How Counselors and Teachers Can Guide Juniors and Seniors Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic and time spent in remote learning affected students of different ages in different ways. 

Elementary teachers are reintroducing basic classroom behaviors, while middle school teachers are guiding students through the uncomfortable years of puberty made worse by social isolation. However, some of the students with the highest stress levels right now are high school juniors and seniors. These are students who are trying to prepare for their futures during a pandemic, which makes an already trying time even more anxious. 

The coronavirus changed everything from AP exams to college applications. Here are a few hurdles facing today’s juniors and seniors — and what teachers and school counselors can do to help students overcome them.

Students Will Navigate an Uncertain SAT Future

Every year, millions of students sit for the SAT and ACT, two standardized exams meant to highlight how qualified a person is for college. When the pandemic first became serious in early 2020, many colleges announced that they would skip the testing requirement on the application process — a reprieve for students who had their tests canceled because of the health crisis. 

High school students are now wondering if they should take those tests, which are still considered optional by many colleges, and how much they actually matter.

“Despite going ‘test optional,’ nearly all test optional colleges will carefully consider standardized test scores when they are made available by applicants,” says Elizabeth LaScala, an independent education consultant. “In general, most students with profiles strong enough to think they have some chance of admission to more competitive test optional colleges should try to prep for and attain strong test scores to enhance their applications.” 

It’s likely that SAT prep classes will still be packed this fall with students still opting to take these tests. However, some high schools are already noticing the benefits of skipping this requirement. Students from lower-income areas and rural schools are applying to colleges they are interested in — without writing the SAT or ACT — and many are getting accepted. 

“I think that the ‘test optional’ movement really changed things and it allowed these historically selective schools to have really diverse applicant pools, which they often lacked in the past,” says Lindsay Schnell, national correspondent for higher education at USA Today. “And I think we all agree that’s a positive.”

Schnell explains that many students have started to apply to “stretch” schools that they otherwise would avoid because of their low test scores. She has talked to students who were surprised by their acceptance letters at places that seemed out of their reach. 

Still, a college application is like a resume: You want to do everything to stand out and convince colleges that you are a good fit. Some students told Schnell that they were advised to submit test scores even to “test optional” schools because those results could be the deciding factor between two applicants with similar grades and backgrounds.

“The tests offer value in terms of the skills they assess and the predictions they make, even as they remain unfair to certain groups of people who haven’t been positioned to master those skills,” says Matthew Pietrefatta, founder of tutoring and test prep company Academic Approach. “This leaves colleges that value both diversity and well-prepared freshmen trying to strike a delicate, perhaps impossible, balance between the two.”

Teachers and counselors may find the list of test-optional colleges, prepared and frequently updated by the team at Expert Admissions, helpful. Along with a link to each university’s policy, this site also has a date range for how long colleges won’t require test scores as part of the application process. For example, Gonzaga University is permanently test-optional while the University of Notre Dame is currently test-optional through 2023. 

Male Pupil Studying At Desk In Classroom; concept: how counselors and educators can help juniors and seniors

Students Are Weighing the Value of AP Classes

Along with SAT tests, many high school students take Advanced Placement (AP) classes to make their applications more appealing. These classes culminate in exams at the end of the year, which can help students earn college credits. 

In some ways, the pandemic has made AP courses more accessible with the help of remote learning. Some students in Massachusetts, for example, are able to use online learning this fall to take the courses they want. Previously, these schools in rural areas didn’t have enough demand to keep an AP class running. 

“The fear factor of using technology evaporated very quickly,” says Bob LePage, Massachusetts’ assistant secretary for career education. “So all of a sudden, there was an infrastructure that could be leveraged more fully than there might have been literally just a year and a half ago.”

Despite the increase in accessibility, some people question the value of taking AP classes. Do they really help students? Are they giving them college-level experience? 

“Students take AP exams to save money,” writes Nicholas Tampio, professor of political science at Fordham University. “One student at the University of Southern California says that AP credits saved her family nearly $60,000 in college costs. Few families can afford to ignore costs when paying for college, particularly when COVID-19 has put a burden on many families’ budgets.”

The ability to graduate a semester early (or even a year early) because of AP credits means students can save significantly on tuition. These savings can also help students who want to pursue advanced degrees, like a Master’s or doctorate. 

