We Need to Adjust Our Timelines: Regular College Planning Advice Doesn’t Work Right Now

A Quick Analogy College admissions operates on a predictable timetable. Students meet designated milestones at specific times and the end result is a graduating senior heading off to college in the fall. Our predictable timetable has been smashed. Here’s my best analogy— college admissions is like a river. Students flow down this river, eventually arriving at the end. Some parts of the river are calm and slow moving. These parts, like 9th and 10th grades, allow students to make progress academically, socially, and extracurricularly, but there is time to look ahead and adjust course. Then the river speeds up. You find yourself navigating fast moving waters where you need to actively paddle to avoid hazards. This spring’s coronavirus situation was the unexpected rockslide that has dropped huge boulders blocking the flow of our river. Students can no longer move down the traditional path. Those who were navigating the standardized testing rapids are stuck. Students haven’t been able to visit college campuses. The water in our river is building up. And we all feel the pressure. When we are able to clear the blockage in the river, there will a rush of water. It has the potential to flood everything downstream. Student back in the slow moving waters of 9th or 10th grade may make it through these times with little disruption to their overall college planning. Yes, summer opportunities may be lost, the opportunity to compete in that spring tournament is gone, but they still have plenty of time to adjust before they reach the rapids. Next year’s juniors and seniors will have to make some adjustments. The course of the river is not what it was before the rockslide. A Glimpse at the Problem I am not going to list all the things that are not normal about college planning this year. Instead, I will give you a quick glimpse into one aspect— standardized testing. A few months ago, College Board canceled the May and June SAT and the ACT canceled the April exam. ACT did not cancel the June test, leaving it up to individual schools and districts. This gave me hope. Maybe some of my students who were preparing for the April ACT could finally test. I set up a make-up date for my one day ACT Crash Course and started contacting students. Then a couple clients replied that their school has canceled the June ACT. Darn it! I asked around and students who are signed up to take the test through some of the bigger school districts in my area haven’t heard anything. Lots of emails, calls, and texts and a week later— still no word. Many clients received emails just this morning notifying them that their test centers will not be giving the June 13 ACT. I get discouraged because it doesn’t make sense for my students to put in time and effort preparing for the June exam if their test site is going to cancel. (These tests are hard enough without all the uncertainty!) Like the rollercoaster of emotion most of us have been riding this spring, I start to get my hopes up once again— the College Board plans to open registration for fall SAT dates on May 28 giving rising seniors priority to register for August, September, and October tests. Juniors could register for November and December. Great! My students can start planning! Well. . . Not really. Students who were able to login found very limited test sites, sometimes 50 miles or more from their homes. And the College Board website wasn’t ready for the rush to register. Many students who tried to login found the site down yesterday. (Anyone who had technical difficulties during AP exams can insert their own comments on the College Board’s website and system here!) This is just a small glimpse into the problems we are facing this year. It is frustrating and stressful for families trying to plan. Why Conventional Wisdom Won’t Work Our system is not ready to handle the rush of students trying to follow the traditional planning schedule. (Imagine the rush of built-up water flooding the river in my analogy.) First, while some of our schools have a plan for what next fall will look like, there is still a lot of uncertainty. This may explain why many campuses have not signed on to host national test dates for the SAT. Next, students cannot cram everything they missed over a six month period into next fall. The SAT and ACT can’t accommodate four test dates worth of student in one or two fall exams. Colleges can’t welcome all students who missed campus visit, especially as they are trying to limit potential points of transmission on campus to protect their students. Some mile markers in the river of high school can’t be revisited. If this happened my daughter’s junior year, she would have missed

  • Placing 4th in the state tournament for Informative Speaking
  • Attending the National Speech Debate Assoc. National Tournament
  • A summer psychology institute where she really fell in love with the science of what is now her major
  • Multiple campus visits, including all of the out-of-state schools to which she applied
  • And a handful of other leadership and achievement opportunities.
These are the type of things many of our students won’t have. The opportunities are missed. The good news is that colleges understand the limitations and will expect to see these “gaps” in resumes. Students will be evaluated based on what was available. What Should You Do? Everyone Do what you can, but always make mental health the priority. Remember sanity and balance are more important than trying to push for more accolades, a higher score, or one more application. Pursue your interests. Read books or articles. Create your art. Watch online lectures. You may not have summer programs, so be creative in how you explore. Work on learning. (Notice I didn’t say get good grades.) Now’s the perfect time to improve weaknesses, get ahead, or add a new skill. Now is the time to explore interests you may not be able to pursue during the school year. When school resumes in the fall, continue to do your best in challenging academic classes. (Yes, work towards the best grades you can earn.) Rising Juniors Take your college search online. There are so many resources to help you get a feel for campuses even if you can’t visit. Don’t put this off expecting to resume traditional visits later. Consider delaying your test taking until the winter or spring. If fighting the registration issues to secure a space in the October SAT or ACT stresses you out, just wait. Let the class of 2021 take their exams and move through this part of the process. Let high schools develop new protocols for these Saturday tests on campus. The SAT and ACT will be there for you in December or February or next May. Usually I encourage high scoring juniors to test in the fall as they prep for the PSAT (National Merit Qualifying Test.) A lot of other students have more time to prepare in the fall due to sports, performance or competition schedules, or simply a full load of AP courses. In a regular school year, about 70% of my clients have taken their exam of choice at least once by March. That may not happen next year. Waiting for spring to test isn’t my conventional advice, but in these unconventional times, it might be the most practical. Rising Seniors First priority—Start narrowing your college list. Without campus visits, you might decide to apply to a few more schools than you would have otherwise. No matter how many schools you are considering, you need to have a relatively firm list by the fall. Second priority— Work on your college applications this summer. You might be tempted to wait until you take or retake the SAT / ACT— don’t. College essays (done well) take longer and are harder than you anticipate. (Ask any graduating seniors and their parents!) You don’t need to submit your applications this summer, but you need to get your resume organized, essays started, and drafts of your applications sketched out. Next— If you have never taken the SAT or ACT, you probably need to register for a fall test or check to see if your high school will be offering the exam on campus. Prepare for the test because you don’t have a lot of opportunities to retake if you don’t do well. If you have good, but not ideal test scores, plan to retest. If you have trouble registering for early fall exams, check to see the latest test date the schools on your list will accept. You might be just fine taking the December ACT or SAT. Don’t panic. Reach out to your school guidance counselor. Reach out to the colleges on your list. Tell them what’s going on and ask questions. Conclusion In the last five years I’ve seen the college admissions timetable accelerate with students applying to college in July, August, and September. By October and November, I have clients telling me they feel behind because they aren’t done with all their applications. I expect this year will be different. It might help to know that most colleges have applications deadlines of January 1. (This was before the coronavirus.) You might have earlier deadlines, but even early decision applications aren’t due until October 15 or November 1 in most cases. You have time. As I have said for the past couple months, we still don’t know what college admissions will look like this fall. Policies are changing. High schools are working to help their students while meeting local guidelines and protecting the health and wellbeing of all students. We will continue to work through these challenges. (Hopefully with less frustration than I’ve experienced in the past two weeks!)]]>

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