By Nikki Magaziner Mills, Director of College Counseling
At the beginning of the 2019-20 application year, little did we know that the “big news” of a Justice Department ruling forcing the abandonment of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors’ recommended principles of good practice was not going to be the biggest news of the year at all. The action, which means that colleges are now able to incentivize Early Decision application plans and can recruit students after the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date, remains significant, yet questions of how it will affect the admissions landscape going forward are dwarfed by the even bigger questions related to COVID-19. The virus struck at a time when the Class of 2020 was at the tail end of the application process: seniors had finished applying and were only waiting for the final, end-of-March decisions from colleges. Other than extended and increased waiting-list movement, which was notable, the Class of 2020’s application process was not affected by COVID-19. What will be affected, of course, is the start of their collegiate careers; as I write, colleges are opening campuses virtually or in hybrid mode, some starting one way and quickly recalibrating, everyone recognizing that every day presents new challenges in the world of COVID-19.
The Class of 2021, however, faced some significant landscape shifts with their upcoming application process. Almost all the spring SAT and ACT tests were cancelled, and those students who do not yet have scores or who were hoping to improve upon the ones they did have eagerly awaited late summer and fall test administrations. In response, most colleges and universities announced test-optional or test-flexible policies for the 2020-21 application year at least. (To an industry that has for years questioned the validity of standardized testing, this is momentous, and it will be interesting to see whether colleges pivot quickly back to requiring tests in 2021-22, or whether standardized testing fades from the admissions scene.) Faced with no spring sports, theater productions, concerts, and a summer of uncertainty, the Class of 2021 had to get creative with their extracurricular pursuits. Colleges announced that they would view the spring semester of this past school year with flexibility and grace; everyone around the world was in the same boat, taking classes online and making the best of an odd situation. It has been a time of learning for all of us.
Despite the uncertain landscape ahead for the college application year of 2020-21, what has always been most true about the process of applying to college, and going to college, is still true. Finding a college is not actually about the application process. Finding a college is deeply individual. You have to be yourself. Wonder who you are. Find programs and places that match you. Challenge your comfort zone. Consider places and opportunities that don’t immediately spring to mind, just to see. Dream, not about a college bumper sticker to affix to the rear window, but of what experiences in college will change your life and set your path.
Equal parts intensive research and self-reflection, this journey demands wisdom, maturity, thoughtfulness, introspection, resilience, and a sense of humor. It requires a sense of the world beyond St. Albans, and beyond Washington, D.C. And, most importantly, it requires that each boy — precisely at the time that he is only just beginning to know how to be himself — lead the way and take control.
This year, seventy-five members of the Class of 2020 applied to 162 different colleges in the U.S. and abroad. Seventy-five boys submitted an application under an Early Decision or Early Action plan, and seventy boys were accepted under one of those plans. Eleven students who initially received a deferral letter from an Early Action/Early Decision college were ultimately admitted in the spring. As of this writing, eleven of the small handful of boys who chose to remain on waiting lists have been admitted off of their waiting list. In the fall, our graduates will enroll at forty-two different colleges and universities in two countries, nineteen states, and the District of Columbia.
In our office this year, we hosted speakers from Pomona College, Northwestern University, and Davidson College. In the fall, more than 150 college admissions representatives visited St. Albans to speak with small groups of seniors about their schools, and in the winter, along with NCS, Sidwell Friends, Maret, and Georgetown Day School, we hosted a College Case-Study Night in which thirty-five college representatives worked with “admissions committees” of juniors and their parents as they evaluated four mock admissions files. We offered workshops on the college application process for juniors and seniors which ranged in topic from How Do I Begin My College Search? to Writing the Application Essay. Mostly, we met one-on-one with students as they tried to answer those biggest of questions: Where do I want to go next? What do I want my future to hold? Although the move to distance learning was not what anyone wished for, the College Counseling program continued on as normal, moving all of our programming to Zoom and augmenting our traditional spring programming with additional parent and student-group meetings, recorded workshops, and junior small-group meetings with college admissions officers representing eleven colleges and universities.
The single most important way for a boy to prepare himself for college is to make the most out of his time at St. Albans. Those boys who truly engage in the classroom, on the field, and in their clubs and activities find their college search and application process to be a natural extension of what they have already begun. Once boys find their footing in the Upper School, they should start to identify their favorite subjects and activities, and they should pursue these with energy and enthusiasm. As they begin Form V, boys should choose their courses well, push themselves harder than ever in the classroom, and consider seeking leadership positions in activities that interest them. In the winter of Form V, the College Office, made up of Tim Hudson, Sam Schaffer, Linda Stratton, and me, formally steps in with large and small group presentations and individual and group meetings that begin and end with the question: What is each boy looking for in a college? Although we in the College Office help build lists, solve problems, assist with applications, read essays, host college representatives, submit school records, and serve as intermediaries between students and colleges, our most important charge is to help each boy discover the colleges that best match his educational, extracurricular, and personal goals.
We in the College Office feel privileged to have worked with the Class of 2019, and we are excited to watch from afar as they continue to find themselves and to be themselves. Congratulations!