College Application Tips Amid COVID-19 — Interview With Joe Korfmacher, Director of College Counseling at Collegewise



TUN sits down with Joe Korfmacher, director of college counseling at Collegewise, to discuss tips on applying to college amid COVID-19. 

TUN: Joe, thanks so much for being with us. 

KORFMACHER: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Do you have any overarching advice for students to help alleviate the stress and anxiety they might be feeling heading into a college admission cycle that has been so impacted by COVID-19?

That’s a great question. I would say two things. One, we’re all in this together — the high schools, the colleges, the counselors and, most importantly, the students and their families. We’re all in the same boat here. We’ve never really been in this position before, so no one has an advantage over anyone else right now. We’re all here, and we’re all going to get through it together.

A second thing is, there’s so much unknown here, so much we can’t control. So, control what you can. Do your virtual research. Some schools are allowing on-campus visits. If you’re able to do that safely, do that. But, do your research. Do well in your classes. Every high school is going to be a little different this year with what that looks like — in-person, virtual or hybrid. 

Work on your applications early. We can’t control what the colleges’ decisions will look like this year because of the effects of COVID. You can’t control how well you really know the school, because maybe you weren’t able to visit it right away. And, testing, there’s a lot you can’t control with testing. But when you can, control that. And, I think that you’ll have as good of a (college application) process as possible. 

Now let’s get to a question that a lot of seniors in the class of 2021 are asking. Many colleges and universities are no longer requiring applicants to submit ACT and SAT test scores. Should seniors who haven’t taken one of those tests still opt to take one? 

I think colleges did the right thing by, for the most part, going test-optional. However, I still think if you can take a test in the fall, if it is safe to do so and you feel like you can do it, I would say go ahead and try taking the SAT, ACT and potentially subject tests, because not every college is test-optional. 

For the schools that are test-optional, it could still potentially help if you’re above their middle 50 percent average. It could help with scholarships for some colleges. 

You shouldn’t feel like you’re not going to get into college or you’re not going to get any money, if you don’t take a test. If it’s not safe to do so, don’t do it. But if you have the opportunity to take one of the tests available late summer or fall, I think it is worth it to at least try to take it. 

What if a student already has an SAT or ACT test score and is applying to a test-optional institution. Should that student still submit their scores, or should they leave them out? 

Colleges have public knowledge, which you can find on admissions websites, of the middle 50 percent. For example, a school may have a middle ACT score of 23-28. If you’re within that range or above it and it is a test-optional school, I would go ahead and send those scores. I think it is going to help you. If you’re below the 23 and have pretty good grades, I would hold back from sending the score. 

You really want to do that for each school. See where you’re at for each school. If you’re in the middle 50 percent or higher, send the scores. If not, and they are test-optional, it is probably best this year to hold back those scores. 

In March and April, many of the high schools in the country moved to pass/fail grading systems. So, do you know how college admissions officers will interpret those pass/fail grades? 

At Collegewise, we have a document that goes into detail about this. We reached out to some of the more selective colleges — a lot of colleges will follow their lead — Stanford, MIT, Harvard, the UC system and the California State system as well. We did this back in mid-spring to get a sense of how they would (consider pass/fail grades). And, 100 percent — across the board — said that it will not have a negative effect on students. 

If the high school made the decision to go pass/fail, credit/no credit, the college will respect that and just focus more on the class the student was taking and whether they passed or not. 

I think the classes they are taking senior year will be even more important. I think it is possible that this year, more than ever, schools will wait to see first-quarter grades, if (students) are given grades. If they are still pass/fail, that’s fine. 

We have multiple quotes from admissions counselors at top schools that very clearly say (pass/fail grades) will not affect you negatively at all. 

With many extracurriculars canceled, how can students stand out to admissions counselors and show them their more personal sides? Is this where the essay portion comes in? 

