Parker’s College Counseling team talks about the admissions process amid the COVID-19 pandemic

By Matthew Piechalak | [email protected]

College Counseling at Francis Parker School is more than just a place for students to apply for college during their senior year. In fact, the application process is only the final step in a journey of self-discovery for Parker juniors and seniors.

In a traditional year, the college search process already includes its share of stressors––for most students, it’s the most important decision they will make during their high school career. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, those pressures were compounded with the uncertainty of…well, just about everything. In essence, the process of applying to college was turned upside-down. 

Suddenly, students didn’t have the benefit of college visits. Acceptance criteria and deadlines were often in-flux. And the validity of traditional entrance testing was thrown into question. As 2020 rolled on, there was clarity on some things; others remain uncertain. 

Through it all, Parker’s College Counseling team has remained steadfast in its commitment to guiding students along their path toward self-discovery and ultimately, to an institution of higher learning that is the right fit for their unique skills and individual needs.

The College Counseling team at Parker is led by Dean of College Counseling Bob Hurley and includes fellow directors Julio Mata, Jasmin Taylor, and Alain Darang. Combined, they have more than six decades of experience in college admissions. 

Earlier this year, Andy Losier, Parker’s Interim Associate Head of Upper School (and former director of College Counseling), sat down with the College Counseling Team to discuss the changes they are seeing to the college admissions landscape and their professional thoughts about the future of college admissions. 

Note: The transcript of this conversation was edited for space and clarity. 

Andy: To begin, all of you belong to multiple professional organizations including WACAC (Western Association for Admission Counseling). Why is it important for admissions professionals to be involved in these types of organizations? 

Julio: It’s a great way to stay connected with people who are working through the same process with different populations. These organizations bring in people from the high school side and other secondary school folks and combine them with people on the college side, as well as community organizations, to all talk about how to support students through senior year and into their post-secondary plans. It’s invaluable and it’s something, especially this year, that has proven useful to stay on top of the week-by-week changes that have been happening because of the pandemic. 

Alain: Networking is important because knowing one person at one institution means that potentially you could know somebody at three or four in the coming years as you start to grow professionally. The networking we do definitely serves the students because it gives us an access point to get information that will assist with their admissions process including things to look out for, how trends are happening at universities and colleges around the country, and the degrees of separation start to build off of that. Just because you only know one person may mean you know six as a result of our networking. 

Bob: In this country alone, we have a few thousand colleges as well as all the schools internationally and as hard as we might try, there’s no way to keep up with all of them, all the time. To be able to reach out to people from these various groups, all of a sudden you get a stream of information that comes your way because you’re part of this greater group. It’s a helpful resource to be able to tap into information that will ultimately help our kids. 

Andy: What has changed within the College Admissions world due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bob: The research of schools has shifted to almost entirely online. While they always had access to look up schools through our digital world, it has now become exclusively how they go about it. When we look back at before the onset of the pandemic, our current seniors likely had plans to go visit colleges in-person that vacation week. Most of our seniors have not been on college campuses. It’s a throwback to when I was looking up schools and you had a guidebook. That was all you had to go on other than maybe a pamphlet and word-of-mouth. Since they haven’t been able to see the campuses, they have had to rely on these other forms of research and make sure that they are filtering out the information that will let them make an informed decision. 

Julio: Testing has been one of the biggest things to change because it feels like it’s a constantly moving target that everyone is trying to nail down. Everything from current seniors trying to figure out what is required as things were unraveling late spring into the summer, to juniors now entering this process and everyone questioning if testing should still be a thing. There is so much uncertainty and there’s no clear sign to when that may be over. By and large, it’s created a sense of “hurry up and wait.” 

Bob: It will likely be even more of a question mark for this junior class. Some of these schools are going optional with testing for a two to three-year period, some have yet to decide what they are going to do, and some that will ultimately revert back to testing. 

Andy: With the changes you’ve stated, testing, in particular, do you anticipate any changes will remain indefinitely? Do you see any “silver linings” from the new realities we’ve been forced into by the pandemic? 

