On Oct. 4, Miami Palmetto Senior High opened its doors to college, university and technical school representatives from across the country. For the first time in nearly two years, students from all grade levels had the opportunity to interact with representatives face-to-face in a safe setting.
As the schoolhouse operates in-person under the COVID-19 guidelines set forth by Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Palmetto’s College Advisory Program counselor, Linda Dwyer, spoke with Palmetto administration regarding a possible in-person college fair this year.
“This year was very strange because it is COVID, so we didn’t even know if we were going to have [a College Fair] at all,” Dwyer said. “When it was decided that colleges were willing to come, Principal Dobbs said that we were going to have one. Then we decided what would work for our COVID plan and invited colleges on SCOIR.”
To keep the event as safe as possible, Ms. Dwyer limited the capacity of attendees and had them spread over three sessions. The event was only open to Palmetto students, unlike previous years when all members of the community received an invitation to attend.
“This year was all about COVID. We really just had to make sure that it was fair to the students,” Dwyer said. “We had decided a maximum limit of humans allowed in the building, which included college reps and parents helpers. Basically, safety was the name of the game and we wanted to make sure all of our participants were safe.”
Dwyer advertised the event to schools through SCOIR. Eager to meet and speak about their respective institutions, over 50 school representatives signed up for the event.
“This was the first college fair in-person that [college representatives] have done since the shutdown in March of 2020. For the college reps, [the College Fair] was exciting, it was coming home,” Dwyer said. “For the students that showed up, it was actually a unique opportunity to speak one-on-one with reps, when that usually doesn’t happen.”
Since the pandemic began, many institutions have had to transfer their outreach methods towards prospective students from in-person to virtual. These include hosting Zoom meetings and webinars with students and admissions officers as well as sending emails with details regarding a school and their various offerings.
“As a result of the pandemic many of our information sessions and college fairs transitioned to a virtual format, so we were still able to meet with students, parents, and families who want information about USF, but most of it took place digitally on Zoom or Microsoft Teams,” University of South Florida’s South Florida Regional recruiter for the Office of Admissions, Devon Marrett said.
Students and guardians alike have the ability to learn about institutions across the world from the comfort of their homes. Those who have access to an internet connection and digital devices were able to research, interact with and demonstrate interest in various schools that they may have never even considered.
“Last year, I definitely noticed some students from parts of [Puerto Rico] that normally wouldn’t even look at Tulane, and one of them actually enrolled,” Tulane University’s Associate Director of Admissions Jorge Haise said. “That was pretty cool that we were able to do that and the only reason we were able to do that was because of virtual [visits].”
Many institutions have noted the success of virtual events and plan to keep some in place for years to come. Admissions representatives’ goal is to reach out to as many of the prospective student population as possible, something that the pandemic has not interfered with.
“I think [virtual visits] have opened more opportunities for us to meet students, even more than we were able to before. As we return in-person, we still have access to virtual events to make even more of an impact to reach more students and get that information out,” Florida State University’s Multicultural Regional Admissions Counselor for Miami-Dade, Al-Rashad Ali said.
Admissions representatives have also noted the lengths to which their roles and day-to-day tasks have changed amidst the pandemic. Like the rest of the population, many admissions representatives are discovering what it means to work in a world where the lines between virtual and in-person have become exceedingly blurred.
“[COVID-19] changed in the way we do our job, I don’t think it’s really changed our mission which is to help students find that next step, hopefully in our own institutions, but ultimately to help you all find what comes after high school,” Bucknell University’s Senior Assistant Director for the Southwest Regional area, Lauren Furman said. “Doing everything virtually last year, meant some disconnections but also some chances to visit places we might not have been able to physically get to in previous years. So, now comes the challenge of balancing and going back to what we did before the pandemic. How do we balance that in-person and virtual to do what’s best for high school students?”
In addition, the pandemic has led to changes in application requirements at many schools. Across the county, both public and private institutions have made temporary and permanent changes to their testing, essay and question portions of their application.
