Virtual admissions during COVID-19: challenges, successes, new ways forward

Virtual admissions during COVID-19: challenges, successes, new ways forward

Ian Witry, Staff Writer

As students have adjusted to remote classes due to COVID-19, so has the admissions process. Instead of physically traveling to high schools, recruitment staff have used Zoom to connect with prospective students. 

Director of Recruitment for Admissions Elyan Paz commented on the sweeping changes to the recruitment process for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

“Everything felt different,” she said. “Communications changed, the platforms changed, the timing of events changed to different time zones.” 

These changes presented Admissions with unique challenges. Paz is keeping in mind the additional challenges high school students are facing due to the pandemic. 

“Whether it is the isolation…, challenges with remote learning, especially for our BIPOC students, those that are experiencing anti-Black violence, racial trauma,” she said. “Seventeen [and] eighteen-year-olds having to navigate all of that and also look for college… it was incredibly challenging.”

To help students facing these challenges to navigate college admissions, Macalester partnered with the Metro 5, a collaboration between five liberal arts colleges located in cities. Macalester and Metro 5 hosted 14 weekly virtual workshops from July through October called “Workshop Wednesdays.” 

While some workshops addressed specific elements of the admissions process, such as getting a letter of recommendation and writing a college essay, others focused on helping students be their best advocates. Some were directed toward specific identity groups, like students who are first generation scholars. 

“They were enormously popular workshops for both high school students and counselors,” she said. “We have students who maybe wouldn’t have considered Macalester who watched these sessions and thought, ‘I can trust them.’” 

Paz plans to continue offering these workshops going forward, both in recorded form and in-person. 

Remote recruitment also presented Admissions with the challenge of reaching international students without the technological means to connect over Zoom. 

Issues with internet access as well as time zone differences limited Macalester’s ability to host programming in international communities. 

“Especially in the spring, everything happened so quickly,” she said. “The community-based organizations, college access agencies and a lot of high schools didn’t have the technology or the staff to be able to support programming.”

As a result, the admissions office found it difficult to reach students and organizations that didn’t already know about Macalester.

To make up for lost outreach, Admissions focused on partnering with other colleges. Through EducationUSA, Macalester helped to host information sessions called “Tuesday Talks” about applying as an international student. 

“I feel really confident we filled the space as much as we could, considering the circumstances,” Paz said. 

Despite the setbacks, Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Jeff Allen also noticed  that remote programming opened up new recruiting opportunities.

“A silver lining of this context is that we have been able to reach students and high school counselors in areas and in ways that we probably were unable to do so with the same success in previous [admission] cycles,” he said. “That includes students living in rural communities [and] areas to which we don’t normally travel.” 

Looking to future admissions cycles, Allen said the biggest challenge will be determining how Macalester should incorporate the successful elements of virtual recruitment into traditional, in-person programming. 

“I think there’s going to be this question of, ‘how can we do it all?’” he said.

Macalester introduced a new early action (EA) round of admissions this year. Successful EA applicants will be admitted to Macalester on Dec. 20, 2020, but unlike early decision (ED) applicants, students who apply through EA will be able to consider other schools before the May 1 response deadline. Just over 2800 students applied through EA. 

“We’re interested in being able to reach students earlier in their senior year and, if possible, admit students earlier in their senior year,” Allen said. “And then work with those students… to help them determine if Macalester is the college that speaks to them the most.” 

“We fully intend to keep the [early action] round in future cycles,” he said.

Allen also mentioned Macalester’s shift to fully test-optional admissions and the elimination of its $40 application fee as the result of discussions prior to COVID shutdowns. At the same time, he emphasized that these changes have helped students to apply during the pandemic. 

“So many seniors and juniors have been unable to sit for SAT and ACT tests,” he said.

“[The application fee] is a barrier to the admissions process for many students,” Allen said. “We felt like now is the time to eliminate another barrier.”

Paz highlighted the contributions of staff and faculty during this admissions cycle, including videos professors made to introduce themselves to new students.

“So many people stepped forward to help us bring in the Fall 2020 class,” she said. “This wasn’t just admissions, this was definitely a college effort.”

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