How to Plan Ahead for Applying to College This Fall

June 8, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions During Our College Panel Webinar

On Wednesday, May 20th, we had the pleasure of hosting a webinar with a panel of college admission officers and college counselers. Our conversation was focused on answering the questions that high school juniors (i.e. Class of 2021) have about the upcoming college application and admission decision season amidst COVID-19.

With school closures and social distancing, an already anxiety-inducing process has become more stressful, so we looked to these admission representatives to get their insights. What follows is a recap of their answers to our most frequently asked questions.

This webinar was recorded and you can view it here.

Our panelists included:
– Kelly Bellavance, Associate Director of Admission, Boston College, Boston, MA
– Henry Marrion, Senior Admission Counselor, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
– Jan Suter, Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
– Susan Davidson, Associate Director of College Counseling, Rye Country Day School, Rye, NY
– Rick Hazelton, Director of College Advising, The Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, CT

The views and opinions provided belong solely to the individuals.

What is going to happen in terms of deferrals and gap years? People are concerned that so many students in the class of 2020 will potentially defer and that there will be fewer spots for the class of 2021.

“That’s just not the case. We cap out at 40 gap year approvals per year. And so, you know with us aiming to yield about 1,800 freshmen per class every year, 40 deferred students are not really going to have a statistically significant impact on admission.” – Henry Marrion (Tulane University)

“I just wanted to add in our class of about a hundred students, I’ve only had perhaps five serious conversations with families about deferral. I speak from the heart when I say this to families that I really feel the best thing to do would be to go with colleges on this journey.” – Susan Davidson (Rye Country Day School)

“We have seen an uptick in the number of conversations that we’re being asked about it and usually we respond that we’re trying to be very thoughtful about when students want to postpone their enrollment and we feel that for someone to take a gap year in their educational experience, it should be for something that’s enrichment. Sometimes it’s because students want to work and save money but you know, usually, it’s because they’re going to travel, they’re going to do some sort of service work and I think a lot of those opportunities in this environment are not going to be available to students. And so I think Susan’s advice is great. Go on this journey with us. We don’t know exactly what next week or next month entail, but we’re all in it together and we all have the student’s best interest at heart.” – Kelly Bellavance (Boston College)

Right now a lot of schools are operating with pass/fail grades – both on the college side and the high school side. I think that’s a source of anxiety for families and students. How do you plan on using that when reviewing their transcript?

“I know that we all have students coming to us from a depth and breadth of high schools and countries and states and experiences and we are already, I would say, quite adept at dealing with students who come from a variety of backgrounds in high school; students who are home-schooled, students who may have switched high schools in the middle of their high school career. We work with students who attend well-resourced and under-resourced schools and in terms of building our classes, we are looking for a diversity of experiences and diverse learning from the people who apply to us. So that is all to say that we are already quite experienced with looking at students as individuals. At Vanderbilt, this is something that we tell folks when giving our information sessions – we are looking for reasons to admit as opposed to reasons to deny. So the fact that high schools have had to adapt in the middle of something and they also did it in a matter of weeks and maybe even in a matter of days, it’s something pretty admirable. So we really look at the application in terms of its face value. o personally, I’m not concerned about the ways that high schools have had to adapt and it will not be something that’s looked at by Vanderbilt pejoratively because it will also be one semester and we will have multiple other semesters worth of grades to look at.” – Jan Suter (Vanderbilt University)

“Jan, I like what you say about how we’re already adept at reading lots of different things. It’s certainly a skill that we acquire in this job. We look at a student’s entire academic history, their extracurricular activities. We read their letters of recommendation. We think about what they’re going to be like on our campus as roommates, as classmates and all of that is still going to be the same as we review applications next year. And when you think about this quarter of a year, this third of a year in relation to your entire story that we see on your transcript, the rest of that entire story is still going to be there. You will not be judged or viewed by what has happened in this one short amount of time. It feels like a much longer amount of time right now to all of us, but your application will still encapsulate everything else that has happened and we expect that we’re going to see different things for the spring of 2020 not only for your class but for the current sophomores and freshmen because everyone’s going through it right now. So it’s something that we’ll see in applications for the next few years to come and it’s not going to be a detriment to you. We understand what you’re going through and we will use whatever tools your schools give us to help us understand your educational journey.” – Kelly Bellavance (Boston College)

What does test-optional mean and what is the impact of more schools going test-optional?

