The University Network

How To Choose A College Amid COVID-19 — Interview With Sonali Bridges, Founder And President Of Bridges Educational Consulting

TUN sits down with Sonali Bridges, founder and president of Bridges Educational Consulting, to discuss how you can choose the right college amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

TUN: Sonali, thanks so much for joining us.

BRIDGES: Thanks for having me.

TUN: A big part of choosing a college is touring the campus. I know a lot of tours went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic. Are they still virtual? 

BRIDGES: Most of them are, yes. There are a couple of college campuses that are open for students, but they’re not really expecting visitors. So, a lot of schools are offering personalized videos and virtual tours. Students are able to take advantage of them. It’s lovely because you can be safe and you can still visit campuses. 

It’s just important that (students) check in with admissions offices to let them know that they’re participating. 

TUN: Even after the pandemic, I imagine that virtual tours are still going to be really useful for students, especially for those who may not want to or may not be able to tour in-person. So, how can students get the most out of their virtual tours? Is there anything they can do to get a feel for the campus community and the people on campus?

BRIDGES: That’s a great question. Virtual tours have always been around. But, thanks to COVID, they’re now broader and more expansive.

It’s really important that a student actually connects with the college and lets them know that they’re going to be taking the tour and that they are interested in the school. Because, demonstrated interest is still very important for a lot of colleges. And, since you’re not going to be visiting in-person, it’s really important that you connect with them and let them know that you’re participating. 

Taking advantage of virtual tours is the most important thing because not everyone has the finances and the ability to travel to a college and check it out. I always recommend to students that they try to get a feel for the entire institution, not just what the campus looks like. 

Students can request to talk to a current student that is from their state or from their high school. They can request to talk to a professor in the film department or the business program.

This is the time when communicating, and over-communicating, matters because the school needs to know that you really want to be there and that you’re doing your due diligence to get to know every school at its core and finding out if you belong in that community. 

I specifically use the word “belong” because I don’t ever want a student to go to a college where they feel like they have to change to fit there. It’s important that you ask yourself, “how do I be authentically me and belong at this institution.” 

That requires you to do your homework, extra homework. Talk to folks, talk to faculty members. Maybe a faculty member will let you sit in on one of their virtual classes that are going on now. You won’t know that unless you actually reach out and ask for it. 

TUN: Onto the money portion, I know a lot of people’s financial situations have changed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So, can students apply for more aid if they need it? 

BRIDGES:  With students from this past year, if their families lost jobs or anything, schools were encouraging them to reach out and appeal their admissions decisions. 

For the class of 2021-22, they’re going to go through the same financial aid process of applying with the FAFSA, which is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. They should fill that out in October. 

The FAFSA asks for tax returns from two years before. So, what happens in your personal family situation and circumstances aren’t necessarily shown in that FAFSA. It doesn’t tell the full story. So, I encourage families to always write a narrative and let colleges know that their circumstances have changed. Explain how it has changed and how significantly. Explain if they’ve either lost a job or lost income. 

It’s really important that that information is shared with schools, so they can make the best possible decision when it comes to the amount of merit and need-based aid that they are able to give a student. 

Once you get that back that your FAFSA and you are looking at it, you’re able to make changes if needed. You can also write a letter of appeal to your financial aid office. I would say, again, over-communicate with the school about what your needs are because all of them — there are over 2,600 colleges in the country — are doing what they can to make this equitable and accessible for students. They understand the situation we’re in, and they’re willing to work with students and families. 

TUN: Once students get their acceptance letters and their financial aid packages back, they have to compare and contrast their options. That can be confusing. So, are there any online resources that students can use to help them compare and contrast?

BRIDGES: Absolutely. First of all, there’s what’s called the “net price calculator,” which will tell you what you and your family can afford to pay for college. 

But, each school’s financial aid package differs in terms of how much their endowment is, how much they’re able to give or not able to give. So, on each school’s financial aid website, there’s also a net price calculator that does their calculations for them. 

So, students should always do that. I want them to do that before they even apply to schools because you should be aware of whether or not you can afford that school. 

By March, everybody should have a response to whether or not they’ve been accepted and also have their financial aid awards. I would recommend to students that they pay close attention to that, because a financial aid award has four components — grants, loans, scholarship and work-study. 

If you have a college that’s giving you a $50,000 loan, that may not be the best school for you to go into and take that much debt on. But, if a school is offering you at least 25 percent or more of tuition reduction in terms of grants and scholarships or in terms of work-study and working on campus, that’s a good offer. So, just like you make your comparison of which colleges are best for you, you should look at every single school and see who’s offering the most amount of money. 

If there is a school that doesn’t offer you enough but that is your number one choice, it does not hurt to ask if they can match an award or if they can provide you with more money because you want to go to school there. 

All they can do is say, “No, we can’t offer that to you.” But, it would not hurt you to ask and follow up, especially because colleges are so open to doing whatever is equitable and fair for students right now. 

TUN: I know the college application process can be really stressful and anxiety-inducing for students. Do you have any advice for applicants to curb their fears or anxieties about choosing a college right now?

BRIDGES: First of all, trust that you will end up exactly where you’re supposed to be. Trust yourself and bet on yourself, always. 

Secondly, it’s really important, at the very beginning, that you choose the right colleges to apply to. That’s a combination of schools, including target schools, reach schools and far-reach schools.

A student should not be only applying to schools that have a 10 percent admit rate. I don’t care if you have a 4.5 honors GPA, you should not just be applying to far-reach schools. 

You need to choose some schools that are target schools for you, where you have a good 70 percent chance of getting accepted, schools that are reach schools, where you have a 50-50 chance, and then schools that are far-reach, where you maybe have a 20 percent chance of getting in. 

The perfect list of schools means that you would be happy at any single one of them, including the ones that are your target schools. You can see yourself happy, thriving and having a sense of belonging in the community. 

The college admissions process is your first adult decision. You have to make (your decision) thoughtfully and carefully. So, if you’re making good choices at the beginning, then you can manage your expectations on the other end. There are some schools that may say “no,” but there are some that are going to say “yes.” But, you want to be happy with any choice. 

And, when presenting yourself to colleges, make sure that you’re presenting yourself authentically. Don’t write about something random, and don’t worry about how pretty it may sound. Put in what’s in your heart and who you are. 

Colleges still care about good people coming to their schools. They want students who value themselves and their communities, and they want to know what they are going to bring to campus. 

It’s important to be authentic in how you share that. If you do that well and don’t leave any questions left unanswered for an admissions reader, then you should be just fine in the admissions process. 

TUN: Great! Thanks again, Sonali, for joining us today. 

BRIDGES: Absolutely! Thanks for having me. 

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