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Mapping Out the Changing Course of College Counseling

On our office wall hangs a map. Each September it is just a reminder of America’s geography, but by May, it is full of red magnetic pins, each reflecting the dozens of colleges across the country where Cape Henry’s graduating class will matriculate.

Watching this map grow into what ultimately ends up looking like a Battleship board never fails to make me feel like a proud coach, watching from the sidelines as Cape Henry’s seniors make thoughtful decisions about their futures. Yet this spring, when asked what schools the pins referenced, I found myself wanting to share so much more than just the name of a university. I wanted to talk about how students in this class had barely seen their college, as many campuses remained closed; about the essays they wrote on how their family, or family’s finances, were impacted by COVID-19; how the past year had taught them to work through grief, anxiety, and anger, sometimes all at the same time; and, how none of them could have predicted that they would be navigating their college process during a global pandemic.

In my fifteen years as a college counselor, I have never seen so much change, so quickly, in college admissions as I witnessed last year. Yet the Class of 2021 responded with poise and, at times, deep breaths, as they were asked to modify yet one more aspect of their senior year.

Over 1700 colleges did not require an SAT or ACT score. While many colleges have been test optional for years, just 12% of the colleges on the Common Application required test scores for the Class of 2021. Many students felt relieved to no longer face such pressure from one Saturday morning, but these tests are such an entrenched part of the college process that at times it was hard to assure students that test-optional truly meant test optional.

Resumes and activity lists had gaps. Clubs, sports, and productions all ceased, and students worried about how that would impact their college applications. At Cape Henry, many activities eventually resumed, but none looked the same. In their place, though, students improvised and figured out what truly drove them. Whether it was playing music outside, learning a new language online, baking virtually with a grandparent, or discovering a new hobby, students adapted and explored.

College counseling moved online. Around the world, each school responded to the shutdown differently. In March of 2020, just as we were about to help our juniors obtain recommendation letters and host our sophomore evening program, we all went home. Yet Cape Henry had the foresight to include weekly class meetings on our virtual schedule so that our students could remain on track, and our office figured out how to host webinars for our evening programs. In the end, students’ timelines were consistent with previous years, and 94% of seniors submitted an application in either an Early Decision or Early Action pool.

College applications were way up. The Common Application reported that highly selective, well-known private schools were up 20% in applications while large selective publics were up 13%; many students decided to take their shot at a well-known college that would typically have been a certain deny. While our office saw some of these “far-reach” applications, the majority of Cape Henry’s seniors remained aware of who they were and focused on schools that would have been a good fit no matter the circumstance. Our average number of applications for domestic students remained at six, a number that has been consistent for several years.

Less selective public and private schools saw a 2% decrease in applications while applications from first-generation students also decreased. As an example, while Colgate was up 104% in applications and NYU jumped 20%, the SUNY system saw a 14% decline. Overall, college admissions was not immune to the stratification that the world also saw. At CHC, we were fortunate to be in school and have access to opportunities many did not, but to paint that picture with a broad brush stroke would be disingenuous to the seniors who had to consider financial or other challenges within their family as they made future decisions.

Students ultimately chose their college based on comfort, happiness, cost, and fit. Our profession has shifted from calling some schools “highly selective” to “highly rejective,” hopefully putting a better emphasis on the realities of those handful of colleges that reject over 90% of their applicant pool. While there is nothing wrong with applying to a “highly rejective,” what I remind our students is that if I told them that tomorrow there was a 96% chance of rain, they’d probably bring an umbrella– in other words, admissions at these colleges cannot be predicted. On our map, you’ll see several of our graduates attending these “highly rejectives,” and we could not be more proud of them. But what you also can’t see are the selective colleges that our students were admitted to but chose not to attend because of reasons unseen—a cost, a specific interest, proximity to family, or simply being a part of a community where they felt welcome—and we could not be more proud of them, either. Across the board, students in this class ultimately recognized that the future is unpredictable and chose colleges, not on an admissions rate, but on where they could be who they wanted to be.

As our office welcomes Ms. Rebecca Lilienstern this fall and as we begin another application cycle with the Class of 2022, I know that our students are ready for whatever the future brings. While I may not be able to predict where their red dots will land on our office’s map, I know that their processes will be filled with resilience and growth, and that their entire story will be known and supported by the Cape Henry community.

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