“By definition, what test optional means is that you, as the student, are in charge of your scores. When you go to apply in the fall, you get to decide whether or not you feel those scores are reflective and giving a true picture academically of what you’re capable of and it’s entirely up to you to make that decision. In terms of the way we’re talking about test-optional with our students, we just want them to see it as an opportunity to show what they’re capable of and go into the test with the mindset that you have everything to win and nothing to lose.” – Drew Heilpern (Summit Educational Group)

“We’re going test-optional and I think this is an opportunity for us as a university to focus on each part of the application; we’re going to look more closely at extracurriculars, essays, recommendations, the whole nine yards. Now, if you’re somebody who has been able to take one of the tests this year, one thing I suggest, specifically for Tulane, is that if you find that your score is in our 50th percentile range for admissible students or above that range, we do encourage you to submit it. But if you’re below that range and you don’t have the opportunity to take the test again, we encourage you to apply as a test-optional applicant.” – Henry Marrion (Tulane University)

“Boston College has historically required testing. We are not a test-optional school. And as of right now that policy has not changed for the fall. We are monitoring the situation because we are aware of the fact that with so many tests being cancelled that the ability for students to take tests this fall could be impacted. And, of course, part of that’s going to be monitoring how the test is being able to be administered and if there’s the ability for tests to be administered in person as they historically have been, I think that’s one scenario, but if the test is offered in an online format at home, I think that’s another scenario. So we’re just really waiting to see exactly what the testing scenario will be. We do have a COVID-19 FAQ page on our Mission webpage and so that right now does list our current policy and if we were to change it, that’s where you’d be able to find it.” – Kelly Bellavance (Boston College)

“Vanderbilt is right there with you and everything you’ve said for BC and I think, as we all have learned, this sometimes changes on a daily or weekly basis, so absolutely encouraging students to check our websites. I also like to encourage students to check out the College Board website information about the SAT and also check the ACT website. They are in the same boat that we are in terms of trying to deliver AP exams, and the standardized tests, which Vanderbilt and BC are requiring, so it’s really great to make full use of our websites.” – Jan Suter (Vanderbilt University)

“We’re talking to our families and saying testing will be a part of the process and as always that will benefit some and some will not be super happy about that. One of the interesting things that we’ve been hearing from our student population is ‘well, you know, I’ve already taken the test and I’m already happy with my score – is this somehow going to disadvantage me because now the college is not going to be looking at scores as much?’ and it seems like such a sort of backward way to think about it. If you have the scores, absolutely put them forward and if you’re somebody for whom testing is not, the best part of your application, maybe this is going to be a good thing for you as some colleges move toward more test-optional policies. We are certainly monitoring for our families as the colleges are putting out policies and changes in policies and which colleges are trying it out maybe for two years or three years.” – Susan Davidson (Rye Country Day School)

What should students do about cancelled extracurriculars? What about expectations on them to try to stay busy and pursue other things while they’re home?

“The best advice I would give is … for example, if your junior year of tennis got interrupted, you still put down tennis because you would have been playing it were it not for this pandemic and you’d note that it was ‘interrupted due to COVID-19’ Being thoughtful about what activities you were already involved with and continue those through – that’s the best way to go in and that there’s no one out there that could be getting an edge on you because you weren’t able to engage in various clubs and activities because we’re all in this as a planet.” – Henry Marrion (Tulane University)

“I’ve received emails from current juniors and a few of them have said things like ‘in this pandemic, I’m learning guitar’ and to be honest with you my heart breaks a little bit because I feel like they need to show colleges how they’ve made this time useful and part of the reason that my heart breaks is that it makes me look at myself and think about ‘gosh I’m not doing anything to learn anything. I watch more Netflix and read books. I mean, not even enriching books’. You know, I think we’re all really just doing our best to get through this situation and we have used the word unprecedented so much it almost becomes like it doesn’t mean anything and the reality is it’s taken a toll mentally. It’s taking a toll emotionally. I think within our households, we find ourselves getting short with our family members…We know that you guys are going through the same thing that we’re experiencing and I don’t know that there’s an expectation from colleges that you need to put a rosy slant on this situation to get through it. Be healthy. Try not to stress eat. You know all those things, that’s what we expect.” – Kelly Bellavance (Boston College)

“What I say to my students is ‘if you want to read the complete works of Shakespeare do it. It will look good on your college application, go ahead.’ That’sa great thing to do; you don’t necessarily have to do what you traditionally would have done.” – Susan Davidson (Rye Country Day School)

“We have a lot of one-on-one meetings with our students and we’re trying to encourage them to use this time in a positive way. When are you going to have this moment to kind of go for walks, to reflect, to take stock of yourself? I think that’s vitally important to these students.” – Rick Hazelton (The Hotchkiss School)

Without in-person tours at colleges, what resources are there and what other things are you offering virtually?

