How to look for a college in a pandemic: Advice from a dean in the Know

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Florida A&M University (Image by Ernie A. Stephens from Pixabay) 
By Whitney Soule

Thinking about college wasn't easy even before a pandemic. Now, with worries about jobs, health, and in-person interactions limited to those we live with, how are you supposed to think about finding a college? What follows is a letter from Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Dear High School Junior,

Usually, spring is an exciting Venn diagram—where celebrating the seniors we just admitted overlaps with getting to know the juniors just getting started in their searches. It's fun, energizing, and personal. But this year, it's different.

I feel like I'm stuck in a fun house—everything looks familiar, but not quite right. The overlap of activity is still happening, but none of the activities are the same. Instead of questions I normally get, I hear only these: What happens now? What can I do? What should I do? Even in this confusion you can count on the fact that colleges still want to discover you.

It's not time to give up; it's time to dig in.

Don't Worry About This

In response to the cancellation of test dates, many colleges have announced test-optional policies, signaling that you don't have to sweat this particular detail right now.

If you're worried that not submitting scores will make it harder for you to get into college, I assure you that colleges' academic reviews rely on what is required. When test scores are optional, trust that the review process is based on what you submit, not on what you don't.

At Bowdoin, we've been test optional since 1969, and we bring in exceptional classes over and over again. Others schools will make this work for them as well.

But Please Do This

When students take standardized tests and opt to share their information with colleges, they are making themselves known. This is a critical first step. We need to know about you and your interests so that, in turn, we show ourselves to you.

A hidden consequence of this spring's canceled test dates is that it could limit ways students might have connected with colleges, even if they weren't actively doing it.

The best way for you to connect is by filling out the "request information" form found in every college's admissions webpage. This is how schools learn about you: Where are you from? Where do you go to school? What kind of information do you need?

Once colleges know who you are, they can send the glossy brochure, tell you when campus visits and tours will resume, and send information about policies, deadlines, and financial aid. There might be invitations to special programming or a chance to connect with faculty, current students, or alumni. Bottom line: start by filling out the form.

Expand Your College Search

Options are essential—and building out those options is best at the beginning of a college search, not the end. Think about this—you search YouTube for "funny dog videos" and pretty soon you're learning how to train your dog to skateboard. One thing leads to another, and you find something unexpected. College searching is like that.

When you explore colleges online, for every school that might be interesting, try searching for three others with similarities—and request information from those schools too.

If a favorite uncle on the family Zoom chat mentions a college, look it up. Ask interesting people you know where they went to college, then request information. If you find you're not interested, just unsubscribe. But you might be dazzled by a great school you had never considered.

Take a Breath

Stress is already baked into preparing for college—choosing courses, doing the work, committing to activities, holding down a job, and more. Some things, like grades, test scores, performances, or athletics may feel less important or reliable than before.

Admissions offices that use holistic review—a focus on students' individuality, experiences, and potential—will adapt to the pandemic-related impact in students' applications. Admissions officers are living in these times too. We are working remotely, using Zoom, standing in line for groceries, missing our friends, and caring for our families. We understand.

Maybe you want to wait until everything feels better, but "waiting until" serves only the experience of waiting, not of doing. It's time to start thinking about what you want in a college and why, what you think you can afford, and which colleges can match with you. Do the work of getting ready.

Your time is now, no matter what the world is bringing you.

You can count on that,

Whitney Soule
Bowdoin College Dean of Admissions and Student Aid

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