One of my favorite parts of the college process is helping students learn more about themselves.

Teens are naturally curious about who they are becoming, and therefore eagerly embrace tools which help them articulate their growing insights. This encourages them to start their college processes from a place of self-inquiry, increasing the likelihood that their college lists will more accurately reflect who they are and how they learn best.

One of my long-standing favorite tools for this process is Dr. Steven Antonoff’s Self-Survey for the College Bound because it helps students to both consider their readiness for college across several domains, and develop greater clarity on their purpose for attending college which, of course, is critical to their college search. In fact, I find this survey so powerful that I use it with every single one of my students.

Early Trends

Even this year of “nothing is normal” was no exception, but as I worked through the survey with all the high school juniors in my practice, I noticed some trends signaling differences from the many previous years I have used it. The impact of the pandemic and its disruptions will be analyzed for years to come, but I wonder if the survey results from my class of 2022 may already be shedding light on the effects of the last year of mostly-remote education and isolation on teens. 

As context for my observations, it is important to note that most of my clients live in Southern California, which has endured a more difficult and sustained effort to contain the virus than many other parts of the country. As a result, every single one of my students has attended school remotely for about a year and been essentially house-bound. Students’ extracurricular activities have been severely curtailed and social interactions sharply limited, while they’ve spent much more time with their immediate families than they might have in a more typical year. 

Some parents have reported benefits of this circumstance, including having dinner together at home every night, enjoying greater insight and understanding about what their students actually do at school all day, and developing deeper family bonds. But the survey results suggest these have come at a considerable cost to teens’ social and emotional development. 

What the Survey Scores Tell Us

As I analyzed student responses to Dr. Antonoff’s survey, I noted significantly lower scores in two sections: “Independence” and “Self-Understanding.” The independence section assesses basic elements of self-sufficiency, ranging from the extent of reliance on friends for leisure activities and parents for homework reminders, to making decisions without parental input, level of comfort when disagreeing with others, and homesickness. The self-understanding questions probe self-awareness in a range of contexts. So, what do lower scores in these domains tell us about the class of 2022? In short, these students seem developmentally younger than they usually are at this point. 

As with so many trends, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the pre-existing trend of students developing independence from their parents more slowly. (How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims or iGen by Jean M. Twenge are two excellent books on this topic.) And of course, this is not a surprising result. If students are not getting their driver’s licenses or not leaving the house alone, they are deprived of the micro-rehearsals in independent decision-making usually developed by choosing their own shampoo brand at Target, or deciding whether to stop for ice cream after soccer practice. If a teen needs to make even a minor decision now, why not just consult the parent in the next room? The same is true for social and emotional development, as teens are not navigating the hundreds of daily interactions with peers, teachers, coaches, and even store employees that they would have in non-pandemic years. There are few opportunities to hone the necessary skills and the confidence in their ability to respond to future interactions. 

Where the Trend is Headed

One critical consideration is that this is likely to be a long-term trend. Not only will students need some time to re-engage with their worlds and to catch up to their ages, developmentally, but remote or hybrid learning may also be here to stay. 

According to the results of an NPR/Ipsos poll, as reported on Morning Edition on March 4, 2021, “…fully 29 percent of parents said they were either somewhat or very likely to choose remote learning indefinitely…And many districts are already setting up district-wide virtual learning programs. This is a change that could have ripples far beyond the pandemic.” 

As a result, some high school students may remain enmeshed with their parents more deeply and for longer than their predecessors, rendering them ill-prepared for the independence associated with many traditional college experiences. 

How Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) Can Respond to the Shifting Paradigm

Here are a few thoughts about what we might anticipate, and how we might support families and encourage more student independence in these new circumstances:

1. Expect parents to be more involved in their students’ college processes than ever before. In our practices, we may need to either develop stronger and clearer boundaries for parent involvement, or embrace the change and find healthy ways to include them. 

2. Be prepared to encounter more students who are academically strong, but inadequately prepared for the non-academic elements of college life, ranging from time-management to social skills and emotional coping strategies. We may need to incorporate tools which assess this, help families understand how critical this preparation is, and offer tools and resources to strengthen the necessary skills. 

3. A gap year may be appropriate for more students. Consider encouraging and helping families structure gap years to give students more time to mature. Learning about gap year options may offer an opportunity to diversify or expand our services, or to collaborate with IECA colleagues who specialize in gap years and other alternative placements.

4. Anticipate more mental health challenges. We may need training in recognizing warning signs and recommending additional support, perhaps in partnership with expert colleagues or mental health professionals in our networks. This is an excellent time to work on a list of allied professionals to refer to and sharpen our abilities to recognize when families need services beyond our expertise. 

5. Expect boomerangs. Higher percentages of students will not succeed in college and will land back in our offices. This could be a good time to learn more about how to support transfer students, or those who need to completely reimagine their college journeys as they embark on a second attempt. 

6. Pay attention to self-care. We, too, have just endured a challenging year, and the coming cohort of students may demand more from us, both in keeping up with all we must now learn and from our emotional reserves. Finding the balance between offering support and empathy and preserving our own boundaries will not only be critical to doing good work as IECs, but also provides an opportunity to model healthy behavior to our clients. 

I have never tired of working with students and families in the college process, even now in my fourth decade of doing so, primarily because of the stimulation provided by the continuous need to learn. Recent events have forced an acceleration of that learning, and I hope that, as a profession, we dive in with enthusiasm to refine our professional competencies to meet this challenging moment, and to become ever more helpful and relevant to the families we support.

By Stephanie Meade, CEP, IECA (CA)

Stephanie Meade, The Collegiate Edge, can be reached at [email protected]