One of the most well-known portions of the application, the SAT and ACT, were strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exams — which must be done in-person at a school — have been difficult to study for and schedule, especially during the beginning of the pandemic.
Many testing centers closed during the pandemic, due to COVID-19 concerns, making it difficult for students to take the exam. Beyond that, due to social distancing recommendations, many students could not seek in-person assistance and tutoring to prepare for exams. While some students flourish with virtual opportunities, some did not fare well due to the lack of in-person opportunities.
As a result, many public and private schools made the temporary or permanent switch to test optionally. With this, students are no longer required to submit scores. However, students who plan to or are applying to schools in the state of Florida must still submit SAT/ACT scores under the Florida Board of Governors’ requirements.
“The admissions itself has changed for the University of Alabama because we’re now test optional and when we say test optional we mean it,” The University of Alabama’s South Florida Regional Recruiter for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Casie Tate said. “Students are at no disadvantage at all when they apply without a test score… we’ve worked really hard over the past year to also open up our scholarships to be test-optional for students. That has been the most dominant change that I have seen that is really going to benefit my South Florida students.”
With this new application process, many institutions have noted changes in the admissions cycle and in applications received. Some less selective institutions have noted a decline in applicants, which many infer came as a result of the pandemic, while certain schools with high standards for entrance exams have noticed an uptick in applicants.
“We are SAT optional through Spring of 2023, so we did see an increase in students from more diverse kinds of areas around the globe. Our particular institution, we get students from over 120n different countries, but even that was diversified this year,” University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Assistant Director for the Office of Admissions and Recruitment, Kate Dunagan said.
Taking all the changes to the application process into consideration, many students attended the college fair eager to meet representatives they had only met over Zoom or email correspondence In addition, it gave many college representatives the ability to put a personality to a name, something that many have been unable to do for the previous two admissions cycles.
“There’s nothing like making a face-to-face connection [with students] and a lot of the time we make our decisions based on the interactions we have with the student,” The University of Tampa’s Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management, Lance Tackett said. “We go back and put notes and say ‘Hey, I talked to this student and they’re a great fit because of this.’”
Many upperclassmen also used the event to finalize decisions on which institutions to apply to and to ask specific questions pertaining to their applications. Students also had the chance to browse schools that may not have previously been on their radar and interact with representatives regarding a school’s offerings.
“I am excited about being able to just speak to students face-to-face, so they can see who I am as one of the college representatives and also to provide information and to just introduce myself,” Nova Southeastern University Assistant Director III of the Miami Campus, Dr. James C. Jackson III said. “[The College Fair] allows [students] to give me some of their background and what their intentions are, what they will major in in college, and even their career choices so I can help kind of guide them to the right program.”
For some, it also exposed them to the realities of the college admissions process and what to expect from it. From important statistics, admissions requirements to acceptance rates, many Palmetto students reexamined the way they view the admissions process and the principle of being “one among many.”
“It’s a better feeling to hear the words straight face-to-face, even if they’re not what you want to hear,” college applicant and senior Austin Spiegelman said. “[The College Fair] was just like a reality of how high your scores need to be and them being brutally honest with you even if they didn’t give you the answers you want to hear.”
Some seniors also took note of where they envisioned themselves for the next four years. For students with special circumstances, like twins, this process has taken on a new form as they walk through this season of life together.
“We bounce ideas off each other. If there’s something I’m interested in, I tell Nate, “Hey look, you know, there’s a good opportunity at this school, think you may be interested?,” college applicant, twin brother and senior Ian Chehab said. “Due to that we gave each other ideas and have a lot of similar schools, so there’s a good chance we may end up going to the same school.”
When speaking to college representatives regarding their advice to prospective students, one thing remained clear. Students should submit their applications as early, regardless of the school’s admissions process, as possible and remain cognizant of deadlines.
“You’ve got to apply early. We encourage you to apply early because the applicant pool is a little bit less competitive,” University of Central Florida’s Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Dena Fleuridor said. “The sooner you apply, the sooner you get your decision back by so you’re not anxiously waiting to see what’s next.”