Alain: Some things will stay out for the sake of convenience for college reps. I think Zoom is something that is going to be a movement going forward regardless of post-pandemic just out of the sake of the opportunity for connectivity. From a cost standpoint, for a college, that’s less of a travel budget to make that happen in order for them to gain access to students. I think the testing movement could fundamentally change in the next two to three years. Colleges have historically used standardized test scores as a crutch to leverage how much scholarship money they are putting out there or to boost their ranking and profile within the reporting systems and media outlets by saying we’ve got kids with an average of a 1550 SAT score or etc. If they are starting to identify the quality of students without that standardized test score and using a more holistic approach, we could see a big shift in how ACT and SAT try to stay in business. It becomes something that is less about the admissions process and more about placement of programming like APs and subject tests. 

Julio: One of the big changes colleges were forced into was to create a lot more digital, interactive content out of necessity because they couldn’t travel, but they still needed to do their jobs. Lots of schools didn’t previously have that type of content because kids interested would come to campus. Some of the biggest schools had nothing, absolutely nothing, in terms of online content until they needed to create it. Now, all schools, regardless of their level of prestige and notoriety, have panels, virtual tours, and other things that allow more students to learn about their institutions from wherever they are at. A big point of access has been created and hopefully, colleges maintain that and see it as a viable recruitment tool moving forward. Also, with all the testing changes, the biggest thing that has been gained is that students have more power and agency. 

Alain: I’d be very interested to see how undergraduate programs may be leaning on their grad programs on how they have dealt with student support because the graduate programs are established in the past decade or so in online learning. The undergrad programs are more dependent on students being on campus for classes. With COVID meaning most students are required to be in an online environment similar to grad programs, I’m interested to see how that may evolve moving forward. 

Bob: Maybe a potential future silver lining…what does this do to costs? If we have an evolving online school community, what is that going to do to colleges who charge so much for activities fees, for tuition dollars…is there a chance (I ask with hope), that this might actually bring costs down for families without taking away too greatly from the college experience. I think it’s something far in the future but when I think about it, does it lead to a future when that middle-class family can afford college again? 

Jasmin: In all this, students have been gifted time and the opportunity to take a deep breath and to not run in 5,000 different directions because they felt that they needed to check off certain boxes to meet certain college admissions standards. It has allowed them to refocus and engage in those activities that were most meaningful to them, to a certain extent. Obviously, we know sports and some other things have been on hold, but I think the time helped them decide if certain activities make sense for them. I love the conversations we’ve been having with students since the pandemic. Back to what Julio said, we are trying to remind them of the amazing things they do––it’s a gentle nudge. Our job is to get to know the students so we can write a letter of recommendation on their behalf and help support them throughout the admissions process. 

Andy: In light of all the changes you mentioned, have the needs of Parker students changed? 

Bob: This affects students every year, but I think I have encountered a few more families than in a normal year who would at least be more interested in entertaining the thought of likely schools not just for admissions but also for costs. It’s a small sample size, but I think it was inevitable if costs do continue to go up. 

Julio: I think the biggest change you’re going to see on how we provide this attention is coming up soon because when decisions start rolling out for these seniors, and they have never set foot on their chosen campus, they’re going to need us to answer questions like, “what is that part of the country like?”, “What is this school’s community like?” it’s difficult for them to have to make certain decisions without experiencing these schools and cities first-hand. I am expecting to hear a lot more from seniors during the springtime when they are (hopefully) able to travel and visit these schools and cities between now and May 1 when they have to make their decisions. 

Andy: Do you anticipate the May 1 national confirmation deadline will be delayed? 

Julio: All deadlines have been loosey-goosey this year. They say one date and then it is extended. I think it will depend on institutions. The super-highly selective that yield their classes every year aren’t going to budge, but the further you go down those tiers, there’s going to be more and more wiggle room. 

Alain: I totally agree. Especially since we don’t know what the spring is going to look like. Students are really heavily-depending on being able to visit college campuses during programming––it’s one thing to hear about the school and it’s another thing to be on campus and see students actively participating. To not have that in the spring would put a wrench into a lot of decision-making for students. I can easily see colleges giving them more time. 

