MISSOULA — Heading into the school year as a junior or senior is a pivotal time as the college search officially begins. Practice exams, AP courses, extracurriculars, college visits are just a handful of the tasks to be completed as an upperclassman.
For most, this is the most exciting and the most stressful time of their high school years.
But now, more than ever, the thought of college is accompanied by a whole new set of concerns. As with every facet of education, the college admissions process will look different this year.
College prep expert Kelly Hughes said this year students are being asked to do twice as much research when it comes to finding the right fit for college.
“Luckily they seem to be up to the challenge,” said Hughes.
When families think of college prep the first thing that typically comes to mind is standardized testing like the ACT and SAT. According to Hughes, most schools have waived their test requirement in light of COVID-19.
“This idea of applying to colleges without taking the test is actually not a new one, and colleges this year, the overwhelming majority of them, are test optional for this coming application season,” said Hughes. “Literally everywhere from UM to Harvard, they're all test optional. We're trying to encourage families to register if they can, but understand that the eggs are not all in that basket.”
Without the tests to focus on as seriously, Hughes recommends working on writing, resume prep, passions and hobbies. These are elements that play a key part in the admission application and can be improved at home.
“Take band and orchestra, for example, if a student loves band and orchestra and their opportunities are being confined by some of those restrictions for the fall, I would encourage them to not put down the instrument. Figure out other ways that you can really continue with that passion,” said Hughes.
Because we don’t know what next fall will look like, Hughes is telling her clients to apply to more colleges than you think you should, especially focusing on a few close to home in the event you would have to move home mid-semester.
“We'll normally tell kids to apply to a couple safety schools, a couple of match schools, and a couple of reach schools, and you're good to go, but this year we're asking them to cast their net a little bit wider because there is so much uncertainty,” Hughes said.
When it comes to the traditional college visit, Hughes said that may or may not be happening this year, but most schools have beefed up their virtual options to make up for the loss.
“Now they're doing live video tours, they're doing live information sessions, they're hosting student panels. Some of the schools are even providing opportunities for students to do one-on-one calls with a professor from the school,” Hughes said.
It's all a matter of doing your research and visiting college websites or contacting their admissions staff for details. Hughes believes the virtual-only option has actually evened the playing field for the students that normally wouldn't have the chance to go on college visits for financial reasons.
All in all, Hughes said whether you’re considering a community college right in your backyard, an out-of-state school across the country, or even taking a gap year, just remember that you're not on an island.
“It's incredibly stressful, but everyone around the country is in the same boat," Hughes said. "This isn't something that's just impacting Montana kids, it's not like Montana kids are at a disadvantage. Everyone is dealing with these same strange parameters and needing to come up with new ways to approach things.”