COVID and College Admissions

Greg Kwasnik
You’ve spent years getting good grades, prepping for the SAT, and racking up extracurriculars with an eye toward college. Then, once you’re finally ready to apply, COVID-19 hits. What now?
Talk to Holderness School’s Interim Director of College Counseling Erika Blauth, and she’ll tell you one thing: keep doing what you’re doing. “Big picture, the process is staying almost the same,” Erika says. “That’s the message we’re trying to communicate to students and families.”
 
Bolstered with a wealth of knowledge from her years as an admissions counselor at schools like Colorado College and Wellesley College, Erika is more than ready to help Holderness School students find their perfect college fit, pandemic or not. Here’s how she plans to make that happen.
 
The school year starts in just a few weeks, and the college application process picks up speed shortly thereafter. What’s going through your mind right now?
I’m feeling confident. Holderness students are known for having impressive strength of character, and they have such a great support system with their people here at Holderness and in their families. We’ll be able to all partner even more than we have in past years, and I hope to use my admission background to shed light on timely topics like test-optional application review. Even though the process will look and feel a little different this year, I know students will ultimately end up at colleges and universities that in any other year they would have been really excited about as well. If they trust the process and we’re all able to work together as a team, you never know - they might even enjoy the ride and have a little fun along the way. 
 
How different will the college process be this year?
The timeline is staying the same, as will the bigger pieces of the process like building your college list and filling out the Common Application. But anything that had been in person is now virtual, and most colleges have now made it optional to submit the SAT/ACT. Those are the biggest changes. So, things like visiting a college campus, doing an in-person interview, going on a tour, and speaking face-to-face with an admission officer – those things are still happening, but in the virtual space. For instance, in a typical year, college representatives would come here to the Holderness campus and meet with groups of students who are interested in their college or university. We’re still doing those this year, but virtually. Students will still have that chance to meet with the college representative in a smaller group setting and get “face time” with the admission officer who is probably going to be the one reviewing their application. That’s going to be a really valuable opportunity. Similarly, taking advantage of virtual interviews are something we’re really encouraging.
 
Won’t it be difficult to choose a college if you can’t visit in person?
It’s definitely different, no doubt about it. Sometimes campus visits can provide that clouds-parting, sun-shining-down-on you type of moment, like “Oh, I feel like this is the place for me!” While this can be a helpful turning point for students in their college search process, to be honest, it also has the potential to confine students to thinking that “this is the one-and-only place where I can see myself thriving in college”. In the virtual visit space, however, students are really forced to do their research in the absence of having that thunderbolt type of moment. I hope this allows students to truly fall in love with LOTS of colleges and be able to picture themselves being happy at different places for different reasons. So, students may not have that one moment of realization, but by gathering these little “aha” moments over time through their research and conversations with various people (Holderness alums, admission officers, their college counselor, etc.), I think that will get them to the same place they would have been, pandemic or not.    
 
This year, juniors and seniors at Holderness will get enhanced college counseling. Can you tell me about that?
For years, Bruce Barton [Director of College Counseling, currently on his Henderson Brewer van Otterloo Chair Year] has been wanting and needing some more time with seniors - especially as deadlines approach - to have that one-on-one application support time. So this year, with some more flexibility with Saturday mornings [traditional Saturday classes are being replaced with a curriculum to promote socio-emotional learning], we’re really excited to be able to work with seniors for a handful of Saturday mornings through the fall. I think it will be invaluable to have that dedicated time and space to work on their college applications that’s not Monday through Friday, and doesn’t conflict with an athletic commitment. I’m hoping we’ll be able to work in small groups and one-on-one settings and cover a variety of topics - from art supplements to athletic recruiting to financial aid to essays. 
 
Given the pandemic and concerns around social distancing, many colleges and universities are no longer requiring students to take the SAT or ACT. How important are standardized test scores in today’s admissions process?
The number one most important part of a student’s application - not just today - is a student’s academic performance over their 3.5 years of high school, as shown on their transcript(s). This is because the transcript is the number one indicator of a student’s potential to succeed in a college academic environment; 4 hours on a Saturday morning can only tell you so much.. So, admission officers look closely at such things as the rigor of their high school course load, their grades, any grade trends – like an upward grade trend - and other pieces of a student’s academic story that can be gleaned from a transcript. Testing was a very small part of that academic review (perhaps less than 25%, depending on the college). And oftentimes test scores just validate or back up the story that’s already being told on the transcript. What’s more, research shows that standardized testing holds little to no predictive value on a student’s future college GPA and is more of an indicator of a test-taker’s background and access to resources rather than their potential to succeed in the college environment. This is not new information for admission officers, so they always take testing with a grain of salt, even when testing is or was a required application material.
 
In your new role at Holderness, you’re filling in for Director of College Counseling Bruce Barton, who’s taking a Henderson Brewer van Otterloo Chair Year during the 2020-21 school year. What brought you to Holderness?
When I was at Colorado College, I was the New Hampshire territory rep, so I was that college admission officer who would visit campus in the fall to meet with students and do interviews. I was also the one who would read the applications of Holderness students who were applying to Colorado College. So, I always knew about the school, really enjoyed collaborating with Bruce, and was just always really impressed by the students I met or whose applications I reviewed. When I visited campus, I would usually interview about six students over the course of a few hours, and every conversation I had was always just really different and interesting. Most of all, I was really impressed with the students’ character, across the board. That was always the big thing that came through about Holderness students – they were just really good people who cared about service to their community and were really hard workers. Those values alone can be so additive to a college community. So, when this opportunity arose to be here for Bruce’s sabbatical year, it was an easy ‘yes’ for me given my knowledge of Holderness and how much I respected this school and identified with the Holderness core values.
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