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When You Can't Visit

I worry about students limiting their college options during the pandemic. To be fair, I worry about a lot of other things more: the health of our community and nation, lost jobs, and the impact of financial uncertainty on families.

But this blog is about Woodberry and the college process, so, for purposes here, I’ll admit that I’m also worried about the college search.

Every year, the college counseling team battles a simple reality: “Students don’t know what they don’t know.” We queue up a range of tools — Cialfo, research sites like Unigo or Big Future, government data, even much-maligned college rankings  — to try and show students that there’s a wide world out there, and that they ought to trust themselves enough to dive into unfamiliar waters.
In a normal year, there’s a predictable progression that feeds research and opens minds. First, we start with the student: What do you need from your eventual college choice? Next, the student begins a preliminary college list, usually a combination of familiar schools and a range of less understood options that match the student’s needs.

The preliminary list [plus some serious online research] sets up the most important single element of the college search: the visit. Families use Long Winter Weekend and Spring Break of the junior year to do targeted visits of colleges both familiar and unfamiliar. These visits are a crucial meeting of the “head” and the “heart” for students. They can finally feel for themselves what they’ve only read about. For parents, visits provide the chance to observe their sons navigate the process and maybe even make some space in their own minds for a new idea.

The pandemic all but eliminates the college visit. A handful of colleges are open for limited on-campus admissions programming — and hope springs eternal for next semester — but, for now, most places are closed to prospective families. In a world without the visit, how can students try on unfamiliar options? How will the head and the heart meet?

We’ve been puzzling through this problem for months now, and there simply isn’t a satisfying answer. Worst of all, the liminal spaces for contemplation that come with a visit — a car or airplane ride with family, a cup of coffee at a campus cafe, a quiet walk on the quad — these aren’t replicable in a Zoom world, either.

To help us, we’ve been asking college representatives to suggest some ways to keep the door open to the unfamiliar. In a world without visits, how will students see themselves at new places? Here’s what they recommended:

  • Be intentional. It’s natural to revert to what you know. Name that tendency, and recognize that you have preconceived notions that you’ll need to fight against. In this new reality, students are likely to have the makings of two lists: one with familiar schools and another with new ideas. Students should put serious energy into that second list. And they should carve out plenty of time to talk through their thinking. The [often aimless] liminal periods normally a part of the college visit serve a profound purpose. They’d be worth recreating.

  • Virtual visits. In the spring, we curated a list of virtual resources for the colleges who’ve snagged the largest number of Woodberry students over the past few years. Nearly every college posts these tools, with many hosting live information sessions every weekday. Despite the obvious limitations, it’s worth starting here to get to know what a school thinks and says about itself. Your registration will also “demonstrate your interest” at the schools that track that kind of data.

  • Student newspapers. You can’t sit down in a dining hall to read one. Still, it’s worth picking up a student newspaper [online] to see what students are writing about. How is the administration handling COVID? How are students talking about the presidential election? How is the community remaining engaged and connected? Even though you can’t walk the campus and observe student debate, you can still read about it.

  • Speak with faculty and current students. Admissions presentations are good, but they don’t do a great job of distilling the vibe on campus. You’ll need to talk with students and faculty to get a sense for that. At the schools you’re serious about, approach admissions officers about the opportunity to speak with current students and professors. Can they furnish you with an email address or a contact willing to talk over Zoom?

  • Use your networks. You’ve got friends and relatives, and some of them went to college. Ask them about their experiences, and ask them to connect you with their networks, too. Likewise, Woodberry alumni have attended a wide range of colleges. If you’re hoping to learn more about a specific school, what better way than to reach out to a former Tiger and ask to talk about his experience? We’re happy to help you track down contact information for alumni and set up conversations like these.

These are admittedly middling options. They don’t let you see your life on campus in living color, and they’ll lead you to an unfortunate reality: more time on a screen. But, in this moment, they’re what we have.

From our conversations so far this fall, I’ll say that admissions counselors know how frustrating this is, and they’re ready to help. They’ve been so accommodating of Woodberry students, bending over backwards to help them better understand their campuses. COVID has limited so much of our lives already. Don’t let it keep you from trying on compelling-but-unfamiliar college options.
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Woodberry Forest admits students of any race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, and national or ethnic origin to all of the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school-administered programs. The school is authorized under federal law to enroll nonimmigrant students.