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US College Admission: What Rising 12th-Graders Can Expect

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany. Grant has two children who are currently 12th graders and both "headed off" (whether actually or virtually) to college next Fall.

Recently, Grant agreed to have a series of Q&A webinars with us about everything that's going on in the U. S. landscape of colleges and universities, specifically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is the video recording, with full transcriptions (edited for reading clarity) of the first of our three webinars, which was hosted by our CEO Elizabeth Sawyer, and streamed live on our Facebook page on Thursday, May 14th 2020.

Editor’s note: In the first three video clips, you’ll immediately notice we were plagued by low bandwidth (one person noted to us that our Zoom was running low on “Zoom”!), but audio comes through crystal clear, and video gets back on track thereafter. Thanks for bearing with us - such are the times!

What are current 11th-grade students and their parents most concerned about right now as they think about the college process?

(sorry about the low video bandwidth during this clip!)

Grant: They're concerned about several things! Starting in no particular order, I would say they are concerned about testing, since that's something that normally kids would be doing right now and aren’t able to - taking SATs and ACTs.

They're concerned about not being able to physically visit schools, another thing that 11th-graders would normally be doing at this point in time. Parents are also concerned about high school transcripts, because in most cases, those are going to look different than they usually do, and families are concerned about how those transcripts will now be received by colleges.

Families are worried about application options and deadlines – whether or not the early decision, rolling decision, early action, and regular decision options will be edited or dropped, and if application deadlines will be adjusted or not by each institution of interest.

They’re also wondering if there's going to be a “squeeze” in the Fall of 2021 group, of which their kids will be members, because they are hearing that many students who are seniors this year are considering whether or not they will go to college in the Fall, given that they may not physically be able to go and may only have an online, at-home option.

One last thing I would add is, families are concerned about how their kids can stand out in the pools, given that they haven't been able, and won’t be able, to do a number of things they were planning to do this Spring, Summer, and Fall for credits and to boost their portfolios.

Obviously, SAT and ACT testing isn't going on right now, and end of year exams aren't happening. Can you provide any reassurance for college applicants?

(sorry about the low video bandwidth during this clip!)

Grant: You should not worry about testing. Really, at all. Hundreds of colleges and universities were test-optional before the COVID-19 pandemic, and hundreds more are going to join that group for the next admission cycle. Some have expressed that they'll be test-optional just for the next admission cycle. Others have said they're going to take this opportunity to be the test-optional a few years, and look at the data to see if they want to stick with that.

Current 11th-graders have lots of options to apply to schools that will not require testing. It’s important to know this - when colleges say they are test-optional, they really do mean it! They're not pretending, it's not a bait-and-switch, they're not secretly having meetings with admissions officers and guessing what a student's score must have been if he or she decided not to submit one. If they don't have a score, they simply focus on everything else in the application.

A simple rule of thumb is to just look up online what the average SAT or ACT is for admitted students at the institution that you're interested in applying to. If your score is below their average, and they are a test-optional institution, then you should not send them your score. You’ll actually make it easier for them to admit you, in that situation. If you do send them your scores, they have to count them in their data. So, even if they want to admit you (and they may anyway), submitting a score lower than their average will mean that they have to account for that in their data pool and that may actually harm your chances. Kids are sometimes hesitant to withhold their scores in their applications because they think colleges will assume that they are many points below the average - that's just not the case.

A lot of kids are also asking us if they should be taking test preparation classes during this time. My response to that is, yes, absolutely - most students won't have a lot of other things on their plates this Summer, and I think it’s more than reasonable to stay prepared. It’s not a waste of time improving your vocabulary and reading comprehension in your free time anyway, and there are a lot of free online resources out there.

Given the combination of current changes in testing, a lot of schools having moved to Pass/Fail scores in lieu of grades (so GPAs are going to look very different), and how students won't be doing Summer travel internships and all of the things that they would have put on their student resumes – do you think colleges will be sympathetic about that when considering applications?

(sorry about the low video bandwidth during this clip!)

Grant: It’s important to remember that the people in these admissions offices are people too, family members who are going through this same process. Additionally, they have several years of experience reading applications prior to COVID-19, from kids who weren't lucky enough to be able to do internships, travel abroad, or do some extra classwork. Admissions departments have always tried very hard to be fair. If one student is lucky enough, for example, to have been able to go to Mozambique and work with doctors over the Summer because that family has some great connections, doesn’t mean that kids who don't have the same opportunities should be penalized. Colleges have always understood that.

