In this Remote Roundtable recap, we share the insights of four experts who each bring a unique perspective to the college and career readiness process. They offer a number of useful tips, strategies, and resources that you won’t want to miss.

The college application process has always been fraught for administrators, educators, and counselors, not to mention students and their families. Do students have all the information they need to apply to the right schools at the right time?

Do they need to take the SATs or ACTs? Are they prepared? Do they know the deadlines for submitting transcripts and financial aid documents? Have they written the essays? 

In the 2020/21 school year, these concerns are even more heightened. With new protocols for in-school, at-home, and hybrid learning this fall, counselors and educators may have challenges supporting students as they go through the college application process. 

Our remote roundtable experts weigh in on how you can make things easier. 

Tonni Grant is a postsecondary support specialist for Fort Worth ISD. 

Amanda Nolasco is a school counselor specialist for the Arizona Department of Education.

Tom Ehlers is president and founder of Method Test Prep. 

Dan Epstein is a user experience (UX) researcher for Xello. 

Here is their best advice.

Watch Webinar: Empower Students to Have Agency in the College Application Process

What are the biggest challenges for students and counselors when it comes to the college application process this year? 

The panelists agreed that this year has the potential to be exceptionally challenging, given the wide range of learning models across districts. Grant pointed to equity and access to technology as the biggest barrier in her Texas district.

Our district has purchased additional devices and hotspots to combat the issue and we’ve been able to leverage our website and social media sites to increase engagement, but it’s still a barrier.

The Fort Worth ISD’s strategy to support students with college and career readiness is multi-fold. They post weekly webinars about college and career readiness on their website and conduct virtual lessons for all grade levels.

College and career readiness coaches have virtual office hours every week where they meet with small groups of students and even one on one. They’re also running virtual college application boot camps on evenings and weekends. “These have been a huge success,” says Grant. 

Despite their wide-ranging ways to help student get the information they need, she acknowledges that “there’s just no way to ensure we’re reaching everyone… the biggest challenge for our students and counselors is the barrier of equal access to technology and internet resources.”

In Arizona, Nolasco has observed that many students seem to lack motivation to complete the college application process.

“We’re seeing them slowly tail off. A lot of them are unsure about their future so they don’t see why they need to engage in the process right now. [They’re thinking]: ‘I don’t know what the world’s going to be in six months. I don’t even want to think about it.’” 

The question becomes how to address these mindsets so the kids still see that this is a process they need to go through and that we’re here to support them.

Nolasco believes one answer is communication.

“It’s important to embrace different types of technology we haven’t in the past, whether it be social media, email, or other tools. I know it seems common but it’s not a practice in some of our smaller districts that relied on in-person interactions.”

She advises counselors and educators to be strategic about how and when they send out information.

“It should be condensed and intentional, so parents and students are not overwhelmed. They don’t want multiple emails a day. Maybe it’s weekly or bi-weekly. And once it’s emailed, we have to make sure it’s published to the school website and pushed out through social media so there are multiple ways people can access information.”

These new approaches may increase the risk of counselor burnout since they may be asked to do a lot more than they did when everyone was in school. Epstein says he’s hearing from counselors that things are challenging.

“Students can’t drop into the career center to ask a question. Counselors are needing to spend 15-minute chunks of time on Zoom to answer a 2-minute question,” he says. 

All of the processes counselors have built over years of experience helping students, such as triaging problems, putting a student to work on something while they helped someone else—these are harder to do with the newer tools.

How can counselors support students this year?

Nolasco says the first step is acknowledging that the world is different, and you can’t replicate what you did in the past. If your school is learning remotely or in a hybrid model, you’ll need to adapt what you used to do to a virtual format. She advises looking to your district, universities, and other non-profits for support. 

“Connect with education partners who may have resources that your students can tap into virtually. Phoenix Union High School has tapped into colleges to help provide application assistance with virtual classes every day from 3-5pm,” says Nolasco.

“Their website is a great example of excellent communication from a district that supports counselors, students, and families so they can find everything in one spot. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to do it alone.”

The Fort Worth ISD is also taking a broad approach to supporting students. In addition to weekend college application boot camps, college and career readiness coaches on all high school campuses can also connect students to advisors from higher level education. 

“We have a T3 initiative where we work with advisors on some campuses to amp up preparedness for college and career,” says Grant.

I think we need to go above and beyond with that customer service and assist students who are having issues getting onto websites or accessing applications. Set up a quick Zoom to walk through their challenges. Share your screen or have them share theirs. It takes a lot less time to say, ‘Show me and let me help you’ rather than trying to communicate by email or Chat.

Ehlers recommends counselors educate themselves on different policies when it comes to SATs and ACTs. “There’s confusion around ‘test optional’ and ‘test blind’. The first means the college or university won’t look at test scores at all. The latter means it’s not a requirement but they’ll look at them,” he says.

“The challenge for counselors is that things are changing by the day. It’s helpful to sort it out and try to deliver that communication to parents and students in a succinct way.”

When it comes to financial aid for college, Epstein says a huge issue every year for a lot of schools is getting students to complete the Federal Student Aid FAFSA form on time. He advises counselors to communicate the deadline early and often and be available to help families complete the form virtually, as necessary. 

Xello recently launched financial aid content in the program where students can learn about FAFSA, scholarships, work studies, and more. There’s even a local scholarships feature that allows counselors to create an interactive list. 

