As a mom of a senior applying to college in 2020, I have been reading every piece of news I can from universities around the globe, how they are handling COVID-19 plans, and trying to formulate some idea of how this will affect my son as he starts to wade through the process. Recently however, I read with alarm that apparently 20% of Harvard’s freshman class deferred their enrollment this year, which lead to a barrage of other questions:

Is this a bellwether for other schools? Are freshmen across the country sitting 2020 out, meaning that in an already hyper-competitive environment, will there be 20% less slots? It doesn’t take much to make this angst-ridden process worse for both students and parents. So I turned to some experts to help make some sense of it, and it was, in fact, reasonably calming.

Don’t be Scared By The Numbers

Geoffery Kromer has been a high school counselor in Massachusetts private and public schools for 24 years. He points out it’s a bit tricky to see how these numbers will translate. “It’s hard to say what the competition will be, because colleges still work to meet their enrollment numbers even with the deferrals – those numbers can’t be completely counted on as guaranteed attendees. Schools need to make sure they have their beds filled, regardless of circumstance.”

There Could Be Good News

Part of the uncertainty means it may, in fact be a good time to reach for the brass ring. “We were already seeing reduced enrollment before COVID, with tight margins that will likely cause further shutdowns” Kromer says. “This could be the year to shoot for some schools that otherwise seemed out of reach, because with uncertainty, the application pool could actually shrink.”

“The colleges could be very good to work with this year, as they need students to survive, so it could actually be a great year to be looking,” advises Kromer.

Gap Years

Dr. Grace Cheng Dodge, Former Director of Admission, Wellesley College and Former Associate Director of Admissions at Harvard College points out an increase in the number of students taking gap years may actually change campus life because it will translate to a more diverse mix of students. She told me an interesting nugget I had never heard before. Apparently, Harvard  immediately asks students to consider taking a gap year, and has been doing so for decades, even before COVID.

“If this trend sticks,” says Dodge, “colleges won’t have to accept fewer students if they anticipate a larger percentage of students taking gap years. Time will tell!”

The Benefits of a Gap Year

According to Dodge, colleges really appreciate students that take some time off. “Colleges do find that students who have taken a gap year come into college more mature and with more life experience to share with their classmates. We know family finances may hinder a student from considering a gap year, but now there are also so many organizations helping to fund students’ gap year experiences. And there are schools like Princeton who will fund a year of public service experience.

What to Do?

“That’s a very personal decision,” says Kromer. “Many formal gap year programs require travel which obviously can’t happen either.” Dodge points out that there are many other options as well including employment or internships, CityYear, missionary or religious work, or even staying at home and auditing courses. The one requirement most schools have to hold your spot is that you don’t officially matriculate at another institution.

The Application Process

Kromer recommends students do take a close look at how the schools they are interested in are handling the pandemic. “Some are doing it really well, and some not so well. It’s a great indicator of what [students] are getting themselves into.”

Many schools are increasing a trend that already started and dropping standardized tests as an entrance requirement. Kromer advises this means students should make sure they are maintaining relationships with teachers, even if they are remote, so they can get great letters of recommendation.

Most importantly, Dodge emphasizes that seniors should finish their year strong and if you do plan on starting college next fall, start your process as if COVID never hit.

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About Laura Keyes Ellsworth

Laura has been writing and editing for more than 25 years, a fact which more than a source of pride, sends her running to the wrinkle cream aisle of CVS. She has worked for CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and CBS radio. She has three children, and you will either find her thoroughly enjoying their company or yelling at them to clean up after themselves and turn off the lights.

View all posts by Laura Keyes Ellsworth

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