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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

Moving Things Forward: Re-framing the College Process Around Uncertainty & Unrest

I trust you are all staying well during what continues to be a challenging, often exhausting time in an ever-unpredictable, heart-breakingly sad and intensely beautiful world. I am missing my students scattered far and wide, but am so very glad to be able to stay connected to them via regular FaceTime sessions. I am particularly grateful for the chance to accompany them on their journeys, meet them where they are, and bear witness to their incredible growth in all ways.

There is so much going on these days — suffice it to say that everything is moving, changing fast, so I'm just going to get right to it: How can students gain traction in the college process during a time of so many unknowns and so much unrest?

The Common App is set to open on August 1st again this year. Could that date change? YES. But expect it to launch some time in August. 

What’s New? You can watch this lengthy, exhaustive webinar on the Common App site to get the full scoop, or read on for the more important deets.


Embrace This as a Process

Check your Expectations at the Door. Everything feels different now. The college process has always been a journey — of exploration and self-discovery — but now it may feel very different and uneasy. It's hard to know what kind of future awaits. That sense of uncertainty has always been at play, but is more so now, and it's all we can do to stay in the here and now, to tend to the things we can control, investing in the process rather than any unrealistic expectation or outcome. I encourage students to imagine that through this work they are creating a landscape of possibility for themselves and deepening their understanding of their place in the world. It takes time to do this, and each journey will be unique to the individual, a gradual unfolding of self requiring trust and a certain amount of letting go.

Envision your journey taking shape before you. You have options, even if they are constantly shifting. Shift with them. You want to be able to open your map so there are many different pathways before you, not just one. We all have to do this now. A constant re-imagining of how and what we are in the world.

Start talking about and imagining the possibilities. Brainstorm. Do the dream work. I could do this. I could do that. Anything goes during this initial phase. Write down all options, even if you're unsure of their viability: 2 year college then transfer. 4 year college. Gap year. Learn a trade. Paid work. Community Organizing. Where are the jobs? What are the Gap year possibilities these days? Then think about what's possible — and start doing the more systematic, rigorous work of making things happen for yourself. So much will depend on being creative and growth-minded and brave, with some luck sprinkled into the mix. As always.

It’s a big world. Where to begin? You need to know enough about how the college process all works to know what questions to even ask. Take it step by step. Give it the time it deserves. And let me know how I can help.

Get Grounded in Who You Are

This We Know: Life is a perpetual journey — for figuring, wondering, creating and recreating your path, your life map, over and over again. Everything is changing so fast, so figuring out who you are and gaining traction in this ever-shifting landscape of uncertainty can be exquisitely challenging for young people. College, despite the adjustments the world of higher ed is having to make around how best to accommodate the full scope of student needs within the realities of an ongoing pandemic, economic collapse, and widespread unrest and disenfranchisement, can and should still be about growing self-awareness — building tools and cultivating skillsets, gaining experience, knowledge, and inspiration that will foster deeper, more holistic growth around being your most authentic self, doing what you love, and actively seeking out opportunities that will enable you to go off map, explore, and discover new things about yourself and the world. Where are you needed? What does the world need from you know? How best to cultivate your strengths and skills while still learning new things so you can contribute your best self? 

Start Here. Imagine: you are standing at a threshold, embarking on a journey into yourself as you head deeper into the college process, perhaps, or simply into figuring out life beyond high school — your first real foray into a space you create for yourself, by yourself. To do so successfully, with confidence and ease, especially when feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, scared, excited, and everything in between, requires being able to look back at who you’ve been and decide which parts of your life and yourself you’re going to take with you — and what you’re going to leave behind. 

