College Apps, the Pandemic, and How Our Students Found Their Way

College Apps, the Pandemic, and How Our Students Found Their Way
Lynne Palmer

We sat down recently with our Dean of College Counseling, Laura Duffy, to get a sense of how the college process has gone for Brewster students, what trends and changes she and her colleague Timothy Cushing, Assistant Director of College Counseling, have seen at the university level, and how this might influence the college horizon ahead. We also spoke with students on their impression of the process, what they were looking for in a college, and how Brewster helped get them there.

Q. During the pandemic, what was the biggest change in the college application process?

A. The biggest change has been the test optional adjustment, meaning not all admissions offices are requiring applicants to submit their SAT or ACT test scores to be considered. The early reports from universities that previously required testing confirm that it was a very fair process and almost half of the applications submitted were without accompanying testing. It helped our students—the focus was on grades, strength of transcript, and teacher recommendations. 

Q. How did this change in required testing adjust your counseling methodology?

A. Our approach was to review a student’s list of schools, identify the test-optional schools, and apply our knowledge of the accepted profile in strategically counseling individual students. In the end, more than half of Brewster students did not submit testing. The testing results this year may not have been a real reflection of the student profile, as they did not have the same options to take the testing due to COVID. They were not able to take the test as juniors in the spring or summer. Most students participated in the fall testing and just took it once, when, typically, they might have completed multiple tests. Recognizing these realities, we did not push the testing as we knew that colleges were making a real effort to make sure no one would be penalized. 

Q. Did this affect the number of students applying to college?

A. Overall, some colleges saw an increase in applications of 40% or more, likely because with universities no longer requiring testing, students felt more confident about their chances to be accepted. Tim and I noted that many schools went to their waitlist before May 1, which was not typical. With so many more applications, they were unsure of how to anticipate actual yield. They weren’t able to develop the same relationship with applicants through the College Board process to gain the usual confidence in decision making, and thus the dust may not settle on this until June for many universities. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future. Will these colleges remain test optional and how will they adapt their practices accordingly in the future? 

Q. How did the pandemic situation influence how Brewster students had to adjust?

A. Students had to hone in on what they were looking for in a college without seeing the campus. They focused more on the substantive components of the decision process, like programs and majors, size of school, and location, more than they have in past years. This year was far less about the bells and whistles a campus might provide and really more about the academic fit. Tim and I rarely faced complaints from students—they recognized that it was just what it was, and they needed to move forward. All college representative visits in the fall were virtual, and the kids were not only great at committing to these meetings, they were engaging and made every effort to make a good impression.

Q. What was it like working with students online this year?  

A. Tim and I started working with all 22 of our Royal Thai Scholars during the 2020 summer and throughout the winter. They were so engaged in the process, and it was easy to get to know them well. It was so great to see them in person when they arrived on campus in March! I’ll continue to work with the Thai scholars who will be arriving on campus this summer. We also worked with a handful of our other on-line students, but they were all returning students, so we had already started profiles and college lists with them last spring. 

Q. What came out of this year’s college admissions cycle that you see hanging around going forward?

A. There were definitely more options for kids to get to know colleges virtually. I believe that we will see college campuses opening up to visits this summer and trying to make more personal connections for students who are taking advantage of the virtual options. We are starting to advise juniors differently by directing them to specific areas of a school’s website to do more research about their possible majors or interests, and to let them know they are an interested applicant. Students are more visual learners today, and this allows us to guide their research and outreach in ways that are more comfortable for them to process. 

Q. Were there any surprises or special moments you can share with us?

A. Yes. A life-changing moment for one of our students—Yezena Degu Endeshaw. Yezena has always dreamed of finding a school where she could study the sciences and health services inspired by very personal reasons. Both of her parents died from health issues and she is passionate about making a difference in this area. In order to make this a reality, she needed to find, apply, and recieve a fully funded scholarship, which is an extremely limited and selective process. After being denied as a finalist at one school, Yez was notified that she received the Ann and Andrew Tisch Scholarship for Refugee Women for a student whose education has been interrupted as a result of war, persecution, conflict, natural disaster, or crisis at Barnard College. It was such an exhilarating moment to watch Yezena’s face when I shared the news with her. She is so deserving of this amazing opportunity!

Q. How would you summarize this year from a college counseling perspective?

A. This year went particularly well, especially given the challenges that the pandemic presented. The opportunity for students to take a pause and do some stronger self reflection was positive and created less anxiety for the whole family. Parents seemed so grateful that their children were able to be present,  working with our office, and happy with the many options that students had at the end of their hard work and collective efforts. It will be interesting to see what the future holds in terms of changes that may stick at the university level, but overall it was a successful and resilient journey for the Class of 2021.


Brewster students’ college wish lists are diverse and unique to each scholar. These reflections showcase what our students are looking for as they take their next steps into their lives of purpose, and how their Brewster experience got them closer to their dreams. 

Katie Knapp | Syracuse University - I thought that originally I wanted a small school. However, after doing some research on Syracuse and talking to people, I changed my mind. The education program is a small school within a big school. Not only that, but I will be in the classroom my freshman year and be dual-certified.  

Having connections with my teachers at Brewster and having a tight-knit community was a huge factor in my college decision. I made sure that Syracuse had academic support and that the professors worked closely with the students. 

Kaeli Bennett | Smith College - I chose this school because I am already familiar and comfortable with the location, and it’s a liberal arts college, which is the direction I see my life going. I get to participate in athletics (field hockey) on the school's collegiate team, and I'm excited to take advantage of my school's open curriculum in order to take classes that I find interesting like literature, ecology, and journalism, and then choose my path of study from there. 

Brewster helped me learn more about myself by providing different classes, clubs, and learning experiences that I did not have otherwise. I had no access to AP classes or journalism through my old school. 

Lucas Valinoti | DePaul University - Right now I would like to go into some facet of the music business, potentially marketing or management for artists, and I'd be excited to learn more about the music industry as well as different marketing strategies.

See more college choice photos here.

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