Five Ways to Manage the College Search and Stress During COVID-19

Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer & Senior Advisor for JED Campus at The Jed Foundation

As a family parenting a high school junior, we planned to get a jump on the admission process this spring semester by visiting colleges in February. We went on several campus visits, sat in on information sessions, and participated in campus tours. As we went on our tours, I realized that despite working in higher education for over two decades and having been on the other side of the admission presentations and knowing a great deal, as a parent I knew nothing. There is so much about the process that I needed to consider that I had never thought about as a college professional trying to convince prospective students and their families that a school was going to be the right fit.

I’m also a first-generation American parent who picked her college from the beautiful pictures of a brochure since my parents were not familiar with the admissions process; campus visits were not part of my college search process.

Then COVID-19 entered the picture. The daily developments resulting from this global pandemic are impacting the college search and admissions process, causing confusion and stress for many families.

We had entered our teen’s high school junior year with well thought out and proactive college search plans, including taking a prep course and completing practice exams for the SAT and ACT. Then everything changed. The coronavirus began to take hold and plans needed to shift. First the SAT date in March was postponed to two weeks later, then canceled altogether. A previously confident high school  junior went from understanding the situation and appreciating the extra two weeks to prep, to feeling frustrated and anxious.

We have been left with questions for which we still have no answers:  What now? When will the tests be rescheduled? How will this change the admission schedule? How do we manage our mental health and wellness as we navigate this process and the rapidly changing environment?

We have continued to receive admission brochures from multiple colleges, serving as a reminder that they had plans too. This thought gave me a sense of comfort that none of the disruptions we are now experiencing were in the plan. These colleges expected to welcome prospective students and their families to their campuses to show off their best features. And just like we are busy trying to handle our own daily challenges, colleges have also been busy moving from mostly in-person to online instruction and services for their students. We are still concerned about what the admissions process is going to ultimately look like, but we are reassured by how many colleges are quickly responding to this situation. Some have invited us to virtual tours and others have created even more creative and detailed brochures to share their offerings with prospective students and their families.

My experience in higher education, as a parent of a college-bound student and my role as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at The Jed Foundation may help others put things in perspective. While there are things we cannot control, there are some things we can do right now to relieve our stress as parents and the stress of our children as we collectively deal with the uncertainty.

  • Acknowledge and manage the stress that has now been added to what can often be an already stressful college search process.  It is understandable to feel additional stress when there is uncertainty. How we handle this stress and seek help for ourselves as parents and for our children when things get too overwhelming is very important. Sometimes, an outside perspective might be helpful to your teen if they seem to be struggling. You may want to consider sharing resources for them to reach out for counseling and support if you feel the stress has become unmanageable. They can text “START” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. For those already under treatment for mental health concerns, alert your mental health provider and be in communication with them for strategies to add another layer of support. JED has also been curating a COVID-19 Resource Guide and helpful COVID-19 Tips and Updates.
  • Find the positive outcomes that come from the evolving admissions process. As colleges make decisions about how they are changing their selection processes, like whether or not  to become test optional, there is an opportunity to have a real conversation about whether or not standardized tests were a true measure of college readiness in the first place. We don’t know when and how the ACT and SAT will be administered and how the reliance on these tests will transform. Colleges are aware of this uncertainty and many have moved to test optional to relieve some of the stress for families. Check college admissions pages to see what they have changed and be sure to sign up for updates to get new information and invitations to virtual presentations.
  • Use enhanced online admission efforts as a way to expand your college search. This could be a great time to explore a wider variety of colleges as many have quickly pivoted to more enhanced virtual campus visits and tours. We are no longer geographically bound to explore the colleges that can fit into our travel schedule and budget. We can attend more college visits and check out their really cool 360 degree campus tours. I know it’s not the same as visiting in person, but what if we find a hidden gem somewhere that was not originally on our radar? Watch for online invitations to live Q&As and other virtual opportunities to learn about prospective schools.
  • Keep the whole process in perspective. We are living  in a critical and historic moment. While the stress of the college search process can have an impact on our families, we can use this as an opportunity to discuss ideas of flexibility, resilience and managing expectations with our children. These are lessons we can only learn through life experiences. Have family conversations and don’t be afraid to be honest about your feelings. Let them express themselves about any concerns or questions they may have.
  • Know that you are not alone. Many families are going through a challenging time trying to figure out what the admission process is going to look like. We can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone in this and we are all in this together.

For resources and tips around dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, visit JED’s Coronavirus Mental Health Resource Guide and for the latest on mental health, visit our News & Issues page.

Sofia B. Pertuz is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Senior Advisor for JED Campus at The Jed Foundation (JED).  Sofia has over 20 years of experience in strategic planning, assessment, inclusive excellence, and critical incident management in higher education and has been an invited speaker to international audiences on topics in leadership, change management, social justice, and LGBTQ advocacy, including delivering keynotes in Spanish. Sofia completed a B.A. in Organizational Communication from SUNY New Paltz and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership, Management, and Policy, both from Seton Hall University.

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