Start Developing your Activities List. A good first step is to look at what you’ve been doing with your time the last several years. Focus on your high school years, but go back, too, into what you loved to do as a little kid that made you lose all sense of time. I love helping students do this work. We make Activities Maps on paper, with their name in a circle in the center and all their many activities (anything that holds their attention or takes up their time) as off-shoots encircling them (you can categorize them loosely into sections, of paid and unpaid work, sports, music, arts, travel, summer programs, academic strengths/interests, family, childhood loves, clubs and affinity groups, activism, community service and outreach, stuff you do just for fun, etc). This should be considered a work in progress, something students can add to as they go. Seeing it all in one place can enable a greater understanding of who they are and who they’ve been — and who they want to be. It can help them see the overlap, the patterns in what they do, and all the ways their activities reflect and convey who they are to the world. As well, their stories are often embedded in their activities, so simply talking or thinking about the activities can often unleash stories that can be written down and explored later in focused writing exercises in their notebooks for possible development into college essays and supplements. As well, this is a great way to jumpstart the Activities section of the Common App. In order to chose your ten most cherished activities, you have to take some time to really consider all there is in the mix. Give yourself that time.

As a first layer, ask yourself which activities, which parts of yourself you want to deepen. Which have meant the most to you? Which perhaps have felt inauthentic, not in line with who you really are and who (or how) you want to be in the world, or no longer hold interest for you? Where might you want to step up your engagement or commitment? Taking a little more time with this can help you figure out what activities you might want to cut loose, trim, let go of — or re-invest in over the summer or during the next academic year. It may also help you decide which programs you most want to look for in a college, which classes you want to take, etc. The Activities Map is something my students and I come back to over and over again.

Establish a Daily Practice of Notebooking

This is perhaps the most important thing students can be doing this summer to prepare themselves for the kind of writing the college application requires, and the kind of self-understanding that the college process insists on. Get a notebook just for your college notebooking. I like composition (or decomposition) notebooks best for size and handling and how different they are from a notebook you might use in Chemistry class. 

Make it your own. I offer a special Set up Your College Notebook session with my students, a cut and paste old school-styled way to set up their college notebook in their vision so they feel more invested to use it. It's a great first step at creating a space that is totally their own — reflective and symbolic of the space they are creating as they move through their college journey. Interested in getting the materials for this? Let me know. What’s most important is that you Start Writing. Every day. This is a different kind of writing than you might be used to. This is just for you. Quiet your inner editor — and just write. See what happens.

There’s a certain kind of magic that can happen on the page, after all — science-backed even, ha, given the ongoing research on the benefits of writing things down by hand. The notebook provides a safe space for students to go inward, explore, unearth their stories, break open those stories and find meaning there, cultivate their distinct voice, and practice the kind of writing that the college essay and supplements requires. I facilitate and guide my students through a combination of free writing, mapping, timelining, and other fun, interactive, creative guided exercises that build greater self-awareness, sense of place, authenticity — and strong writing skills — all the while developing a strong college essay and supplements. 

I’m offering a weekly class on Notebooking as well, with regular free writing exercises and prompts as well as guided exercises to help students get the most out of this kind of writing. I’ll be writing more about this as an essential tool for everyone in future posts.

As the poet and philosopher John O'Donohue wrote in his book The Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, "“Where you belong should always be worthy of your dignity. You should belong first in your own interiority. If you belong there, and if you are in rhythm with yourself and connected to that deep, unique source within, then you will never be vulnerable when your outside belonging is qualified, relativized, or taken away. You will be able to stand on your own ground, the ground of your soul, where you are not a tenant, where you are at home. Your interiority is the ground from which nobody can distance, exclude, or exile you. This is your treasure.” 

Helping students find their treasure is one of the best parts of my work — and notebooking can be a wonderful path to that sense of belonging to one's interiority, to the blessings and gifts of solitude, to knowing oneself.

Explore Colleges & Fine Tune Your List

Ok, so you can’t really go college-visiting this summer and enjoy all the usual in-person info sessions and campus tours, but you can still take advantage of other ways to learn about the schools you might be interested in. If you are an athlete hoping to be recruited, remember that many coaches have been furloughed and may be difficult to reach. Having many of the usual connection points upended can be frustrating and challenging — so be patient and be creative. There are other ways to position yourself well in the process so you are feeling more in control of what must feel like an increasingly out of control time in your life. The most important thing is that you let your list co-evolve as you gain understanding into who you are and what you want. Your growing self-awareness should inform your college list, not vice-versa.

