Navigating Applications Amid a Pandemic: Admissions Advice

Researching programs, submitting an application, and receiving a letter of acceptance from a university is an exciting chapter in the lives of young people and for their families across America. Scouring websites, taking tours, reviewing admission requirements, and then finally applying adds to the anticipation, and probably the anxiety, that surrounds receiving an offer of admission. The professionals in post-secondary Admissions offices who assist students through this process are equally excited about being part of such an important milestone in a young person’s life and academic journey.

Since COVID-19 entered our reality, applicants and students have had to manage their lives, their decisions and their studies in a new way that has involved significant unpredictability, and most Admissions departments have needed to step up their efforts to support them.

This year, we all continue to face unprecedented precarities of a pandemic, making a student’s transition to university far more challenging. The spring was extremely tumultuous, with colleges and universities acting quickly to get students home and to shift to virtual offerings for current students. For folks in Admissions offices, we were forced to make a similar transition, but with an emphasis on servicing prospective students and applicants. It began with the rapid move to digital Open Houses, campus tours, and orientation programs, and has continued into this school year with current student engagement as well as the development of plans for the next cycle.

As many worked through the summer to support the incoming class of 2020, there was as well a need to transition and support their own Admissions teams to a new remote work reality.  This meant everything from investing in new technologies, adjusting work hours to accommodate staff child-care obligations, developing new policies and adjusting old ones based on what could, and couldn’t be done without regular access to campuses. In addition, so many activities that rely on the submission of information and documents from external sources needed to be rethought as to how to make that happen when those parties also did not have access to their usual resources. As the summer passed and the new admissions cycle came into view this fall, many realized that the temporary solutions that were developed in response to the pandemic were likely going to remain in place for the foreseeable future.  

Initially, schools were faced a complete closure of campuses and offices. But this provided time to set up teams in many instances with equipment and IT access to the systems that they need to be able to fulfill their roles remotely. Shortly thereafter some transitioned to a hybrid model of remote and in-person work, which today is likely the most common experience throughout the sector. Staff are spending less time in the office, and those who are there are required to follow the dedicated campus COVID protocols such as social distancing and use of facemasks. A limited ability to have staff working in person has in some cases led to a re-evaluation of the existing processes including creating virtual on-the-spot admission meetings and altering policies relating to timelines and delivery methods of official and unofficial documents – which for some has meant piloting new forms of proof of English language proficiency. Many of these changes required approval through the university governance processes, which is not traditionally known for being especially quick but that in the face of pandemic has shown its ability to be nimble and extremely responsive to the needs to students, faculty, and staff.

While almost every industry has undergone changes resulting from remote work, Admissions departments have also been required to revaluate and adjust policies while also navigating that workplace shift – or as some of us call it: “building the plane as we’re flying it.”. There is a requirement to maintain the integrity of the academic mission, while still recognizing that many students completed their final year in high school in an altered state of learning. As admissions professionals we want future students to rest assured that we are aware of the obstacles they are facing, and have made firm commitments to assessing their academic achievements with those obstacles in mind. It is important for us to recognize that a student’s success this year be taken into consideration differently than it would be in a typical year and it is most important to us that no student will be disadvantaged because of the alternate journey their studies may have taken them on.

If a student’s formal studies occur through an adapted learning approach or environment, if their school’s grading system has been modified, if their access to official transcripts is temporarily impeded, or final exam results are delayed, we are working to offer the greatest possible flexibility to ensure no applicant is left behind. In the admissions world we often operate within rules, equivalencies, standardized tests, and prerequisite course, and the gray area of subjective assessment. In these times, however, there is an increased need to offer significant latitude with respect to the processes and approach to assessing applications.

For example, students seeking admission to Brock University who may have had their SAT or ACT testing dates cancelled will not be disadvantaged as Brock does not use standardized tests for admissions. Instead, the institution can base an initial offer of admission on an unofficial transcript provided digitally, which indicates the grades achieved in each course. It is important to note that official transcripts, and all of the security processes that accompany them, are eventually required to register for courses. Given that students are eager to hear back about their applications and that there are so many impediments to getting document submitted through the usual channels, providing and early conditional offer, and basing it on work completed in the classroom (virtual or otherwise) is something we do to try to meet the needs of students.

Its also very important to not only amend policies, such as what tests are accepted and how transcripts can be submitted, but also looking forward towards policies that consider some of the realities of this current student experience. A new ‘Fresh Start’ option for students is an example that Brock University is piloting as an opportunity for those who may have started college or university studies in 2020, and due to many concurrent challenges of this fall did not have the best experience. Typically admission would be based on the most recent post-secondary experience, but under current circumstances a further look back is taken to see if perhaps the student was more a victim of circumstance, or may not for various reasons not be the best fit with an institution, rather than actually not being qualified to study.

With so many students studying online for the first time, many are exploring multiple options for post-secondary, as well as increasingly hoping to start in different semesters. To accommodate these rolling applications, flexible deadlines for documentation have also been implemented and a variety of exceptions have been made for students who needed to adjust their start term to alternate intake dates.  Also, many institutions are committed to not allowing this pandemic to negatively impact a student’s chance of admission anymore than it already has by offering a Special Consideration option for students who experienced extenuating circumstances that impacted their academic record.  

The adjectives to describe this time have become cliché, but it cannot be emphasized enough how unprecedented this all has been, especially for high school students about to make the transition to college or university. They are missing out on many of the things that define their senior year; sports, proms, graduations, and the typical in-person search for the right post-secondary experience. One thing that they can count on, is that their partners in the admissions offices have redoubled their commitment to facilitating this process for them as smoothy and with as much flexibility as we can. Admissions teams are, and will continue to work to find creative solutions and new strategies to ensure that every student situation is evaluated individually. There will be ongoing modifications to policies and operational changes that advantage students in this process, beyond what has already discussed. Ultimately it is goal of Admissions to provide applicants with a clear, transparent, and equitable admissions process. That part has not changed due to COVID. One aspect of admissions that is different, and is an aspect that perhaps is overlooked at times, is the infusion of more empathy and flexibility in all that we do. We truly do care about our students, and many have faced legitimate academic impediments through no fault of their own. As a community of post-secondary institutions, and also as staff within admissions offices, we want to ensure that their transition to post secondary marks a positive milestone in their lives as we move towards a brighter future together.  

Author Bios:

Christina Bosilo has worked for more than 15 years in higher education and is currently the Director of Admissions at Brock University.
Matt Melnyk is the Director of Student Recruitment at Brock University and has worked in higher education for more than 12 years.