“Please know that we miss you…Vanderbilt has cancelled everything through the summer through June and July and we’ll see what August looks like. We have had to pivot – how do we reach students? And with putting everything online, we are concerned about online fatigue and zoom fatigue, but you know how sometimes a door closes and a window opens. We love having families on our campus, but every year there are many students who we admit, but they can’t visit us so we have had online resources, but now we have much more than we ever had before. I see this as a window opening so now you can go to our undergraduate admission website and click on visit and you will see that we are rolling out all kinds of different webinars and virtual opportunities. Another thing that I can offer is that you can contact a real live current student; students have also had to pivot and change everything they’re doing right now and they have gone to the online courses. You can reach out to them and ask them about the food or ask them about Nashville or ask them what it’s been like through this incredible time we’re all dealing with.” – Jan Suter (Vanderbilt University)

“Yes, I think one silver lining of our current predicament has been that colleges like Tulane are rethinking how we can best utilize technology to reach out to students, especially during downtimes in the admissions cycle like the summer. The situation that we’re in now has forced us to get creative with student outreach; the way it’s manifested itself for us is we’ve released a series of coffee chats, which are informal interviews that happen over Zoom. They’re about 20 minutes long and a great way to demonstrate interest.” – Henry Marrion (Tulane University)

What should families keep in mind when thinking and rethinking college financing during this time?

“Families are quite concerned about financial aid, especially many families who have been impacted by the loss of jobs or reduced income, the loss of value in brokerage accounts, and things of that nature. The one thing I can say both as a counselor and as a parent who has two children in college is that the net price calculator is something that families should really utilize. They’re really reliable now, assuming that the information you enter is accurate. I think it’s something in this day and age that families should use. If it’s a divorce situation or a self-employed situation, that can be a little bit tougher, but just like Jan Suter was saying that the admissions people are available to talk to you, so are financial aid people. So if you’re filling out that net price calculator and you don’t think that it necessarily jives with your financial background, you can have conversations with financial aid people about your circumstances and they can’t project what your financial aid would be, but they can help guide you through the process so you can understand how to represent your financial background.

“I think the other piece that’s important for families is that there are schools that are truly need-blind – they do not factor in your ability to pay in making admissions decisions, but there’s a vast number of schools that are need sensitive. The financial level of need can sometimes impact admission and one of the concerns that families and counselors have is that certain schools that are tuition-driven and that maybe even more sensitive if they have a lower revenue next year because of fewer students enrolling or current students taking leaves of absence. When visiting campuses or doing virtual chats, interfacing, or emailing admissions representatives, they should ask about that. How does financial need factor into the process? And be informed about them before they apply to various colleges. It’s totally appropriate to ask ‘Is your admissions process need-blind?’ And if it’s not, ‘How does financial aid play into the admissions process?’ – Rick Hazelton (The Hotchkiss School)

There’s a general timeline that students would follow in the process in terms of visiting schools, working on their essay, and their applications. Has anything shifted because of COVID-19 and the space we’re in right now?

“My situation is a little unique at a boarding school – we have required athletics and now students are learning online, but there are no athletics. We’ve filled that void with getting a head start on the essays. We’re having our students fill out the common application realizing that they have to tweak it when it rolls over, but so they’re familiar with the common application. They’ve asked for one of their two recommendations, so we are accelerating things and at the same time perhaps that’s going to free students up in the fall to do more visits and take care of more of those macro parts of the process by getting the details done early.” – Rick Hazelton (The Hotchkiss School)

“The essays are one of the pieces that we work on the most with students and so students can take time over the summer to work on their essay drafts. It comes back to what’s changing and what’s not. We’ve had the common application essay prompts for quite a while and the 650-word personal essay and students can work on those and they also now have the opportunity to share a little bit about what’s been going on during COVID-19. We also hope to be just as nimble and flexible as the colleges have said they’re going to be. We want to do virtual visits if we can to our campus. There’s going to be some flexibility to the timeline and to allowing students to have the space to do more of the exploration that they need to do at this time in their life and also to be able to put together the application that shows them in the strongest light. – Susan Davidson (Rye Country Day School)

Will college application deadlines shift? Can you explain the differentiation between Early Decision I and Early Decision II deadlines?