So, the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic really just presents the same thing on a bigger scale. Admissions departments will recognize that kids have been stuck at home, without any choices. I think they will be interested in hearing what kids have to say - I believe there will be an emphasis on reading applicants’ essays. They will want to learn about how, within these limited parameters, kids have made the most of their time and used this situation as an opportunity.

Admissions departments aren’t looking for a research paper when they ask for a student essay. They want something that's personal, that gives them a better sense of who you are. Your ability to do research is important, but they're going be reassured about that capacity by reading your teacher recommendations and looking at your transcripts. Your essay is really a chance for you to talk about how you interact with the world and the people in it, what is important to you, how you make choices, and about how you choose to spend your time. With your essay, they're trying to get a sense of you as a potential member of their college communities, and to hear from you in a way that is not just about your academic capacity.

Students currently aren’t able to visit colleges in person and are having to resort to virtual tours. What advice can you give them?

Grant: We get lots of questions about this! My colleague, Ryan Keaton (Co-Director of College Counseling, Friend’s Central School) – she’s a real pro – has been doing the heavy lifting of visiting many, many college websites, going on their virtual tours, and looking at the online resources they have been frantically generating to give kids a chance to “visit” virtually. To date, Ryan's done about 50 virtual college tours. She’s told me that in general, they do tend to be rather dry, but they do provide a good sense of things. It has occurred to me in talking to kids that if you're worried about the virtual tour somehow leaving out parts of campus that they would rather have you not see, you can always use Google maps and “sneak” around any part of the campus you want to… one of the amazing things about all these online resources we now have!

But, might my biggest take-away from her has been that I think current 11th-graders are, in some ways, going to be in a position to make better choices about their college choices. They won’t be distracted by impressions that they get from the traditional tour experience: usually, pretty short visits, they spend a few hours on campus, they take a tour, they do an “information session”, and they go get a cup of coffee in the student union building. That's all great, but it's amazing how many kids come back to me and say, “forget it, I'm not applying there, the tour guide was really weird.” Or “that’s the most beautiful campus I've ever seen, that's where I want to be for four years!” Those aren’t good reasons for choosing the college that you're going to attend. I think most parents would rather not have their kids choose a college based on the architecture alone or on the reaction that their child had to a particular individual.

So, colleges are already seeing this difference. The online experience means that they have to dig deeper, and colleges are working very hard to create a lot of new virtual material. And a lot of it is very good. We're finding that it's easier for kids online to, say, look at a department website within the larger college website to look at the classes required for a particular major. Or, to learn about interesting extracurricular organizations that wouldn't necessarily have been mentioned by the admissions office. And so, I think overall, kids are getting a more nuanced look at schools, and they're much less likely to be either put off or sucked in by one particular thing that happened within a three-hour in-person visit.

Elizabeth: That's very interesting, because the Spring of your 11th-grade, the year that you spend visiting colleges, is a big tradition for a lot of families. College visits have always been such an integral part of the process, so it's interesting to consider that the virtual approach is, in some ways, actually better.

Many current 12th-graders who have been accepted are considering deferring, because they don't know what Fall of 2020 will hold. Will this cause a huge crunch of returning students in the Fall of 2021?

Grant: The truth is that we still have no idea what the situation is going to be in July, much less September of 2021. But there is a lot of talk about kids considering “gap years”, or just delaying college entrance, and I think there will be some of that happening. Almost all of our cohort of kids – a class of about a hundred – are expecting to matriculate in the Fall, and will accommodate whatever approach their college or university they’ll be applying to decides to take thereafter. I think part of the reason for that is that most of our kids are lucky enough to have sufficient financial stability to say “we can make this commitment.” We’ve also seen lots of kids who have gotten great financial aid packages from some colleges. On the other hand, there will be kids who won’t have that option because of financial limitations caused by COVID-19, such as a job loss in the family.

I do not foresee that there's going to be a tsunami of kids wanting to matriculate in the Fall of 2021, because there's probably going to be a balancing out due to a loss of the kids who now will decide to forego college altogether and go into the workforce instead.

You touched on the topic of financial aid. Do you have any thoughts on how need-based aid, and merit-based aid tied to test results, will be affected?

Grant: I don't foresee any major changes in the approach is that colleges take regarding financial aid. There is a handful of colleges that offer what's called “meet full need”, which is where colleges will simply provide need-based financial aid to kids who have applied. There are other institutions that a combination of need-based financial aid and merit-based aid, the second of which is really is just additional discounting, to try to encourage those students to whom they offer it to it to attend. I sort of think of that as “matriculation aid” – they’re trying to bring in kids who are particularly attractive to them, and I think they'll keep doing that, because colleges have to. Nothing will change in terms of that institutional desire to attract the right students.

