Counselors offer college planning advice during pandemic

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While students may not have access to counselors in-person, they are available through digital appointments to help seniors navigate the college application process.

With stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates, college-bound seniors planning their futures in an uncertain world are finding the process difficult to manage. 

“The pandemic has upended the whole system of college admissions,” Jenny Rickard, Common App CEO, said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch

This year, the traditional admissions steps of in-person college visits, counselors’ meetings, standardized testing, and submitting applications are anything but traditional.

In the past, NCHS counselors recommended that seniors have their college applications submitted by the early decision deadline of October 31. According to Rickard, this year’s college application statistics show that is not the trend for 2020. 

Applications using the most widely-used college application, the Common App, are down 8% compared to this time last year. 

To help students cope with the challenges of preparing for college in a pandemic, NCHS counselors offer their advice.  

Counselor Mrs. Addie Ince recommends applying for financial aid as soon as possible. 

“The benefit to applying now rather than later is the amount of financial assistance available,” Ince said. “Grants like the Pell grant and MAP grant are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a new graduation requirement for all Illinois high school seniors, adopted by the state in June 2020. But “once they are out of money, even if families would qualify, they wouldn’t receive these grants,” Ince said.

Apply for local scholarships — offered by businesses, organizations, and schools in the community — as they become available, NCHS College and Career Counselor Karrin Hawkins said, is another important step for seniors. 

These scholarships, which become available in the winter, offer students a better chance of receiving financial aid with fewer applicants compared to national scholarships, Hawkins said. 

“As much as you want [scholarships] to come knock on your door, they are not going to,” Hawkins said.

Seniors can find scholarship opportunities posted on the College and Career Counseling website.

To find out if a college is right for a student, Hawkins said it is vital to set foot on campus and see if it is a good fit. 

While official tours may not be possible during the pandemic, Ince suggests unofficially touring a school as a way to see if a student likes a college campus while also staying safe.

“If the school is within driving distance … just go there, walk around the campus,” Ince said. “At least you get to see the layout of the campus; that’s important. There were some campuses where I couldn’t believe how far apart certain buildings were, or certain dorms were, and that was a major turnoff for me”

Both counselors said viewing virtual visits instead of in-person tours is a safe alternative. Information about upcoming virtual tours can be found on the Senior Google Classroom.

The College Board’s Campus Visit Guide recommends preparing questions to ask schools. Asking campus-specific questions is complicated with virtual tours, but the College Board provides creative ways to explore what a college is like. Contacting alumni, scrolling through a college’s official social media accounts, and investigating their support services are ways to learn more about a school’s environment.

Ince said that asking colleges questions is something that many students neglect but is an essential part of the application process.

“Colleges are a business; they need to showcase what they have,” Ince said. “[It is] the college’s job to sell the student on that campus, pick up the phone or email.”

Students can contact colleges for information about their degree programs, tuition costs, housing options, meal plans, or scholarship opportunities.

Counselors are essential resources for students’ post-high school planning, according to Ince. They are an excellent resource for finding colleges with specific majors, helping students with financial aid, or answering questions about the application process. 

During these uncertain times, planning may feel stressful and overwhelming, emotions senior Olivia Wexler experienced while applying for college.

But Wexler, who plans on pursuing a degree in music, said she has tried to make “the best of it” by doing what she can — completing scholarship requirements and researching schools.

Wexler plans on applying to Illinois State University, a decision she made because it is local. She says she had considered taking a gap year but plans on attending college next year due to the potential vaccine.

According to a 2015 survey, 3% of U.S. students took a year off before heading to college, but a 2020 survey showed up to 40% of students nationwide are seriously considering taking a gap year. 

Although gap years do not appear to be a trend currently among NCHS seniors, Ince said that more seniors chose early graduation. 

This choice is one change among many that students will experience during the planning period for their futures.

“There’s going to be ups and downs, but take every opportunity you can to experience things and figure yourself out,” Wexler said.

Mental health is so important right now that in order to keep your sanity… you really need to go with your heart.” Hawkins said. “And if going away, applying, is overwhelming to you right now, don’t do it, put it on the back burner.

“There’s no age that says, ‘I have to have this done, by the time I’m 20.’” Hawkins added, “You’ve got the rest of your life. So take care of yourself today.”

Ince believes that enduring the “worst possible situation” during a “horrific time in your lives” will make the class of 2021 stronger.

Students can schedule an appointment with Mrs. Hawkins or a counselor on the counseling website.