Navigating College Admissions and Covid-19: Trust Your Instruments

Amidst the unpredictability and turbulence that Covid has created in the lives of students, particularly for high school seniors as they actively launch the college process this fall, I have been hearing the words of my late father-in-law Robert Bryan, a renowned bush pilot in Atlantic Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence region for over 50 years. Bob flew a Cessna 185 floatplane, substituting skis in the winter. Rapidly changing weather was a daily concern; fog or snow squalls were a frequent foe. In these conditions, Bob, a seasoned bush pilot, would declare, time and time again, “Trust your instruments; never second guess the artificial horizon indicator.” The possibility of vertigo was deadly in fog; it was easy to think your wing level was parallel to the horizon line, when in fact you may be at a dangerously oblique angle heading for a crash. Trusting the plane’s instruments is paramount in this uncertainty. His wise words apply to the turbulent world of college admissions in 2020.

Meeting with rising seniors during the summer revealed their heightened anxiety and concerns about college. With the cancellation of spring and summer SAT and ACT testing dates, the elimination of in person college visits where they can test their assumptions and early impressions about what they want in a college, the postponement of their beloved extracurricular activities, and the loss of summer internships, in person studies and jobs, many seniors are left with more questions than answers: What if I cannot take more than one standardized test? Are colleges really serious about being SAT/ACT optional? What if I never get to see schools to which I think I want to apply? Should I take a chance on Early Action or Early Decision? How will college admission counselors view my spring transcript with pass/fail credits and a void in activities? Should I simply sit this admission cycle out and wait for clearer skies with no Covid?

Starting from where you are as you enter September, my advice to seniors is:

Know that college admission offices and counselors across the country are extremely empathetic to your plight and will accommodate your application’s reality like no other year. Neither worry nor obsess about the pieces that you have not been able to control due to Covid (college visits, testing, extracurriculars). Colleges too are adapting as quickly and thoughtfully as they can to the changing realities of each passing month, and, like you, are “figuring it out” on the fly.

Pay attention to the essential components in the college application processes – the application itself, essay prompts and writing, supplemental questions when applicable, financial aid forms (FAFSA, CSS), fall SAT/ACT testing if it is advised – and give them the time and consideration each deserves. These are the college’s navigational INSTRUMENTS to which I refer when I say, “trust your instruments.” These are the vital components you can control this fall. Do your best work and give each piece their due diligence. A clean and accurate Common Application with a thoughtful and genuine essay that clearly articulates what you value and what is important to you along with teacher recommendations which support your strengths and work in (and outside) the classroom will advance your application more than worrying about the things you cannot control.

Finally, embracing the problem(s) and adaptability are two new essential 21st century skills that you are learning in spades during the 2020 pandemic. Seniors are not only living within the altered realities caused by the pandemic, but each of you has stories about how you have endured and adapted to its changing landscape. In the context of character building, you have shown remarkable resilience, willpower, perseverance, and support for each other. Know that colleges care about your story and would love to hear how you have made a difference at home and/or within your community.

So this fall the mantra for seniors is: Trust the instruments of the college application process and its supporting components and tenaciously focus on what you can control. Let everything else simply linger in Covid’s fog.