Essays, absolutely. You have that personal statement that most colleges will read. That is really important for them to get a sense of who you are and connect with you. It’s always been an important part of the process, but I think even more so now.

And then schools have supplemental essays where they ask specific questions to get to know even more about you, potentially why you want to go to that college.

And that kind of leads into the second piece, which is just as important, even more so this year. That’s demonstrated interest. In the past, did you visit the college? Did you go to the high school fair? Did you go to a college prep visit when they were at your school during lunch? 

A lot of that couldn’t happen this year because of travel restrictions, but you still have the opportunity to email the admission counselor, to do your research and to sign up for their emails. I think colleges will really be closely looking at each student — how they’re applying and the potential they enrol in the fall if they are offered acceptance. 

Also, we all know APs this year were kind of a mess with the testing online. But, maybe, in place of SATs or subject tests, I think colleges will want to hear about senior year as well. What are you hoping to do? What are you hoping to get involved in if you have the opportunity?

And, again, it comes back to the courses that you’re taking. If you’re applying to selective colleges and you’re a good student, they are going to want to see that you’re taking a competitive course load your senior year as well. 

The Common App is adding a COVID-19 section next year. For the viewers out there who don’t know, the question gives students a space to describe, in 250 words, how they have been impacted by COVID-19. How should students use this section to increase their chances of being admitted to their choice schools?

I think it is important to be really smart here. I think if your summer camp that you were going to be a counselor at was canceled due to COVID, this is probably not a spot for you to write that. But if you’re someone who relied on school, in the late winter and spring, for the internet and lost that access, this is a really good spot to explain that. 

You shouldn’t just use it as a spot to complain. But, I’m really happy to have that there. It should help a lot of students that were truly affected by COVID to let colleges know why. 

At the time we’re filming this, which is about mid-August, many students are starting their senior year. What should those students be doing and thinking about to put themselves in a position to be admitted to their choice schools? 

I think it’s important to look at how you’re applying to each school. There is Early Action and Early Decision. If you’re applying to a school with rolling admissions, I think it’s important this year to get in those applications as soon as you’re ready. Don’t wait as long. 

I believe that college admission counselors will be kind of eager to see quality students come in and potentially offer them acceptance. So, really look at your list, devise a plan on how you want to apply to each college, do a really good job on the application. 

Part of (admission counselors’) jobs is to really get to know the student through the application. I think that will be even more magnified this year. So, make sure that you’re not leaving stones unturned on your application — the activity section, the essays, things like that. Really make sure that the school gets a sense of who you are and why you potentially want to go to that college. 

It’s also important to just give yourself some time to relax. Give yourself a break. The last six months have been really hard. The next few months will be tough too. There’s gonna be a lot of changes. 

School will look different, and you’re adding on applications. It’s going to feel overwhelming at times. So, make sure that you’re giving yourself some healthy outlets. 

You’re talking to people, and, in the end, you realize that it will be okay and you will end up somewhere that’s a really good fit for you. 

I know a lot of students are thinking about taking a gap year next year instead of going straight into college. Would you say that’s advisable right now?

Gap years are great. They’ve been around for a long time. For the right individuals, they could be a great opportunity. But I just want to just make sure that students have a plan. Like, you’re not just, you know, throwing the word gap year out there like, “oh yeah, I’ll take a gap year and figure it out.” 

Have a plan, whether that’s a program that you’re involved with, you’re doing volunteering, you have a job or you’re doing individual research. Whatever it is, have a plan and make sure that you’re communicating with the school that you said that you’re going to go to. Not every college is allowing you to just take a gap year. You need specific reasons. 

You want to make sure that you’re in touch with the school. Let them know what you’re planning. Make sure it’s okay and that you will definitely be able to come back the following year.

As long as you can find something else that would be more productive for you, and you’re in touch with the schools, I think it could be a great possibility for you. 

TUN: Joe, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. 

My pleasure. Happy to be here. And good luck!

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.

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