent alumni at the colleges on their list, and I provide them with questions that elicit more important and honest information about each school. These days, due to the rapid changes occurring on every college campus, I am encouraging clients to prioritize talking to current students over recent alumni since recent alumni won’t be able to tell them what life is like at the school now, let alone what it will be like next year.

Debra Felix is a former Director of Admissions at Columbia University and has been a professional educational consultant for over 30 years.  She has been quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, FNN, CNBC, U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post, among others.  Her clients come from all over the world, and are typically admitted to their first choice college. For more info:  www.felixeducationalconsulting.com

Navigating the College Admissions Process

An experts’ panel plus workshops for parents and teens

The Cornell Club
6 East 44th Street
New York, NY 10017

Saturday, March 7, 2020
9:30 am – 2:30 pm

College admissions has changed dramatically in recent years. No longer is the “well-rounded” student assured their top choice. Testing has also evolved, with changes in the SAT and ACT, while college costs spiral upwards. How can families best help their children make the right fit?

The Cornell Club is proud to present a special program for alumni and families featuring a stellar panel of experts in the college admissions process who will demystify these issues in presentations and Q&A.

This is a terrific opportunity to get answers to your questions from a range of top advisors in college prep and admissions. Attendees are invited to tailor the day to suit their schedules and interests with a panel discussion followed by lunch and two optional workshops:

“Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT”                                                        Presentation and Q&A led by Karen of New York Academic Tutor

“Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application”                                            Presentation workshop led by Andrea van Niekerk

Event schedule:

9:30-10:00am:  Registration and coffee/light breakfast
10:00-12 noon:  Panel presentation
12:00 noon:  Lunch Buffet
12:30-1:30pm:  Workshop: Getting a Handle on the SAT and ACT
1:30-2:30pm:  Workshop: Tips and Pitfalls in the Common Application

Participants include:

Andrea van Niekerk is a College Admissions Consultant with College Goals. Andrea was formerly Associate Director of Admission at Brown University for many years and also served as academic advisor to freshman and sophomore students. www.collegegoals.com

 

Laura Clark is long time director of college counseling at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. She previously worked at Princeton University, in admissions for four years and teaching freshman writing in the English department. www.ecfs.org

 

Benjamin Bingman-Tennant is the National Director of Programs for A Better Chance, a national organization dedicated to creating educational opportunity and developing leaders among young people of color throughout the country. www.abetterchance.org

 

Karen of NewYorkAcademicTutor.com, a graduate of Brown University, is a college test preparation tutor of over 20 years’ experience. Karen also lectures on SAT/ACT prep for Brown University’s Admission Workshops series at Summer@Brown. NewYorkAcademicTutor.com

 

Cost: $40 individual, or $60 for up to three family members.
– Registration includes all presentations, continental breakfast and luncheon buffets.
– Registrants may attend any or all of the presentations offered.

How to Start SAT Prep in 8th-10th Grade

Whenever students take the PSATs – whether it’s PSAT 8/9 taken as early as fall of 8th grade, or the traditional PSAT/NMSQT taken in October of junior year – the scores and tests are posted on the student’s College Board account within two months of the test. That’s a great study tool for the next step – the SATs. Or the ACTs. I strongly recommend all students review their PSAT results, going over the questions they got wrong using the online tools, redoing them and then looking at the correct answers and explanations. It’s good to do that before too much time goes by so it is still instructive and students remembers more of what they were thinking when they did the test originally.

Eighth grade and freshman year are early for formal test prep: Students have not yet been taught all of the math skills tested, particularly for the ACT. In reading and writing, the difficulty of the test passages and vocabulary is high for younger students. Nevertheless, students can and should begin to build skills specific to the tests. 

Here are 3 specific actions 8th -10th grade students can take to build a solid foundation for the SAT and ACT:

1) Add a daily regime of challenging periodical reading, starting with The New York Times or other sophisticated daily newspaper. (News aggregate newsletters are not recommended because it is important to build skills in sifting through the material and choosing for oneself.) 

– Read at least 10 minutes/day: short articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post are ideal.

– Read a sampling of the top stories and at least read the headlines – especially in those topics that are more difficult, e.g. politics. 

– Then read whatever topic in the paper interests you and also the opinion pieces (editorials, reviews of movies, etc). Movie reviews can be fun and easy for students to relate to if they’ve seen the films. This type of writing is very helpful in building vocabulary and rhetorical skills and comprehension.

2) Start a formal regimen of vocabulary-building, 1-2 new words/day. Many students find the free Visual Vocab CORE app a great way to start! Other excellent vocabulary building tools include the Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series and SAT-level word lists at Majortests.com.

3) Use official CollegeBoard practice PSATs to build math skills, tackling only those topics that are within range of subjects you’ve learned in school. Rather than tackling an entire timed section in Math, do individual problems, reviewing the answers and explanations afterwards. Advanced students may want to purchase PWN the SAT Math text to get a head start on test math – and take advantage of the challenging quizzes offered to textbook owners. 

When should students begin their test prep in earnest? Summer between sophomore and junior year is the best time to do a formal course or tutoring program, continuing at a lesser pace or with a break during junior year, depending on when tests are scheduled. That is the time, as well, to choose between SAT and ACT. Much earlier than that, students really haven’t studied enough of the material that is on the tests for the comparison to be valid.

Bad PSAT scores? Here’s what to do

1) First, don’t despair! Go over your PSAT results in depth. Don’t focus on the scores; those are just your starting point. Go to the College Board website and follow the links to review your results in detail. That’s how you learn and improve!

Analyze your errors: Were you rushed? Did you lose focus? Were there math topics you haven’t learned yet? Was a reading passage too dense?

2) Plan your study time in order to make substantial score improvement – at least two hours of prep every week until your SAT. Once a month, take a full, timed practice test and then analyze your results, learning from your mistakes.

3) Take advantage of College Board and Khan Academy resources by registering for a free account on Khan Academy and linking it to your College Board account and test scores to get free personalized practice for the SAT.

4) Build your SAT power using great study tools. The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board has sample SAT exams written by the writers of the real SAT – with full explanations for every question, both in the book and on the College Board website. For more practice tests, The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Applerouth offer good facsimile SATs. For Math, get the terrific PWN the SAT: Math. For a comprehensive list of the best study resources for both SAT and ACT, here‘s a full, annotated list.

5) Finally, there’s one more thing to do: Check out the ACT. You may find it a better fit. Download and print the official ACT practice test on the ACT website. Take the test under timed conditions in one sitting, using the bubble sheet, and without distractions. Compare your results and consider which test you can most improve upon – not just which score was better now.

Whichever test you choose to take, you can thank your bad PSAT scores for the wake-up call. Now is the time to start your test prep in earnest.

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