“It is important to understand with early decision that students are allowed to apply to one school in the United States via an early decision process – that is because it is considered to be a decision, which is binding. It’s a commitment so you should only apply early decision if you have vetted the school and there are 15 or 20 things about it that make it a good fit for you, including, but not limited to financial aid because that’s an important one.

“You actually do sign a document – it’s our early decision agreement and the student signs it, the parent or legal guardian and college counselor sign it so this is serious business. The idea is that we do have many students who are excited about Vanderbilt, think it’s a fit, and can go through with that decision plan. At Vanderbilt, you are admitted or denied and then you are finished with your application process. We do have two early decision options: Early Decision I, which has a deadline of November 1st, and then Early Decision II, with a deadline of January 1st. It also happens to be the same deadline as our regular decision process. I think that for us, early decision is still important.

“We get wonderful students who apply ED2 and are admitted and I think it functions in a couple of ways. If a student is excited about Vanderbilt, but they’re not quite ready to commit through ED1, that’s fine. Then you can wait and apply ED2. Also, some students will apply to another school early decisions and get that decision and if they’re not admitted, there’s still the opportunity to apply to Vanderbilt ED2. I think more schools this year might even be adding an ED2 option.” – Jan Suter (Vanderbilt University)

Any closing thoughts or advice to share?

“Focus on what you can control is my big advice. There are going to be a lot of moving parts and things that we cannot control and that is spoken from a true control freak. We really don’t know for certain what we’re going to see in certain decisions and outcomes, but we do know that our colleagues on the college side are with us and with our students. I think the best thing for students to do is focus on what they can control which is presenting themselves in the best light, putting their best foot forward as they seek to make connections with institutions where they could see themselves study.” – Susan Davidson (Rye Country Day School)

“I feel like the whole world right now is all questions and no answers and I think that frankly high schools and colleges are trying to figure out in a matter of months what they’re going to do for the next year when really if you’d said ‘Come up with a plan for this,’ it would have taken years. We’re all on the same team. For students, this might be an opportunity for you to broaden your ideas. What you think college is, what it could be, what you want, think outside the box – you’re looking for a fit for universities. Do your research because it’s all questions right now and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to ask questions. So ask questions and do your research and I think we can all work together and figure this out.” – Jan Suter (Vanderbilt University)

“I always like to think of this process as being three big questions for students. Where will you apply? Where will you be admitted? And where will you enroll? So, seeing those three parts you realize that you have control over two of those questions – where will you apply and where will you enroll. I don’t mean to sugarcoat the middle part – which is the most stressful of all, where will you be admitted? That’s obviously the part that causes the most anxiety for students. But because I feel better when I control things, I guess that’s my advice to you. Think about this in parts of this process and you know, really take control of it. I think that this process can be a lot more empowering than you think it will be going into it.” – Kelly Bellavance (Boston College)

“I want to be a little more concrete. I want to give a plug for the virtual resources that colleges offer, especially the virtual information sessions. Having watched a lot of these and attended a lot of virtual information sessions, there are many of them and the majority are quite good and I want students and, frankly, parents to think about the theater of a live info session. The theater is this – the student walks in with one or two parents and one of those two parents or both of them overwhelms the child and asks tons of questions while the child wants to crawl underneath the chair or walk out of the room. Or you have a scenario where the student is interested in ancient Greek but doesn’t want to ask questions because they’re worried that the 30 other kids in the room are going to judge them. I’ve had one student say to me, and it’s really true, that they can be more anonymous in an online information session. They can ask the questions they want without fear of judgment, without parents embarrassing them. They can ask questions about social life – I’ve had students say that it’s a much more freeing experience where they can actually get more information than a normal information session. Give it a chance because I think it’ll work really well for you.” – Rick Hazelton (The Hotchkiss School)

“I really liked what Kelly Bellavance said earlier about, not overburdening yourselves, not feeling like you’ve got to write the next great American novel. Take a load off yourself, control what’s in your focus of control, make sure to build in some time for your wellness, your personal wellness. I’ve connected with a couple of students recently who have overloaded themselves with tasks for this summer. Don’t forget to take a summer vacation because it’s good for your health, both physically and mentally. I appreciate Rick Hazelton putting in a plug for our online programming – we ’re doing our best to make it thoughtful and thorough and if you take advantage of it, you can get a lot out of it. Dive into the online resources, they can certainly be of use to you.” – Henry Marrion (Tulane University)

If you have any questions please use the comments box below, reach out directly using the resource links provided by our panelists, or contact your local Summit office. A reminder that you can view the recording of the full panel discussion here.


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Thank you for posting the Q&A. I found it very helpful. The honesty in the answers was quite refreshing..