How do you think the application system – deadlines and application options – will be affected?

Grant: Right. There are several application options out there. Those include “rolling admissions”, “early action”, “early decision”, “regular decision”, and some institutions use a combination of these, while some have more specialized systems.

I’ve already seen a bit of a shift in some schools that offer early decision options. Generally, those deadlines are in early November. A number of institutions that only have had one early decision option in the Fall are considering adding a second one in January, because it will give kids more time to think about making that commitment. “Early decision” means you apply and if you were admitted, you have to attend. Colleges are worried that for the Fall, kids just may not be ready to make that commitment by November. Rather than moving deadlines, I am seeing colleges choose to add more options, which I think is a good choice.

How will colleges weigh what they do with regard to the high number of kids requesting deferrals?

Grant: This gets a little complicated. So, normally, a student would receive a few offers of admission from a handful of colleges, and then that student would make a decision on which college to attend. The student would then contact that college before accepting the offer, and say “I’d really like to attend but I'd like to put off my matriculation date for one year, would that be okay?”, and colleges would typically grant them that. They might ask what the student plans on doing out of interest, but typically will allow it, so that the student goes on to accept.

We're in a funny situation now. Most students have already accepted spots at colleges of their choice, but some colleges have moved their notification date (the date on which students notify colleges that they're going to attend) extend to June 1st, so there still are some kids who have yet to make their decisions. The complication is, once a student has accepted an offer, they can contact that college and request to put off their matriculation for a year, but right now they're much less likely to have that request approved, because colleges are concerned about having enough kids matriculate in the Fall as it is. If a student plans to take some community college courses and try to get some general education credits, that student needs to make absolutely sure that those credits will be accepted beforehand. Some colleges might even require students to reapply to maintain a seat in 2021.

Typically, the colleges and universities with the deepest pockets and the most resources are the slowest to adjust their current systems. Others know that it could be a mortal blow to them if they can't adjust to ensure they have some kind of on-campus presence in the Fall. Those schools that can’t afford a big dip in the number of kids who matriculate are racking their brains about how to effectively adjust, and are turning themselves inside out to come up with appealing, hybrid options and alternatives that can be safe and well-monitored.

This has been a pretty kind of anxiety provoking time for students. Can you offer any reassurances for 11th and 12th-graders right now?

Grant: I would I would say that the most important thing to keep in mind is that the colleges need you. They will do whatever they can to help students and families work out some kind of arrangement that makes attendance possible. I think they're going to be even more flexible than ever, working with kids on an individual basis. Families are resistant to call financial aid offices because they're afraid of being told how incredibly expensive it's going to be to attend that institution, but financial aid officers are there because they want to figure out ways to admit kids to their institution. Their job is to find ways to help you. Especially for admitted students – they have already made a commitment to you, and they have an institutional desire to make it work however they can.

Elizabeth: That's a very helpful and reassuring perspective for parents, because we hear so much about the competitiveness and the selectivity of colleges. It’s good to remember that that the need goes both ways.

Grant: Right. Last week, at least 700 colleges and universities in the country did not have a full class for the Fall, that normally would – compare that to last year, at the same time, that number was closer to 300. That's a big jump.

Any final comments that you would like to make, from your perspective as a father of two 12th-graders?

Grant: Something that we haven't touched on with respect to current 11th-graders and their colleges applications is, they may not be back in school in the Fall either, which makes me sad to think about. I hope that we can find a way to have kids here on our campus in the Fall. Even if we do achieve that, I think there's no question that both the 11th-grade and 12th-grade experience is going to be profoundly different this year.

What I’d like to reassure students about is that both secondary schools and colleges are trying their hardest to figure out how they can make the best of this situation, and my experience so far with virtual classes and online teaching is that the kids have been an incredibly adaptable and adjustable. Overall, I've been amazed at how well students have handled this. I want students to know that we all, here on the school side, recognize that they're dealing with a lot of extra stuff, and we will continue to be understanding about that, and be as supportive as we possibly can.

My kids are planned to go to college next Fall, and their plan is to attend either in person or virtually. They're excited, they want to go, and the truth is they don't really have anything better plans! They’ll be fully occupied, doing whatever version of college they are ultimately offered.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them to find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.


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