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Helping your high school senior through the college admissions process in the time of COVID

Last updated on October 15, 2020

Hello! I’m Stacy, an admissions professional with over twenty-five years of experience, and the mom of two terrific young adults – a Duke Sophomore son and a high school senior daughter. As you well know, it is a joy – and at times, completely stunning – to watch your children become fully formed young people. That old, overused adage is true: the days were long, but the years were short. In my case, I relate more to David Byrne of the Talking Heads who sang, “How did I get here?”Applying to college? Already? What will our home be without teens in mere months? Who will assume her chores? Most importantly, who will our dog sleep with at night? And so it goes. I marvel at the personalities and traits and behaviors we observed in our toddlers that are still quite evident today. The 20-month-old who decided she was finished playing on the beach (perhaps headed back to the pool?) and walked for well over a hundred yards to the horror of adults who saw an unattended child, not a determined toddler. She never looked back. Not once. That same strong, independent child is now a young adult and ready to head off on her own, and I hope she’ll look back on her parents from time to time.

When our son applied to college, I turned to colleagues who worked in high schools, including his own. Despite a deep familiarity with the college application cycle and a firm grasp of admissions vocabulary, I needed advice. Like pediatricians who become better physicians after raising kids of their own, I learned a lot about the admissions process. I was no longer an admissions professional, but a supportive parent who understood the complexities of multiple universities, and the stomach butterflies (and post-decision celebrating!) awaiting decision letters revealed via web portals.

Lesson one: The student admissions timeline is different for the applicant than for the admissions office. Testing, once a non-negotiable requirement is now optional at most colleges. Which brings us to….

COVID-19. With our son, we visited a few schools in North Carolina prior to his junior year and he attended a local campus tour with a friend. (Well, at least he said they did…) School visits allow a student to see themselves on a college campus, to picture themselves in classes, making new friends, and living a new life. Visits also help students form impressions of what doesn’t fit. As a family, we planned a junior year spring break trip. Later, our son visited Duke, attended classes, and stayed overnight with a student host. His visit experiences were varied, mostly casual, and distributed. Through his experiences, he learned what he wanted – medium-sized, southern, liberal arts – and what he didn’t – small or large, far from home, specialized.

Thankfully, considering COVID-19, our daughter’s visits occurred earlier. She attended a fall open house in November of her junior year, another open house in February, and then a final campus visit on Monday, March 9 which happened to be a school holiday and a day off for her dad. I told my husband I suspected colleges would close their doors due to COVID-19 within a week, and I nudged them to attend a nearby college’s information session and tour. That prediction proved, sadly, true. What followed for our daughter included flexibility (study from home, online AP exams, canceled standardized tests) and disappointment (she would not work as a counselor-in-training at her beloved summer camp), and also resilience. She’s fortunate. We haven’t been sick, we are still employed, and we are privileged and grateful. She won’t write her college essay about COVID-19. Yes, there has been a loss – loss of an arts summer camp, her summer job, time spent with friends, vacations with family, and more. Yet, she earned her lifeguard certification and enhanced driver’s license, painted her room, visited colleges virtually, and found creative ways to be socially-distant with neighbor friends. Our kids have adapted, grown, and thrived during this life-altering period – just as they will in college. So have, and will, yours.

Applying to college is not a 24/7 conversation. We talk about colleges and the application process once a week. Pick a day of the week. That’s your day. That’s when you talk generally and specifically about college unless your child raises the subject. Otherwise, they’re feeling the same anxiety and pressures we’re all feeling and boundaries help them gain control. Use your online resources. Read college web sites. Assist your child by creating a spreadsheet or list of school-specific application materials required by each school (recommendations – yes or no; essays – optional, required, supplemental; test scores – optional? test-blind? required?; deadlines; notification dates). Requirements will vary widely as the application process is school-specific. An example: early programs suggest an earlier notification date which, while true, might mean outcomes delivered from as early as September and as late as February. Virtual tours, open houses, and information sessions have democratized the college search process. Far-flung places that previously required expensive travel and a significant time commitment can be visited from your kitchen desktop computer. Seeing admissions officers in their homes and student tour guides in their dorms and apartments has humanized the gatekeepers. Whatever shape our post-COVID-19 lives take, I hope the virtual access to college visits remains, and I encourage you to watch, listen, and learn.

Early or Regular Decision? Over the summer, our daughter asked us how she would know which school would be her early choice if she wasn’t able to stay overnight, attend classes, and visit campuses this fall. Good question. First, I told her she didn’t *need* to apply early if she wasn’t ready, and she shouldn’t unless she had a singular first choice school. Early Decision is for “decided” students, those who are committed to one place, who have the information, including an estimated financial aid package, and readiness to make that commitment. Once admitted, early decision candidates (early action options, not available at Duke, are another common early application variety) are expected to enroll and withdraw pending admission applications. Otherwise, the Regular Decision timetable (apply by early January, decision notification in the spring, college choice made by May 1), would be her best path forward. It is unclear – and I suspect unlikely – that most colleges will offer on-campus spring admitted student programs. However, alternatives exist and should be explored including a virtual chat with a tour guide in a student’s likely major, or attending a financial aid workshop. By next year at this time, our young adults may make college choices that are perfect matches, or they may make college selections that don’t fit quite as well after a semester or two. If that should happen, applying as a transfer candidate to a better fit school may be advisable.

As we head into fall and application deadlines loom large, enjoy witnessing the steps and growth which lead to this life milestone. I treasure the vivid memory of checking my USPS mailbox and opening that first college admission letter. We remember and celebrate this stage as a stepping stone to adulthood and independence. Our role as parents is to assist as needed and requested, to love and support as we’ve done, and to celebrate what lies ahead. Planning for college – especially in the time of COVID-19 – is an act of hope and love, both of which we all need and deserve. Best wishes and good luck with your college search!

Stacy Scarfutti Rusak ( is a Senior Associate Director in Duke University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She works with students from Florida, Lousiana, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

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