Bob: As these guys have pointed out, you’re going to have some schools that go with the traditional deadline and others that are going to be more flexible and that’s going to cause more confusion. It could be potentially problematic because the kids could have options to both. 

Andy: What are the common needs students have as they chart their path toward college? 

Alain: The initial one is asking ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’ It starts with helping them self-identify what their interests are. They may have explored a number of different subjects up until this point and now they are trying to get guidance on what direction they want to go in. There’s a lot of anxiety that is a part of that so I think our job is to try and alleviate that and to give them a sense that it’s okay to not know what your path is going to be right away. There’s mounting pressure at independent schools for seniors to really identify their career goals now––the students should give themselves some grace because the profession they may jump into five to ten years from now may not exist yet based on how society is changing. Who’s to know what is going to happen in 2030 or beyond? The students need us in a lot of different areas including social and emotional support to help them feel more at ease and empowered with the process and encouraged that the steps they are taking are going to be the right ones. We empower our students to do research on their own so they can be in the driver’s seat. 

Jasmin: Part of the support structure is to remind them of how awesome they are because these students work incredibly hard to get to where they have gotten with Parker’s education. They’ve dedicated themselves so much and at the end of the day, they’ve spent so much time thinking and writing about it that they don’t think they are special anymore. They need that outside perspective to point out to them, ‘do you realize how incredible this is, how unique this is, and how you should lean into this and talk about this?’ They often think that what they do is not enough to impress colleges and it’s not the goal––you’re not trying to impress anybody, you’re just trying to tell your story. A lot of the conversations I have with students tend to gravitate toward that. 

Andy: Ultimately, what are the objectives of the college counseling program at Francis Parker School? 

Jasmin: Our overall objective is to help students and their families navigate the entire process and understand what it means in terms of finding the right fit for them. Often, students and parents are worried about what ‘fit’ means––it’s a loaded question. The reality is having small caseloads here at Parker allows the process to be very individualized. We challenge the students to reflect on what they enjoy most and what their college environment might look like for them. About a third of each class are lifers, so they only know Parker and they have yet to really figure out what opportunities are beyond our walls. Our objective is to make this a very individualized process where students are really going to enter a journey of self-reflection. 

Andy: What are the ways College Counseling offers Parker students that individualized attention you were both talking about? 

Jasmin: We want to get a sense of who each student is through meeting with them to figure out their strengths and what they enjoy most at Parker. There are some students who have known since they were five-years-old what they wanted to be in life and there are others who are still trying to figure it out and need the college experience to really launch into what makes sense for them. What we help do is cater some of those conversations more towards who is that individual student and what do they like. They might not know, so we try to ask those tough questions that help them come to a realization. We give them the time and the space to be real and authentic and to not feel they need to check all these boxes in order to be admitted into college. 

Bob: Aside from the process of applying to schools which might feel like something we could all do as a group, everything is really individualized. It’s all based on the individual. The kids and their families are their own curriculum through this whole process. They need to step back, do some reflection, and understand how they learn best, what their needs may be, and what is in their best interest way before they jump into the search for the right college. We are not looking for the best college, we are looking for the best college for them

Andy: Finally, what is your advice for Upper School students in the college selection process? 

Julio: Be patient. Everything is changing and we are doing our best to keep up with the information. Come see us if you have questions about college!

Alain: Keep an open mind. As you start to go through the process, not every college is going to be the right fit. Being flexible goes along with that patience. 

 Jasmin: Be true to yourself and try new things. There is no prescription about how to get into college but more so, rely on yourself on the types of activities you may want to pursue. I’m a Grade 9 advisor and I always tell my advisees to join something––even if you don’t like it a year from now, at least you’ve tried it. That will help you identify, down the line, one thing from another. 

Bob: Along the same line, I would say trust your gut and shut out the noise. Trust your own instincts and trust your counselor. 

Jasmin: One more thing for Parker parents: check the College Counseling resource board because we post a lot of information to the Parker Portal. All of our presentations are there as well as handouts from grade-level meetings.