The most amazing thing about the pandemic may be how quickly we adjusted to changes we never saw coming.
No face-to-face meetings. No essay workshops. No testing sites. No campus tours. Meaningless GPAs. Canceled admitted student days. Plans for isolating new arrivals to campus. IECA conferences attended in bunny slippers. Fake backgrounds for meetings in your kitchen. Virtual campus tours.
Our worlds were upended overnight, but it took weeks before we realized that the changes forced upon us would last—at least many months, and eventually over a year—and would require modifications to how we and our students approached their studies, their activities, and their college search and application process.
Independent educational consultants (IECs) who always required face-to-face meetings quickly learned that virtual meetings can be as effective, once students were convinced that joining Zoom meetings from their beds was not appropriate. Likewise, colleges, schools, and programs all rapidly announced a suspension of campus visits and tours, and then accepted that virtual visits, filmed campus tours, and events like IECA’s College Conversations could bring about tremendous rewards. Some schools and colleges realized that their efforts at outreach to underserved communities—including those unable to afford campus visits—were actually enhanced as virtual events opened the school with greater equity and inclusion.
Many changes in admissions were forced upon schools: students’ applications were likely missing standardized test scores as the vast majority of test sites closed, not to mention odd GPAs since many schools switched to pass/fail grading when they went online. Applicants had to make do without a year’s worth of extracurricular activities—sports, band, theater, a job, volunteering, and anything else that would help distinguish them from a classmate.
Admissions leaders had to calibrate: how do they read applications without these usual markers of student achievement? Now they are forced to think further: have any changes made in an emergency actually helped us produce a better class? Are there changes that could become a permanent part of the way we review student applications?
One area that has gotten quite a bit of attention has been the pandemic-inspired switch to test-optional in the college admissions world. For many, this change was necessitated by the inability of students to take ACTs or SATs. The question many are now confronting: as test sites come back and students return to the test, will scores remain optional or will colleges reinstate the requirement? This impacts IECs, who will need to recalibrate advice to students on whether to take tests or share results, a decision that may be made on a case-by-case basis.
Colleges and schools tell us that they placed greater emphasis on student essays and letters of recommendation than ever before. Today these admissions leaders are evaluating whether that strategy was a boon or ineffective. Some schools added new options for student interviews to help the admissions office get a better sense of the applicant. These, of course, were held virtually. Now colleges must confront the reality that a return to live interviews will likely hurt efforts at increased diversity and access. We will soon learn if Zoom interviews remain.
Colleges and schools have emphasized engagement in recent years as getting students involved in the life of a school was seen as key to retention. Colleges are still unsure about the impact of dorm-based classes, canceled social events, and even closed dining halls.
Recent research has suggested that an existing crisis in adolescent mental health is likely to have gotten significantly worse during the past year. As these students return to campuses—whether in schools, colleges, or therapeutic programs—there will be increased demand on campus mental wellness programs already overwhelmed by demand. Educational institutions will need to find ways to accommodate students dealing with anxiety and depression issues in alarming numbers.
An area that schools, colleges, and programs hope to see disappear: the need to isolate new and returning students before they can be integrated back into the mainstream of campus life. Of course, experts are unable to know whether COVID-19 and its numerous strains could pop up, causing a return to isolation strategies from time to time.
Many schools have indicated that lessons learned during COVID-19 will be kept: outreach via social media, online tours and information sessions, and similar opportunities that allow for a much broader outreach effort are being universally applauded. Whether students will continue to desire to connect virtually is the question not yet tested.
By Mark H. Sklarow, IECA CEO
Mark H. Sklarow can be reached at Mark@ IECAonline.com