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Experts: Pandemic gives students new opportunities in college search, applications

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Admissions experts share tips for students and parents on what to prioritize when applying to colleges. Plus: how to cope as extracurriculars are compromised, remote learning is required and campus visits are curtailed.

As if the college search, application and admissions process weren't stressful enough for students and their parents, educators say the pandemic has forced a rethink on how the system works.

But a panel of experts gathered for a Newsday Live webinar titled "College & COVID-19: Helping Your Child Through the Admission Process," said Tuesday that prospective applicants shouldn't dwell on the negatives but consider instead the new opportunities presented.

One big change? With chances at standardized testing compromised by the pandemic, many colleges will be test-optional this year, if they haven't been prior, and some may remain so.

That means prospective students don't necessarily need to submit SAT / ACT test scores in many cases and other factors in their scholastic, interscholastic, extramural and extracurricular lives now might carry new weight in the admissions process.

In the age of COVID, students may have more of a chance to break free of the numbers game — grades, GPA, test scores — and show college admissions officials who they are as a person.

Hofstra University Associate Vice President for Admissions and Enrollment Management Sunil A. Samuel said admissions officials have found students to be "very resilient" and "agreeable to changing the way they thought about college." As a result, Samuel said, "We, as institutions, have had to implement a lot of flexibility … Processes and procedures we've had for years now have to change — or get tweaked."

As panel member Peter Hagan, director of admissions at Syracuse University said: "We're building the airplane as we're flying it."

In-person campus visits have been replaced in some cases by virtual tours, face-to-face admissions interviews with officials replaced by Zoom interviews or other virtual and remote meetings. College essays might carry more weight than test results. The full body of a student's school life may meant more than what's happened academically in a year disrupted by COVID.

"The application process, the college search process, is a great time to reflect on things important to them," Stony Brook University Dean of Admissions Judy Berhannan said, noting students should consider, especially now, "Somebody's asking me to look at me and to look at and articulate things I want … Consider yourself, for lack of a better word, as consumers or shoppers."

"This year is going to be a year of options, a chance to look at a broader range of candidates," Berhannan said.

Panelist Justin Barry, assistant dean of admission at Amherst College, said: "Make sure you're showing us why you're going to be a good fit."

"Overall," Barry said, "there's an option for students to look at things that are important — and highlight their strengths."

Administrators stressed most colleges will also be taking into consideration factors associated with an academic background disrupted by COVID.

Was the academic year affected by not having access to Wi-Fi? Did a student who excelled up until junior year suddenly hit pitfalls that might have been related to pandemic related stresses on family or friends or schooling? Are there economic needs that might not have existed before the pandemic brought on by the economic shutdown or maybe a parent or family member losing their job?

Samuel said officials will do their best to consider the big picture and do everything possible in their efforts to "make a fair decision."

Of importance, too, Berhannan said, is applicants' need to understand "there's more to you than COVID," especially when writing application essays. "COVID doesn't define who you are … And every story and every essay does not have to be deeply dramatic to have an effect [on telling your story]."

Officials said it's understandable many students and their families will have health and safety considerations play a bigger role this year. They said if students can commit to an early decision they should, but that it isn't necessary.

As Hagan said: "We're hopeful we're able to connect with students we weren't able to connect with in other years."

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