If this were a normal year, the Johnson family would have spent the summer touring colleges in the Upper Midwest.

But this is 2020. Thanks to the pandemic, there was no summer road trip. And Emma Johnson, 17, a senior at Forest Hills Eastern High School in Ada, Mich., no longer wants to study far from home. She and her mother, Michelle, have agreed that if school continues to stay online next year, she may start at a community college.

“Everything,” Michelle Johnson said, “has shifted in what’s important.”

As if applying to college weren’t stressful enough, this year’s crop of seniors and their families has to grapple with existential questions as well, such as what does it even mean to go to college when classes are mostly or completely conducted online? Will you be considered an accomplished candidate for higher education when you spent the pandemic cooped up at home, unable to do much of anything that wasn’t on Zoom?

From standardized tests that can’t be taken, to campuses that can’t be toured, to activities that can’t be done via Zoom, key elements of the college admissions process are suddenly either irrelevant or significantly altered. Parents of high school students — particularly seniors, but also juniors and, to a lesser extent, sophomores — may find themselves unsure about how to proceed.

That’s true for the experts as well. In interviews for this article, some college admissions consultants urged parents to push their teens to find creative ways to engage with activities, even if the usual channels of sports teams or in-person gatherings are shut down. Others suggested backing off during this stressful time. Some advised parents to go to great lengths to ensure their seniors sit for an SAT or ACT exam. Others just shrugged and said test scores aren’t that important, anyway.

They could all, however, agree on one thing: Pay attention to what your child wants and needs in this moment of swirling, shifting demands.

“Listen to what your kid is saying — really listen — before delivering a lecture,” said Dr. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and author of “The Care and Keeping of You,” a series of books about the changing adolescent body. “And then, maybe skip the lecture.”

Two-thirds of colleges in the United States have gone test-optional this year, a decision often born of necessity. Of the more than 400,000 students signed up to take the August SAT, for example, nearly half had their tests canceled because of Covid-19-related health and safety issues. But college counselors and other higher education experts said testing seats are available outside of the major coastal cities, and some families are traveling to find spots.

Some advisers say a student who submits a good test score has an advantage over a similar candidate who submits no test score at all. “I’m still advising my families and students to prepare for and take the tests,” said Poojha Daryanani, a private college consultant in Bellevue, Wash.

But this year, nothing is certain. Jeffrey Selingo, author of the new book “Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” said his contacts at one of the nation’s most selective universities told him they expect to receive test scores from half their applicants — at most.

“They are going to have to select students not using the SAT,” he said. “There are just too many kids out there who are not going to have a score.”

Parents should encourage their children to research schools online, said Julie Kamins, a private college consultant in Los Angeles. And if your child isn’t going to do the work on their own, consider sitting with them and going on some virtual college tours or asking a trusted friend or relative to do it, if your teenager isn’t in a place to listen to you, she said.

“I’ve even been telling my juniors and sophomores: Do your research now,” Ms. Kamins said. “Because of the pandemic, there is more information online than ever.”

There have been some startling reports about gap years, such as this one: more than 20 percent of Harvard University’s incoming freshman class chose to defer admission this fall.

Numbers like this can trouble the parents of the high school class of 2021.

“I think parents are extremely stressed that last year’s seniors who deferred admission will be taking spots away from the current seniors,” Ms. Kamins said.

But this may only apply to competitive, wealthy schools like Harvard, with its deep waiting list and sizable endowment, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Based on the association’s conversations with its more than 1,200 member colleges and universities, admissions calculations at most schools shouldn’t change that much this year, she said. That’s because most institutions did not grant approval to every deferment request, she said.

And sadly many students who deferred this fall may be unable to afford to attend next fall, because of the economic crisis.

Still, the combination of the increased size of 2020’s gap year cohort, a trend of students wanting to stick closer to home and some financially strapped families looking for less expensive options may alter the usual application patterns. Some fear that state universities will become more competitive.

“I’m telling my students, they have to really think about their college list and evaluate it from different perspectives,” Ms. Daryanani said.

Sports are canceled, or significantly curtailed. Stages are dark. Clubs, meeting virtually, may seem anemic. Even an after-school job may feel too risky for some teens and their families. But colleges expect a robust list of extracurricular activities. Don’t they?

Some counselors, like Carolyn Kost in Palm Beach, Fla., urge parents not to “coddle” their high school students.

“I just keep seeing parents throw up their hands and make excuses for their kids,” said Ms. Kost, a private consultant as well as a college adviser at Cardinal Newman High School, a private Catholic school in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Suggest your child enroll in a college class online, she said, or aid librarians by transcribing historical documents from home. Parents can talk with their children about what interests them, then encourage them to create a project, like a website or a course for their peers, around that topic, Ms. Daryanani said.

Other experts caution against pushing too hard on teens already struggling with vast changes in their lives. One way to gauge that is to think about how much you used to have to push your kid before the pandemic, said Regine Galanti, a Long Island psychologist and author of “Anxiety Relief for Teens.” “If you are someone who didn’t push, and now your teen needs pushing, there may be other dynamics going on here,” she said.

One silver lining: This moment may be an opportunity for an “equal playing field,” said Warren Quirett, an admissions counselor at a Virginia boarding school and co-leader of the African-American Special Interest Group for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. That’s because affluent families cannot give their children an advantage by paying for expensive camps and experiences, since “it’s all been canceled,” he said.

Urge your student instead to pick up a new skill, or increase their involvement in their community — anything that will pique their interest and enrich their lives, he said.

Mr. Selingo said college admissions officers are going to understand that this is not a normal year. They’ll be “really looking for a mind-set,” he said. “They want students who are creative. They are going to be asking, ‘How did students respond to this pandemic?’”

But be forewarned: with other markers of achievement in short supply, colleges will focus on what is available. “I’ve been telling my seniors,” Ms. Daryanani said, “to really pay attention to their grades this semester.”

Hoping to generate some excitement for next year, Michelle Johnson and her husband took Emma to visit Northern Michigan University in late September. To ensure social distancing, the admissions office was limiting in-person campus tours to only five students at a time, and the slots for that day were already filled. But they walked themselves around the campus, the town and the Lake Superior shoreline. They saw hardly any students; those they did see wore masks.

But it was enough to persuade Emma. “She really liked it,” Michelle Johnson said, “and plans to apply for admission ASAP.”


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