Car Tours/Walk-a-bouts might still be an option for schools in your immediate area. Being able to actually visit schools in person is up in the air, and will depend on what states open up and how safe and comfortable you feel. It will be different, of course, with fewer students on campus and things perhaps eerily quiet. Or maybe things will change in the next few weeks. We simply don't know. Given the probability that it will be harder to get a sense of how a certain school's campus speaks to you, or not, how it hums with its own particular brand of community and culture, you’ll have to rely on other ways to feel it out.

Do Your Research so you know enough about each school to ask good questions and focus your time. Go beyond the admissions page on school websites. Investigate pages of school clubs and groups you might be interested in, academic programs and departments, etc. Check out school and specific school group Instagram pages, explore Reddit threads to get a feel for what’s being talked about behind the more presentational platforms. It’s a big virtual world out there; your task is to gather impressions from a lot of different sources, capture them in notes, and take your time to make sense of them. Checking in and reaching out to people you might know who attended the school or have graduated recently can also be a great way to get specific questions answered or just hear more about the school in general, whether it be culture, community, academic programs, or overall feel. What’s freshman year like? What might it be like within this new context of unknown starting times and a possible return to a more online model? Pay attention to what the school is saying about the coming school year and their plans to open campus to students — and how. Pay attention to activism on campus, especially if it's important to you. How is the school responding to the current crises at work in the world? Sustainability. Social injustice. Whatever's important to you, or has become more important to you — pay attention to that.

Take Notes in your College Notebook and don’t leave anything out. No detail is too small or insignificant. Red flags, questions, things that made an impression — even if you don’t know why. You can circle back through your notes and keyboard them for later processing in your Notes document in Schools Folder in College Folder.

Visit Schools “Virtually” to take advantage of the many programs they are offering for students and families to get to know them better. Most are non-evaluative and strictly informational, with options for one-on-one counseling, group Q & A, virtual “chats” right on the website, and information sessions.

The NACAC, or the National Association College Admissions Counseling, offers specific updates through the Coronavirus lens on their site, Coronavirus and College Admissions, as well as updates by school, here: Status update. Enter the name of the college to find out what they’re offering in terms of virtual visits and events, as well as what’s changed application-wise. This is super helpful, and a real time saver. The NACAC site offers Secondary School updates as well.

Get Organized

Create Google folders for all your College Stuff, ie, Liz: COLLEGE. Keep them updated. Create folders for the Common App (and an Essay folder and Activities document in that) and Schools.

For each school you’re interested in, create a folder and start copying and pasting deadlines and requirements from their admission sites into a document in that folder. Pay particular attention to what might have changed: SAT and ACT as well as SAT subject test requirements (many schools are going test optional), what they are offering virtually in lieu of in-person visits, etc. This way, you can let the most up to date information inform what you spend your time and energy on.

Designate Regular Time and Space for College Work and Explorations. This way, you can be rest assured that you will have time to get it done — something to count on! If something comes up that needs your prompt attention, tend to it right away; otherwise, save it for your regular designated college time. It can free up headspace for more important things, minimize overwhelm and anxiety, and streamline the work necessary token things moving along. The College folders, as well, reinforce this idea of compartmentalization. I recommend keeping a summer calendar to map out important dates, set some goals for yourself, and keep an eye on that more corrugated sense of time that seems to have all but vanished these days as a helpful way to more deliberately move towards that Common app launch date. You can download and print blank calendar pages and glue them right into your college notebook.

Testing Updates

The New-Look Test Optional: How can colleges possibly assign any weight to the ACT or SAT (or the AP for that matter, with so much widespread cheating) this year? Sigh. Given the disruptions to so many aspects of life, and in particular, to even having the headspace and resources to study and prepare for the tests, and actually be able to take the tests amidst ongoing cancelations (and being able to count on anything at all, ack), it might not make a lot of sense to spend too much time trying to make a go of it. Engineering schools will no doubt continue to expect applicants to submit test scores, but most schools are relaxing their testing requirements, with many going test optional. Let’s hope the good sense continues and they stick to it. Students do not need to worry about this kind of testing malarky this year. Or next. Or ever.