However, the idea that students college credits for AP classes is starting to fall apart. The team at Unlocking Time says fewer colleges are letting students skip ahead based on AP scores. If students do want admission to upper-level courses, they can simply take placement tests; however, that strategy can be itself problematic.

Packing on AP classes might help with admissions or passing placement tests, as it shows that students can handle the rigor of advanced coursework, but these extra classes also place stress on students to perform.

“Even if a high school doesn’t require a student to take the AP exam, there is pressure on students to not only follow through, but score high on these exams,” says Sara Harberson, founder of Application Nation and Admissions Revolution. However, “AP scores are never required for admission. So as much as high schools and students believe these exams are the be all, end all, they are not.” 

Harberson sometimes encourages students to withhold their scores, especially when a three or four could actually hurt their chances of admission.

student writes on whiteboard; concept: how counselors and educators can help juniors and seniors

There is More Competition in the Application Process

With students from rural and lower-income areas applying to multiple schools in hopes that the test-optional admissions process will help them, there is more competition overall.

“This year many top schools reported getting a significant increase in the number of applications from smaller schools from under-represented areas or rural areas,” says Ajay Singh, cofounder of admission counselling platform Stoodnt. “This diversity in the applicant pool is here to stay and will impact the changing profile of admitted students over the years.” 

Schools are taking a more holistic approach to admissions. They want to look at the student’s potential as a whole, not just their GPA and test scores.

Furthermore, some students are applying to more schools to increase their chances of acceptance. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment of uncertainty, causing students to send their applications to their backup schools (and the backups beyond that).  

“Students are hedging their bets by applying to more colleges as a result of COVID-induced uncertainties and the unknowns surrounding how and if test scores are being considered,” says Robert Masa, cofounder of consulting firm Enrollment Intelligence Now. “Families are also increasingly concerned about costs and value, so applying to more colleges gives them potentially more choices or more chances of being admitted to an institution they can afford.”

Not only are current students competing for admission with each other, but they may face limited opportunities because of past graduates. Some students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who took a year off are getting ready to return in the coming year.  

“Many demographic groups didn’t apply in the same numbers that were expected, largely due to the pandemic,” says Kevin Newton, founder of An Education Abroad. “This happened at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.” 

On the lower end, some students put off applying until their families were more financially stable. On the higher end, affluent students took gap years so they could have a more normal college experience after the pandemic.  

With all of these applications, colleges and universities aren’t sure how many accepted students will actually attend in the fall. If many thousands of students are accepted to multiple schools, then some schools will be left with lower numbers. 

“As schools attempt to determine yield (the number of accepted students who will attend), many institutions admitted smaller classes this year compared to last year,” says Julie Raynor Gross, founder and president at admissions consulting firm Collegiate Gateway. “For some, this is a reaction to a larger than expected yield in years prior, or part of a plan to admit more students from the wait list, once the initial admitted group has responded.”

smiling cheerleader with arms raised holding pom-poms; concept: how counselors and educators can help juniors and seniors

Students Will Experience Mental Health Challenges

The college application process is one of the biggest stressors for high school students. They spend years taking AP exams, studying for the SAT, and packing their resume full of extracurricular activities in hopes of gaining acceptance to one or two universities. 

“The real (and perceived) competition to get into a desired school can be crushing as students watch social media light up with their peers announcing college acceptances,” says Jamey Heit, cofounder and CEO at interactive writing solution Ecree. “Everyone from students to parents to teachers experience the tense atmosphere, yet all seem to struggle to talk openly about what’s going on.”

ESL teacher Nancy Wolf says some students completely shut down as the deadline to apply approaches. Others hide by focusing solely on their favorite activities instead of working on their application. One parent said their child had their first panic attack a week before the admissions results were announced.  

This stress has been exacerbated by the pandemic, causing an uptick in visits to school therapists and counselors.  

“Students will experience the effects of a year-plus of disruption to their daily lives, and the effects on their mental health, for years to come,” writes Brianna McGurran at Forbes Advisor. “The fall semester will be a continued test for how administrators support students’ mental well-being as the pandemic comes to an end.”

From the outside, it might look like students are happy and carefree as they re-enter the classroom. They will gossip about prom and make plans to attend Friday night football games. However, under the exciting social buzz, many students are left feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and scared for the future. By being aware of the specific challenges your students face, teachers and counselors can take steps to guide them on the best path for their particular needs. 

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