By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local
Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Visit the archives at montclairlocal.news/tag/pat-berry/ for her tips on writing memorable essays, finding financial aid, compiling a realistic college list, and more. For information on online essay coaching, visit collegeapplicationcamp.com and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram. And consider joining the Facebook group “Montclair High Schools College Admissions,” a new forum where students, parents, and independent college consultants share and discuss resources related to the college admissions process.
In these unprecedented times, I am struck by how students are taking in stride the first major upheaval in their young lives, including cancellations of proms, formals, and all the celebrations with friends that go along with completing a major segment of their education.
The high school and college seniors I’m speaking with are trying to make the most of an unpleasant situation, staying in close touch with friends via FaceTime and Zoom and navigating online education as best they can. That said, their colossal disappointment over the rites of passage they’ll miss out on is all but unbearable to witness.
We can only hope the same disruptions don’t befall future seniors. But first things first. With virtually all U.S. college campuses closed these weeks, just as they are sending acceptance notices, there is one passage for high school seniors that requires a work-around: determining where to matriculate when you can’t visit the schools that have accepted you.
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When it isn’t an option to jump in the car or catch a flight to get a feel for the campus experience, what can you do? Montclair-based independent college consultant Kate Sonnenberg suggests students remind themselves what they were looking for in a college in the first place. “Keep those priorities front and center as you decide where to go,” she says.
She suggests focusing on whether a particular academic program drew you, and if so, taking a deep dive into the course offerings, looking at the course catalog online, and making sure the college meets your academic ambitions.
On the other hand, if theater is your thing, look at drama club activities and the theatrical calendar to see if they align with your level of interest. “Check the social media accounts of the clubs [that appeal to you] because they are organic, unfiltered students talking to students,” Kate says.
She makes an excellent point. This time of year, the job of college admissions officers is to convince you to accept their invitation to attend. On the other hand, student-administered club and academic Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, and Instagram accounts are typically plain-spoken.
Likewise, student newspapers provide nuanced perspectives of campus life. Note that some institutions have several student-run periodicals — all, with few exceptions, found online. Some lean one way or another politically; others are topical, covering, say, cultural events on campus. Try to unearth those various outlets of undergraduate perspectives for a well-rounded glimpse of undergraduate interests and priorities.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t dig deep into the glossy websites of those schools on your shortlist. In direct response to the pandemic and their closed campuses, many have produced walk-and-talk tours with student ambassadors, webinars with professors and staff, Q&As with admissions officers, and other resources in an effort to provide “like being here” experiences.
And don’t underestimate the usefulness of actually speaking with a live person, particularly when you have questions about financial aid. Make lists of what it is you’d like to understand better about the schools on your shortlist, pick up the phone, and call those admissions offices. “Colleges understand that this is an exceptionally trying time for students,” Kate says, “and admissions officers will be as accommodating and helpful as they can possibly be.”
Virtual campus tours are also available at YouVisit, YouniversityTV, and Campus Reel. Through its offerings, College Scoops aims to give students and their families a sense of the cities or towns beyond campus gates, with a particular focus on eateries and cultural offerings.
Once you’ve collected the data points you think you need, make a decision. It may be helpful to consider that every year a large percentage of students are unable to visit the college they ultimately select, either because they live too far away, the timing doesn’t work with their schedules, or they can’t afford the trip. In other words, plenty of students choose their college virtually.
“It is obviously a disappointment for kids who were expecting to visit — everyone likes to feel recruited,” Kate says. “But often those [accepted students] weekends are not the most accurate reflection of a college. They are a recruitment tool.” In other words, chances are, by exploring online resources, your process for deciding will line up more closely with what you were originally looking for in a bricks-and-mortar college experience.