Navigating the College Process during a Pandemic

Tenley Rooney
The College Office and a newly formed task force support students and families during uncertain times
For Fifth Formers, Spring Term is when the college process starts to kick into high gear. Campus visits and standardized tests populate their calendars, but this year the COVID-19 pandemic upended those plans. In-person visits and exams are canceled, and many schools have modified grading during the remote learning period.
 
Now what?
 
The School’s College Office and the newly formed Fifth Form Task Force are working to support students as they navigate their school searches during this unique time.
 
Dean of College Advising Tim Pratt tells students to take a deep breath. “Don’t assume this is going to have a huge impact on the next year’s cycle,” explains Pratt. “The changes, if anything, are around the testing schedule. We are doing a lot of reassuring for kids. Sign up for testing in the fall, but if that falls through, it's ok. It’s not going to hurt your chances.”
 
Institutions such as Bates and Bowdoin have gone test-free for years, while other colleges and universities are forgoing test scores for this admission season.
 
Fifth Formers’ contact with the School’s college advisers has transitioned from office visits to Zoom meetings. In addition to these sessions, the College Office has created five webinars to keep Fifth Form students and families up-to-date with the changing demands. Chris Gruber, dean of admission for Davidson College in North Carolina, shared insights on what the absence of testing and grades means on the admission process. Deb Johns, associate director of admission for Yale, discussed the college essay.
 
Despite the distance, the School’s relational learning model is still at the core of the SPS experience. Without standardized tests and grades, admissions officers say other elements of the application will receive more emphasis. Recommendations and insights from advisers, mentors, and coaches will play a more significant role. With that in mind, Rector Kathy Giles augmented support for the Form of 2021 with the formation of the Fifth Form Task Force. Led by Director of College Advising Erin Ainor and Mathematics Teacher Laura Hrasky, this 12-person cohort of faculty across academic disciplines meets to help students maintain traction with their applications in the absence of traditional hands-on opportunities. Canvas, the School's course work platform, houses links to writing and science competitions, summer educational institutes, and community outreach prospects. Another tool the School has implemented is summative comments from teachers at the end of each term. "If a teacher has seen a student who has made tremendous progress, we can quote those teachers in our recommendations,” says Ainor.
 
The Community Outreach graduation requirement has also taken a new form to accommodate students' varying circumstances. The focus is hyper-local, with importance placed on involvement in students' home communities and households. “Community service so doesn’t need to be big and fancy,” says Kathy Taylor, director of Community Outreach and a Fifth Form Task Force member. “It can have as equal an impact reaching out to your neighbors and seeing what is needed and can be done to help others. Service starts at home. It's the bullseye of community service; it starts and expands from there.”
 
In the end, SPS students are not alone in this journey. Their peers across the country face the same changes to the application process. Pratt says the School's small form sizes, with approximately 140 students, paired with the College Office's four, full-time advisers, give students a strong base to enter the college quest with or without a pandemic.

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