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There’s no official start to the college application season, but if you’re going to pick a day, you might as well choose August 1. That’s the date the Common Application, which has been adopted by more than 900 colleges and universities, launches its application for the new year.

Within the first 48 hours of the release this month, nearly 167,000 students created an account on the Common App — a 21-percent increase over the application’s first two days in 2019. Some 3,000 students submitted 6,444 applications — two numbers up significantly from the previous year.

What should we make of those numbers? Who knows, but perhaps the uncertainty of an admissions cycle in the middle of a pandemic is encouraging students to get a jump start on the process.

? Two can’t miss virtual events next week:

For parents of high schoolers: On Monday at 8 p.m. ET, I’ll be hosting another discussion on college admissions in the Covid era. This one will be focused on finances. I’ll be joined by Jeff Levy, an independent counselor, who creates a well-known analysis of merit aid; Susan Baldridge, the former provost at Middlebury College, who recently co-authored a book on the financial health of colleges; and Rick Bischoff, vice president for enrollment management at Case Western University.

  • More details and register here.

For college leaders: On Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll be in conversation about scenario planning for higher ed in the middle of a pandemic with two leading CFOs at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine.

  • More details and register here.

The Virtual College Search

While another admissions season kicked off this month for colleges and the high-school Class of 2021, nothing is going to be normal about this cycle. The pandemic has already upended the traditional fall calendar for admissions offices everywhere.

  • This is typically the time of the year when colleges fill the top of their recruitment funnel with campus tours and college fairs. Those events have either been canceled or turned into virtual affairs.
  • Every fall, representatives from colleges crisscross the country, with each admissions officer responsible for several states in a region. They might drive to five high schools a day to give the same spiel and then return at night to staff a table at a college fair.

Why it matters: Colleges use historical data to plan where to visit each fall, looking for high schools where they have secured successful applicants — and more important, enrolled students. Without visits this fall, colleges likely will lean in more to those high schools that have traditionally been busy ones for them.

The big picture: Fall travel produces breadcrumbs of data — from the simple (a name to add to a database) to the more sophisticated (applicants who have a “demonstrated interest” in a school based on their conversation with an admissions rep). The move to virtual events is uncharted territory for schools. It’s unclear whether they will generate the same number of names or engaged prospects. What’s more, they also have fewer names of seniors to buy from the SAT and ACT given the widespread cancelation of the tests last spring.

What’s next: Campuses are finding it hard enough to get their undergraduates on campus. So, the resumption of a regular slate of tours with throngs of high-school students and their parents is probably months away.

  • The tour matters. Research shows nothing influences a student’s decision about where to enroll as much as the campus visit.
  • But colleges and families still have time. While we tend to think the campus tour happens at the beginning of the college search, about a quarter of all campus visits by students occur at the end — in the month of April. Of those visits, about half of families are stepping on campus for the first time.

Read more about the college tour, in this sample from Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book, exclusive for subscribers of this newsletter.

Pre-Order Now: Yes, I know I’ve been pushing pre-orders in this newsletter in recent weeks. That’s because they’re really important to authors in launching a book. We’re now more than halfway toward our pre-order goal. Help us get across the finish line.

Photo by Junce/iStock

Finding a Fit in a College

Teenagers and their parents often talk about the college search as a journey to find the right “fit.” The campus tour is seen as a key stop on that journey. Students fall in or out of love with a campus after visiting.

But let’s not kid ourselves, anyone who has ever made the rounds ofcollege visits knows that the small things can sometimes gain monumentalattention with teenagers — a rainy day, a bad tour guide, lousyfood in the dining hall.

  • This year’s high school seniors have a “unique advantage,” said Ellen O’Neill Deitrich, director of college counseling at The Hill School in Pennsylvania. “They get to do their research first and really think about what it is they want, what’s going to inspire them in college,” Deitrich told me during a virtual town hall I hosted last week for parents and students.
  • Dig deep into the course catalog, Deitrich advises prospective students. She recalled one student she advised who had adream school all his life” and wanted to major in creative writing. When he reviewed the course catalog, however, he realized that the school only offered one creative writing class.

Sure, you might be able to visit a campus in the middle of a pandemic, even if they aren’t offering official tours, but it’s like “going on a Saturday morning when everyone’s asleep,” said Jeff Kallay, senior vice president at RNL + Render, who has probably taken more campus tours than anyone else in America.

  • If you really want to get an essence of a campus, a tour is not the way to go right now. “You’re probably not going to go into housing or the dining hall — the things you want to know the most about, the things you want to see,” Kallay said.
  • A campus isn’t the college. “It’s just empty, beautiful buildings,” Kallay said. “Try to connect with the people, not the place, because that’s what makes up the DNA of any place-based educational experience.”
  • If you want to get a feel for the campus, read the student newspaper, Kallay suggested

Colleges are also scheduling more tailored virtual programs right now, by school or academic major, said Kasey Urquidez, dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona.

For an unvarnished look at a school, scroll through topic pages on Reddit, such as r/applyingtocollege or watch YouTube videos showing what life is really like on their campuses.

  • One Stanford undergraduate, Katherine Waissbluth, has more than 50,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, The Kath Path.
  • Katherine’s channel includes videos about a “Tuesday at Stanford,” a “Day in the Life of an English Major,” and the “Most Stereotypical College Essays.” Some have more than 200,000 views.

Bottom line: Just remember, whatever you watch and whoever you talk with, it is one perspective, one opinion.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Reversing Course on the Fall

In recent weeks, dozens of colleges and universities have bagged their plans to bring students back to campus for the fall semester and instead have announced they will begin the new year remotely.

  • When Dickinson College reversed course in the middle of July, it was an outlier. The tipping point for Dickinson was the delay in testing, Margee Ensign, Dickinson’s president said on the latest episode of the FutureU podcast.
  • “In the beginning, testing looked like a two- or three-day turnaround,” she told me and my co-host Michael Horn. “But as the summer went on, it went from two-to-three days to five-to-seven, and recently, it might be three weeks. That’s completely unacceptable.”

At a time higher education is getting pummeled in the press for getting students back to campus and then blaming them for bad behavior, Ensign and Dickinson’s CFO, Brontè Burleigh-Jones, told us they kept coming back to the college’s “values and priorities” in making their decision last month.

  • “We knew what our values were,” said Burleigh-Jones. “We were clear about what funds we had available, so we had aligned our resources with our priorities.”

Listen to the episode here. Subscribe using your favorite podcast service.


How to Test Students Remotely
As the pandemic continues to disrupt traditional higher education, administrators and faculty need sustainable methods to remotely teach and assess students. This new paper addresses key questions regarding online proctoring.

Pandemic Campus Diaries
EdSurge has enlisted professors and students at six colleges and asked them to share audio diaries of college life in this unprecedented time. Give it a listen.

Welcome to Rankings Season
First up is Money magazine’s college rankings, which in part weighs what a degree costs against the potential payoff.

As always, thanks for subscribing.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...