Seniors: Planning for College Amid a Pandemic

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Editor’s note: A version of this column was first published in The Hardwick Gazette.

Change. For members of the class of 2021, change is and will be the action word in your life now and for the next few academic years.

You may be thinking: “Oh no! I’m a senior. This is supposed to be my big, happy (after I get into college) last year of high school. It’s supposed to be the time when I figure out where in this whole country I want to apply to and go to college. I’ve been thinking and dreaming of my senior year all through high school.”

As have all seniors…so let’s think together of how to work out this pandemic senior year. Chances are very good that a vaccine will be available by the end of your freshman year of college…Still, in the meantime, you’ve got to plan.

Let’s start with your college list before the pandemic. That is, what did your college list look like last April and May, in junior year? Which colleges had you researched and thought most about? Let’s call it Plan A. It’s helpful to know, if all things were normal, where you planned to apply and where, based on your academic record, you believed you had a good chance of getting in.

Look at Plan A. Is it be feasible for you to take a long road trip or flight next April to those visit those schools where you will have been accepted? Have you checked online with those Plan A colleges to learn how they are dealing with their freshmen this year? Are they letting students on campus and in the classroom? Are students on campus now and taking virtual and/or in-person classes? Were all the freshmen or just half of the class brought on campus? Have you checked each college’s virus rates? Have they sent home students who contracted the virus or separated them and kept students with COVID-19 on campus?

Have you and your family decided you should be closer to home during the pandemic? No? Then stay on Plan A.

If you and your parents have decided you want the freshman experience of being on campus, although closer to home—it’s time to develop your Plan B.

First, check off all the colleges on your Plan A list that are beyond your travel limits. Then buy a copy or go to any library to find America’s Best Colleges, The Fiske Guide to Colleges, or The Insider’s Guide and search for similar institutions in your region.

Most state universities have more in common with each other than with private colleges. So if University of Texas at Austin was on your list, and you live in New York City, look at several of the state universities closer to home. They all have big-time sports, most have fraternities, and they all have relatively the same academics. You can easily transfer credits earned at whatever state university you attend if you have a C or above.

Northwestern University (IL) is on your A list and you live in Oregon? Take a look at Stanford University (CA), the only large private university in the West. Check out state universities as well, or private colleges that are smaller than Northwestern such as Claremont McKenna College (CA), which is actually a seven-college consortium, giving it the feel of a university.

Carlton College (MN) is on your list and you live in Virginia? Look at Swarthmore College (PA) and Brown University (RI). You live in Maine and Georgia Tech is on your list? Take a look at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY), Cornell University (NY), and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA). Talk to your school counselor about the possibilities.

Lastly, Plan C is to take a year away from school, a gap year, between high school and college. Think about living at home or with relatives or family friends in another town or city. Make plans to intern or get a job, whether living at home or away. Take online courses for credit or for fun—explore something that has always interested you, a foreign language, art history, space science, or cooking classes. You will find limitless opportunities—many free as well as those with fees. Start a business, take bike trip with a friend across the country, hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia—2,191 miles.

Plan A or B, you’ve got your college list in hand, go ahead and apply. After your apps are all in, February is a good time to check out the websites of the colleges where you applied and find out about the pandemic situation:

  1. Are dorms and dining halls still open for freshmen?
  2. Are classes being presented in person and online?
  3. Are students allowed to live in the dorms and take classes online?
  4. What action is taken for students who test positive for COVID-19? Do they remain secluded on-campus or are they sent home?

No matter what advice you are given or what route you choose to take, we can all expect change. If you follow Plan A, B, or C, you will be prepared to go with the changes.

Keep your friends close, online if not in person. Nothing will make you feel better than having the company of friends in the same “college application boat.” The pandemic requires friends.


NACAC member Joyce Slayton Mitchell is author of WHO IS THIS KID? COLLEGES WANT TO KNOW! Writing Exercises for Winning Applications.

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