With so many unknowns for fall, how is one counselor advising prospective college students?

High school seniors are thinking about what their education will look like this fall. The coronavirus pandemic upended everything in their lives — proms, graduation, and even college. A gap year is possible, but where to go and what to do? 

KCRW speaks to Gabrielle Dorsey, a college counselor and the executive director of Bridges Educational Consulting in LA. 

KCRW: You'd usually be busy this time of year, meeting with parents and students, helping them prep and apply to colleges. What are you doing these days?

Gabrielle Dorsey: “It is still busy in terms of rising seniors getting their essays done for their applications. But it's certainly quieter in terms of them having their usual summer activities and being able to take advantage of internships and camps and volunteer.”

What are the big concerns of your students and parents? 

“The biggest concerns are just the unknown[s]. They have no idea what it's going to look like, in terms of the application process for rising seniors in the fall; how much or how little testing will play a role. Even as many schools are announcing test-optional policies, should they still sit for the exam if it's available? And of course, the seniors that just graduated, for some schools, they really still haven't given a clear picture of what the fall is going to look like. So what is their freshman year going to consist of is a  big question.”

A big question is whether their college freshman year will be all online or a mix? 

“Exactly. They won't have, of course, the traditional college experience their first year. And a lot of them are kind of grieving that.”

Are some students thinking of taking a gap year? 

“We had a lot of questions around gap years this year. Far more than usual. And those conversations were difficult because the reality is: What would a gap year look like? Many of the usual gap year programs are not running or they're going to be remote as well. And so we really had to kind of flip the question back to the family. Is this worth it for you? Would you rather be at home doing kind of the college program, or would you rather be at home doing some type of gap year activity?

For the most part, students decided to kind of stick with it unless there was some extenuating circumstance. We did have a couple that decided to do a gap year activity. But for the most part, it really just seems like the best idea is to stick with the college program for now, assuming that it's safe.”

Gap year programs usually cater to students who want to travel abroad, volunteer, or get a job. What are they offering now?

“Most of the ones that I have seen myself have shifted to a virtual model. Some of them are offering speakers to come in, activity-based virtual interactions, where they can still interact with other students and with adult facilitators. But of course, it is not the same as doing something in person. But the idea is to still give them some sort of learning opportunity, to expose them to new ideas, help them talk about new topics, that sort of thing.”

What does this mean for rising seniors who will apply to colleges? Are colleges looking at different formulas for accepting students?

“It's interesting that you use the word formula. I always discourage families from thinking about it that way. Because there really isn't a specific formula to get into a college or a university. There are a lot of different factors that go into it. And most of my students are looking at schools that are going to be reviewing their applications holistically. So they really are looking at each of those elements. 

Right now, the biggest question for families is really about standardized testing, because all of the other elements of the application process are the same. Colleges have thankfully been very communicative about how flexible they're going to be in terms of how this past semester’s transcript looks. Since many schools have had to think about that a different way, had to assess grades a different way, some schools decided to go pass-fail for the spring semester. And so we've been able to feel pretty confident that colleges are going to be very flexible about understanding that context. 

The standardized testing piece is a whole other conversation. ACT and SAT are two different companies. They've been very different in terms of how they've communicated with students, families and counselors about how the testing process will continue. ACT still attempted to do some July testing, and I mostly heard a lot of angst about how that went. SAT is still planning to run August-September tests. How safe that will [sic] be to run? Whether or not they will actually be able to run — is still a question mark. 

Many schools have said that they’re test-optional, but some have not said that. Some are holding fast that they need testing. So there's just a lot of concern … for many students that have not finalized what their college list looks like at this point. They're trying to figure out what's the best strategy. 

And for the most part, we have encouraged them. If it is safe and possible for you to sit for at least one test, just do it, so you have a score to work with. And if there are colleges that remain stubborn about that testing policy, we will have that to work with if we can. 

But I have been highly critical of colleges who have not made themselves more flexible in that testing policy, simply because it is already one of the most stressful components for students. I don't see a strong value in that score. We all know that students are far more than their test score. And given everything that's going on, that anxiety is so much higher, and their safety could be at risk at this point.”

The UC system is not requiring SATs or ACTs until at least 2024. Cal State suspended it for this upcoming school year.  Will other school systems follow suit and drop standardized testing?

“I'd be lying if I said that I didn't hope that that's exactly what happens. I really, really hate standardized testing, especially the ACT and SAT. They've been proven time and time again to not be consistent or to be equitable, in terms of socioeconomic status, in terms of race and ethnicity, when you look at the breakdown of how students are scoring. And for schools that continue to argue that this test can be predictive for them for success at their campuses, I really have to ask them exactly what that means. 

The answer is no, and it really is no. If they’re test-optional, you do not have to submit a test score. 

Now as a counselor, if the student has already taken the test, and we look at that score, and we feel like that is a strong score for the schools that they're considering, I encourage them to send it. Because if it's a high data point that we feel it could be beneficial, then absolutely. Let's get that out there. 

But if we feel like this would be average in that pool or this wouldn't help you in some way, then we're not going to send it. They're not going to be at a disadvantage for not having that score at a test optional institution.”

No one's going on college tours?

“That one is pretty much over for right now. It's been interesting to see how colleges have responded to that. Some have built some very robust virtual programming, which is actually pretty awesome. … I too am mourning the college tour … As counselors, we go on these college tours as well, just to make sure that we can speak about these colleges to our students. And it certainly does have a significant impact on how you understand that college, what you take away about the culture. 

… But I do see the value and having these really significant, tremendous programs that they're running online for students who wouldn't have been able to visit that campus otherwise. They now have much more at their fingertips in terms of resources, being able to talk to current students and admission officers virtually.”

Are top tier colleges easier to get into than in previous years?

“I think in some ways it feels that way. When you have some of the top institutions on the planet going test-optional, there’s definitely a level of excitement of ‘Okay, like maybe this is attainable for me.’ 

But the reality is, I think it's going to be just as competitive as it has been before. They’re still going to be attracting some of the strongest students around the country. So they still need to put in that same amount of work to their applications, writing strong essays, presenting their best selves.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski