Researching Colleges During the COVID-19 Crisis:

How do you start?

The school year is ticking away. In a few weeks, this school year will close in what has been an unexpected and unconventional way. Virtual learning has delivered remarkable innovations to the field of education, pushing our students and institutions of learning to adapt and develop new skills required both for the implementation and utilization of technology, helping students and administrators attempt to navigate self-motivated, task-driven action. This is not to say that virtual learning has not come without its hurdles, but the students, teachers, and educational consultants have met these challenges head-on, ensuring that processes are curated to deliver efficiency and skill. 

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One of the challenges that students, particularly juniors, face is how to navigate the college application process without visiting campuses, participating in tours, and completing in-person interviews with either alumni or admissions representatives of admissions. This begs the question, how do you start researching colleges in a virtual world?

It is a common practice to create a dynamic list of schools to facilitate research. This list should include a smattering of data points optimizing the decision-making process. These include location, size, and program specialization, so that a student and parents may be better informed when deciding on an institution of higher learning. In order to select the “right” environment understanding different aspects of continuing education and how each suits an individual’s learning style, personality, and future career plans are essential for growth and exploration.

At Astute Academics, we often recommend the use of websites like US News and World Reports, which provides data points for colleges and universities, or Naviance, which provides students with information and can be integrated into their guidance counselors’ processes. After determining a climate (warm or cold), student body size (big or small), program offerings (IEP support), or accelerated academic paths, students and parents should then compile a list based on which universities fit both these criteria and are within varying competitive levels for the student (using academic record and standardized testing as touchstones).

Typically, the three sub-groups are typically called safety (student would likely gain admission), target (student has a 50% chance of gaining admission), and reach (student may gain admission with a full, comprehensive profile). While the total number of schools on each student's list will vary, it is crucial to ensure there are enough safety and target schools so that a maximized return on investment (ROI) can be presented through scholarships and merit offerings. Likewise, it is important to balance safety and target options with reach choices so that options are present. At the end of the day, students and parents will pay each school’s application fee through either the common or coalition application websites or the school’s own website. While it is important to apply to safety, target, and reach schools, it is important to apply to schools that the student is serious about considering. Having options without them being viable or of real interest proves to be a detriment to the long term goals of the student and is a financially imprudent decision. 

So how does all of this change with our new virtual landscape? First and foremost is the absence of in-person tours. In place of physical tours, many colleges and universities have not only loaded virtual tours of their campuses, but they also schedule guided virtual-tours so that students may participate in a more structured way. Both of these options are great ways to get a feel for the campus and the amenities available to students. Particular attention should be awarded to the planned tours as they provide prospective students with an opportunity to show interest and be "tracked" by the university. This means that prospective applicants have the opportunity to begin engagement with universities and submit their name, email address, and open an admissions file, showing colleges that their interest is genuine. By doing due diligence a prospective student can ensure that not only is a school the right fit for them, but also demonstrate that their interest in the institution is real and informed. 

When working through the college application process, as in all areas of life, seeking and striking a balance is integral. This leads to an often overlooked quality of college counseling, which is understanding the annual statistical alterations in the application process. These numbers apply to admissions counselors, guidance counselors, and prospective students and relate to the applicant size, competitiveness, in addition to a host of other factors. Each year universities struggle with offering admission to the right number of students to fill but not overload their facilities. Unfortunately, this is not an exact science as each year provides new trends in who accepts and declines offers. The advent of virtual learning will most assuredly alter the formula with projections estimating that one in six seniors planning on deferring their freshman year. The best way to explore all options is through preparation, which involves creating a virtual footprint of interest with prospective colleges through emails, social media, and correspondences with coaches and/or admissions representatives. Actionable, and trackable, contact points are the first way to show them you are a serious, and dedicated candidate for admittance. 

Whether a student has been researching colleges for the last three years or is just beginning, exploring all options is imperative. No two students are identical, just as no two universities are the same. While the goal of higher education is to seek the enrichment of the student’s mind, the relationship between students and the institution must be synergistic in order to produce forward-thinking, capable, and motivated graduates. Choosing a list of schools to apply to is just the beginning of a long and complex journey towards a successful academic future and career.  

For help navigating this process, call (973-908-0741) or email ( our team of Astute counselors! We are always here to help. After all: your success is our success!