What are strategies to move students beyond engagement to empowering them during their college application process?

For Grant, the answer is in EdTech programs like Xello. “Online platforms allow students to go as deep as they need to go in the college selection process as well as completing college applications.”

“It gives them tools and resources to set goals, track applications, and request documents, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. And they can do it with very little guidance. It’s very simple for students and counselors to use.”

Nolasco is passionate about the concept of tiering systems of support to promote engagement. “We’re used to one-on-one meetings with kids and walking them through processes, but we just don’t have that time with all the other things that are asked of us right now. And we don’t have access to them as much,” she said.

Even if you’re working remotely, think about what you would do if students were in school. If you’d have an assembly, look into conducting one virtually, recording it and seeing who attended and who didn’t. Then you can run a few small group sessions.

She advises narrowing down who’s not engaging and reaching out to them any way you can to make sure they’re getting the support you need. “It can be overwhelming to know which students to focus on and which need that extra support so it’s important to get the information you need to find out who needs you using a tiered approach.”

Epstein says one method that works for his virtual consultations with students is to let students work through tasks as they’re sitting on the call with him. He might be working on other things but they are aware of his presence and feel more motivated to complete their task while he waits. 

“As long as you’re there, even if you’re focused on another screen so it feels like they have some space, it provides motivation for them to get it done and not just tab back into another browser and check out.”

When it comes to empowering students to prepare for SATs and ACTs, Ehler says a huge advantage has been the integration of his Method Test Prep materials into Xello. “Inside the program, students can learn at their own pace and work on the skills they need more help on, at times that are good for them.”

Many institutions have gone test optional for admission requirements, but test scores may be required for enrollment and/or scholarships. What can we expect this year?

Nolasco warns counselors against making assumptions about which kids need to take a test and which ones would like to do it to potentially improve their chances of admission. 

You can’t assume that kids don’t need to take the test based on where they want to go or what they want to major in. Give them the information they need to make the choice for themselves.

Ehlers says a lack of clear information is frustrating. “You could go to 10 different college websites and they would all say something vague and different.”

The testing process doesn’t need to be as challenging as its reputation. “They’re spitting out the same questions every single time and the vast majority of students are more than capable of doing well on the exam or at least improving their score significantly with a little bit of prep,” says Ehlers. 

“If they just put in a few hours on skills they need for success in high school, college and beyond, like basic grammar, math, and reading comprehension questions, they’d be fine.” 

Grant believes the most important thing in the face of such uncertainty is for counselors to be flexible and keep an open mind. “If we’re panicked, they’re panicked. If they prepare like things are normal and take the test, what can it hurt if the school happens to be test optional?”

Ehler points out that most families don’t realize that SAT/ACT test scores can help students snag merit awards and financial aid so they may be worth taking. 

What resources and tools can help support students during the college application process?

As part of partnering with higher education and non-profit partners, Nolasco advises counselors to refer students to advisors elsewhere.

It’s okay to get a kid to a certain point and connect them to a regional college access center that has employees who can assist students and families in one-on-one virtual appointments.

She recommends finding out what’s available in your area. “We don’t have to do this work alone. There are other people out there who are looking for ways to stay involved especially those people who may have volunteered during your physical college application campaign. They may be at home now and can take the call.” 

In Fort Worth, Grant and her colleagues provide students with a handbook that takes them through the college application process. “It shows test dates, questions to ask when on a college visit, information about financial aid and grants, and a lot more. We tell students to use it religiously throughout the school year.”

This year, instead of handing it out in paper form, they’ve sent it to students as a pdf. 

Watch Webinar: Empower Students to Have Agency in the College Application Process

Ehlers’ Method Test Prep is offering live Facebook classes, including hours of recordings for free on their YouTube channel. “It’s ACT and SAT prep, broken down by concept, for free.” 

He also provides a number of one-pagers that outline things to know about the SAT and ACT and recommends creating checklists for students to help guide them through the college application process. He has a series of checklists that feature 15-minute tasks so students aren’t challenged to do everything at once. 

Epstein’s preferred resources for counselors include financial aid studies released by Ipsos and private lending firm Sally Mae and MIRO, a virtual white board that can be helpful when meeting with students virtually. 

The year ahead may be a challenging one, but educators and counselors are banding together to create strategies to support students—and each other—in a variety of ways. 

Proof that we’ll get through this, together.

Resources Recommended by the Panelists

How America Plans for Post-secondary Education 2020

How America Pays for College 2020

Miro

What you need to know about the SAT

What you need to know about the ACT

College Admissions Tasks & Timeline

Top 10 Things Counselors, Parents & Students Need to Know About the ACT and SAT

Fort Worth ISD College Night

College Goal Arizona – Support schools with college application and FAFSA campaigns

College Depot

Northern Arizona College Resource Center

Example of district website– Phoenix Union High School District

Ask Benji – (Arizona’s FAFSA digital assistant, a text-message based chatbot programmed to respond to FAFSA and Financial Aid questions 24/7. Benji is not an app, and there’s no download required)

Facebook Groups for School Counselors

ABOUT HEATHER

Heather Hudson is a Toronto-based freelance writer and journalist. She specializes in content marketing, corporate storytelling and good old-fashioned journalism. You can read some of her work in The Toronto Star and learn more about her at heatherhudson.ca.