Out of an Abundance of Caution: College Counseling at White Mountain During the Pandemic

By Barbara Buckley, Director of College Counseling

Like many other aspects of our lives, this year’s college application cycle has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. From access to standardized testing, travel restrictions, remote learning, and changes in grading and schedules, our students have had to pivot and adapt to the new normal when applying to colleges and universities.

Last March, when we came face to face with the realities of the pandemic, programs across the country were forced to close or find alternative ways to continue to provide their services. The White Mountain School deliberately and compassionately made the decision to move to remote learning and pass/fail grades. Around the world, SATs and ACTs were canceled. Summer programs shut their doors. College campuses suspended college tours and accepted students' visits, and admissions representatives discontinued visiting high schools in person. From a college counseling standpoint, it seemed like everything had changed.

In an effort to provide equitable access to their colleges, many admissions offices made the radical decision to make standardized test scores optional. Some colleges went a step further and refused to even consider standardized test scores, while some states and more selective colleges and universities continued to require those scores. To provide more options for our students, we applied to the College Board and ACT to become a test center, so we were able to administer both of the standardized tests here at White Mountain, in a way that was safe for our students and the general public.

Traditionally, admissions representatives from colleges and universities travel to high schools each fall to provide insight into their programs and campus life. Unable to travel, colleges and universities need to innovate and be creative, so they developed virtual tours, Q&A sessions, webinars, Zoom meetings with admissions reps, and one-to-one Zoom calls with current students and faculty. As the application season progressed, the technology and the quality of admissions offerings improved and became more accessible. Our students took advantage of all of these formats and developed a better, deeper understanding of what each institution had to offer. Although it is not the same as actually walking on a campus, our seniors got some perspective to help them make better decisions.

To be sure that students were applying to a variety of colleges, the students and I used a variety of strategies to develop a list of reach, target, and likely colleges. We looked at their GPAs and PSAT scores to guide us. One huge unknown was the lack of grades during the fourth quarter. While this was explained on the transcript, students and parents were understandably concerned. To help address this situation, the Common Application added a section where students could include a narrative explaining how the pandemic had disrupted their academic progression.

Ultimately, after talking with colleagues in college admissions offices, they concluded that the students’ personal statements, grade trajectory, and record of sports and other extracurricular activities such as volunteer work, leadership positions, jobs, and clubs would be significantly more instrumental this year in deciding who they would admit.

So, how did the pandemic impact the admissions process this year? 

  • The application process took longer, so many colleges and universities extended their application deadlines.

  • Without standardized test scores to use as a benchmark, college and university admissions officers took more time to read each application.

  • Students with high GPAs and low standardized test scores were able to apply to colleges that, in other years, would have been out of reach.

  • Selective colleges and universities were overwhelmed with applications—some reporting increases of 25% up to 50%.

  • Lesser-known, less competitive colleges and universities reported a significant decrease in applications.

  • Many more students opted to take gap years or attend community colleges because they were reluctant to spend a lot of money to attend classes remotely. Others reported not feeling confident in committing to a college or university they had not visited.

What do our students need to know?

  • Just because scores are not required, does not mean colleges are lowering their standards. Having solid, high GPAs and taking high-level, rigorous courses are more important than ever! Colleges and universities will compare the courses a student took with the courses the School offers.

  • Students’ Personal Statements (college essays) are the best ways to convey who they are and how they will be successful in college and beyond. Don’t wait until September of the senior year to start this essay, and be prepared to make significant rewrites! Students should keep track of the noteworthy things they have done so they will have ample material to write about.

  • Take the SAT and/or ACT if possible, especially if colleges and universities the student is interested in applying to traditionally require them. This is a way for students to see how they compare to students who have been accepted there. They will need to submit their scores to all the colleges that go back to requiring them.

  • Students need to stand out! What can the student do at school and during the summer that will set them above and apart from other students? Join clubs and apply for leadership positions here at School. Make careful decisions about the courses they are taking—especially during their senior year. Common Application has sections where students will include everything they have done that illustrates how they are different, better, and more desirable than any other student.

  • When supplements are required by colleges and universities, students need to take care when writing them because they are the key to a successful application.

Looking forward—some general, good information:

  • Most colleges and universities are continuing to waive the requirements for standardized test scores. The College Board has permanently discontinued the SAT Essay and the SAT Subject tests.

  • When students sign up for courses at White Mountain, they should carefully consider what they are taking. Are these the best courses I can take to expand my scope of knowledge and demonstrate my academic skills?

  • Rising seniors should be aware that they should not make any changes to their course schedules after applying to colleges. Colleges will expect students will successfully complete all courses on their transcripts!

  • Develop a balanced college list of between 10 and 15 colleges and universities. 20-25% reach schools, 50-60% target schools, 20-25% likely schools.

  • Students should apply to colleges they want to go to!

  • Visit college and university campuses. Many are fully open for tours, and some are open for outside or self-guided tours. Check with the college or university before you go to find out the status of the school because the level of openness changes from day to day.

  • Students should make themselves known to the admissions officers at the colleges they are interested in attending. They should attend programs the admissions office provides and try to visit the campuses. Students should make sure they make note of the names of the admissions officers they speak to and that the admissions officers know their names. Be polite! Be on time for meetings! Ask well-informed questions!

  • Many colleges offer summer pre-college programs for high school students. This is a great opportunity to get to know the campus, professors, and expectations of these colleges and universities. Many of the college programs are offering remote courses this summer.

Now, as one admissions cycle ends and another begins, I can say with confidence that yes, the college application process was dramatically different this year, but it was also very much the same. The seniors and I researched colleges and universities that offered courses and majors they were in, that were located in areas they wanted to be in, and had a campus environment that they would be comfortable and eager to be in. Families and I conferred about early decisions and early applications. The students finalized college lists, wrote personal statements, completed their Common Applications, and then, with a combination of trepidation and excitement, finally hit “submit.” Then they waited. As usual, they were offered admission to some colleges and denied at others.

As the admissions decisions continue to come in, I am in awe of the achievements of our students and how far they have come. It has been a joy to walk this uncharted path with them this year, and I am eager to start the journey anew with the rising seniors.

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.

© 2022, The White Mountain School.