For students wishing or needing to make a go of it, (and there are still some good reasons to prepare for the test, though it is complicated — more on that later), the College Board, who runs the SAT, has canceled all summer test dates and will instead be giving the test every month starting in August through the end of the year: Aug. 29, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, Nov. 7, and Dec. 5. Students can begin registering in May. Joy.

The ACT, too, is planning on shifting its test dates, and current dates are test-center specific, with some canceling dates and others doing their best to accommodate them. It is all up in the air. Best to devote your time and energy to something else — like notebooking so you can develop your college essay from the inside out.

One new development is that UC schools have gone test optional, not only because of the disruptions due to the pandemic, but because the tests are “unfair to poor, black, and hispanic students.” Yes! They have forever been unfair and biased, despite the ongoing adjustments, contributing to the growing divide between students who have the resources to pay for test prep, multiple seatings, etc., and those who do not. “These tests are extremely flawed and very unfair,” said Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a member of the board who supported the decision, adding, “Enough is enough.” This will further deepen the impact on both the ACT and the College Board, who governs the SAT, both of whom have lost significant economic gains because of the pandemic. Let us not forget that this is a money game, and always has been.

Inside Higher Ed is running Live updates on their site as well.

Take Time to Understand What to Expect on the Common App

The essay prompts have not changed, and are really unimportant, given that you can write about pretty much anything at all. So please don’t stress about them! If you want some guidance, please be in touch. There are many things that make for a strong college essay — and presents a great opportunity to slow down and do the work on better understanding some particular aspect of growth you’ve experienced through one of your many stories that has made you who you are. The unearthing, the unpacking, the telling of the story is the important part. I have lots of ideas for you. Be in touch.

What’s Changed 

The pandemic could very well take center stage in many students’ essays, but they will also have a chance to share how the pandemic has impacted them in a new 250 word section housed In the “Additional Information” section of the Common app. According to the Common App, students will be able to respond — or not — to the following question in their own way:

“Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. 

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N

  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.”

Students will also have the chance to report additional types of impact in a more detailed FAQ that will cover “illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and shifting family obligations.”

School counselors, too, will also have space (500 word max) to share how the pandemic has affected their school community. This should offer some reassurance to students wondering how colleges will consider transcript changes etc. and take some of the pressure off to have to explain it all themselves. I imagine the entire spring 2020 semester will have a giant * next to it. How could it not?

“Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to: 

  • Grading scales and policies

  • Graduation requirements

  • Instructional methods

  • Schedules and course offerings

  • Testing requirements

  • Your academic calendar

  • Other extenuating circumstances

Your students will have a similar space in their application to share how these events have affected them personally.”

Given the ongoing changes and the probability that things will continue to shift as we move through the summer months, the only thing we can really control is the work we do on our own, and particularly, the work we do on ourselves — establishing healthy practices of solitude, notebooking, tuning in and listening to ourselves, and continuing to know what’s in our heart and headspace can help us feel more in control, engendering gratitude and self-awareness, and informing purpose and direction as we get ready to step through that threshold. Taking good care of ourselves as well remains paramount to being able to not just survive but thrive during this time of unrest — so please keep doing that above all else. Loosen your grip on expectations and outcomes and instead, embrace the slow down. Trusting in the seeds of growth and opportunity embedded in the ongoing recalibration on both a personal and collective scale will give yourself the chance to unfold over time in ways that will be no doubt enduring and fortifying, building resilience and confidence, and the ability to keep on remapping and remaking your world, our world. With everything going on in the world, we need this more than ever.

Be in touch if you need anything at all. As a reminder, I offer free 15 minute phone consultations; sign up on my website here. Be well!

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