Three tips to help students heading to college take control

A student smiles during a videoconference.

Experts share their experience and advice to help students to be proactive and diligent, and to encourage them to ask for help when needed this year.

Our College & COVID-19 series is part of our commitment to students and families during this time of uncertainty. Our goal with this series is to provide the resources, information, and guidance you need to help you successfully continue your college journey.

Online learning, virtual theater productions, and drive-through graduations happened at thousands of American high schools this year. What does this tell us? The high school class of 2020 is preparing for the future by learning to be flexible. High school seniors — the class of 2021 — will also likely need the same flexible attitudes.

Behind the scenes, school counselors are working harder than ever to help. Before the end of each school year, Teresa Farell usually visits the juniors in their classrooms at Chapin High School in South Carolina to get them thinking about college applications. She shows them how to create resumes and shares tips about writing essays for their college and scholarship applications. But she didn’t get to do that this year.

“We found that in the final weeks of this school year, students were over-burdened and over-stressed. We didn’t want to add to that,” she says.

Instead, she and her counseling team will gather online resources from sites such as College Board to share with those juniors over the summer.

Eric Sparks of the American School Counselor Association says school counselors like Farell will be working through the summer to make plans for how they’ll help students from the class of 2021 during their senior year of high school and with the college planning and application process.

What should students and parents focus on? Here’s some advice from experts.

1. Form a team: Parent, student, high school counselor, college admissions officer, financial aid officer.

Sparks says the admissions process can be challenging under normal circumstances, and it’s even more so now. “It’s hard for any one person to keep up with all of the nuances of the process,” Sparks says.

Students, parents, and high school counselors should stay connected with regular check-ins, where counselors can share any updates they have from colleges. But families can also reach out directly to college and university admissions offices and financial aid offices.

High school counselor Farell explains, “It’s really important for students and families to create a relationship with the admissions counselor at the university or college now more than ever.”

Robert C. Ballard, president and CEO of Scholarship America, the largest nonprofit private scholarship organization in the country, says students should take advantage of resources that are available to them — and ask for admissions help early.

“Be your best advocate,” he says. “Help is likely not going to come to you on its own, and if it does, it’s probably going to be too late in the process,” he adds. “Many students are afraid to raise their hand and advocate on behalf of themselves, but that’s really what we encourage them to do.”

Scholarship America partners with numerous organizations that provide financial assistance to anyone who applies for scholarships. He also adds that if a student has received any kind of help from a mentor in the past, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask for more assistance from that person.

“Go back to the people who are proving themselves to have your best interest in mind and have the same goals and aspirations (for your success) that you have for yourself,” he says.

2. Replace in-person visits with virtual visits — or do both, if possible.

College-bound students should stay tuned for opportunities for both in-person campus visits and virtual tours. Farell’s own daughter, Alexis, is a rising senior at Chapin High. The Farells were supposed to tour colleges from Louisiana to Florida over spring break. Instead, they toured those campuses virtually. They noted the architecture of buildings, traffic patterns through campus, and the surrounding areas as best they could. “Virtual tours are a great starting point,” Farell says

Students will also want to explore other options for researching their schools of choice, Sparks says.

“There’s a lot of investigative work involved when you can’t visit a university, but there’s a ton of information on the web and social media to help you get a better sense of it,” he says. For example, prospective students can follow university or college hashtags to see what others are saying about schools.

Prospective students can also sign up for news alerts to keep informed about any announcements made by the colleges they’re considering, to get a sense of how fall 2020 goes for the school, or to attend virtual events that include current students and faculty. You can learn how to set up Google Alerts and Inbox by Gmail here.

3. Understand what instructional changes are happening at colleges of interest.

Colleges and universities will vary in how they’re making adjustments to help keep students safe during the pandemic. Students should also consider both virtual and on-campus scenarios as they shop for schools and apply to those on their short list.

“Ask yourself, ‘What would I be doing in a regular situation?’” Sparks says. “Then, ‘What if things are not as usual? What do I have in place at home in case of that? Is there a space to work and focus?’”

Because many families are still practicing social distancing, Farell says this is a good time for college-bound students to think about who they are and what they’re passionate about.

“I feel like maybe these students, if they use the time wisely, could be better prepared (for college) than others have been in the past,” she says.

CollegeSTEPS® has more guidance on changing your college plans in light of the coronavirus pandemic and on applications this year overall

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