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One of the things Ursinus College does to stay in touch during the pandemic with high school counselors who advise students on where to go to college is send out a survey. Most of the questions, and answers, weren’t that surprising (we’ll come back to them).

But Shannon Zottola, vice president and dean of enrollment management and marketing, said the most important message may have been in the open-ended question about the impact of COVID-19 on the year.

The results: counselors and their students are burned out, frustrated by the pandemic, and the reality that their high school (and likely college) experience has changed.

One response: "Our kids are really burnt out. Their usual ability to persevere is significantly lower. They are needing schools to come to them not the other way around. Doing virtual events is NOT helpful as they don’t even want to look at a screen."

Another response: "Students are experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety with being back in person. Even the brightest students are struggling with completing homework and being present."

And another: "Our students are markedly less mature this year, and moving through the college application process slowly. I don’t know that Ursinus can help, but the pandemic definitely hurt the students’ development and maturity."

And another: "I don’t think letters of recommendation will be as strong as students seem more bewildered than usual about teachers who may actually know them."

The reality is that for counselors working with such students, the counselors are also at risk of burnout.

"The burnout and fatigue is unprecedented, and of serious concern to all of us in the profession," said Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "The job was already challenging before the pandemic, but what my college and school counseling colleagues are now facing makes the burnout inevitable. We tend to focus so much on the work of higher education professionals, but let’s not forget our college-access warriors on the ground who counsel thousands of students each year, with fewer resources, greater demands and very little praise."

Pérez wasn’t involved in the survey. Nor was a counselor who provided her thoughts on burnout, without her name, given that she is talking about students.

"Adolescents are notorious procrastinators," she said via email. "Many counselors had no in-person access to students and many students had no in-person classes for extended periods of time -- tough for teachers and counselors to write recommendations under those circumstances (and even tougher where the counselor to student ratios are outrageous in normal times). Screen time overload is real and in-person everything is longed for. Neither parents nor students truly believe admissions offices mean what they say about test-optional admissions, hence the continued test-prep frenzy."

She added, "Admissions folks are always navigating the next admissions cycle before the last one has been completed, biting their fingernails and hoping to make their numbers (and some didn’t make their class by May 1 or even June 1). Unrealistic expectations fueled (in part) by test-optional admissions has caused application numbers to soar at the everybody-knows-your name, sought after, bumper-sticker places, yet some lesser known, closer-to-home colleges had banner admissions years (and others had abysmal results). Counselors having watched the last admissions cycle range from skeptical to cynical."

She stressed the realities of the counselors’ jobs: "Note, it takes more than the just add hot water and serve approach to the college search for it to produce meaningful and effective choices for students. Counseling is hard -- very hard -- and it takes time and relationship-building skills that develop over time. The pandemic has made that even tougher for counselors, teachers and students. Denials will abound given the glut of applications … I worry that counselors, like those working in some other fields across the economy, will abandon their posts for a less stressful undertaking. Many just might."

What to do about the burnout? She said, "Everyone needs to take a step back and breathe. Easy to say -- hard to do. The frenzy, and it is quite a frenzy, in the admissions world is also powered by misconceptions, failure to read the fine print (or failure to read any of the print), parental overdrive, marketing mania, and an emphasis on pursuing Big Name U vs. finding fertile ground for growth for specific students."

Ursinus has done more than letting the counselors and students breathe. For instance, the college has supplemented traditional campus visits with virtual visits. And to make it possible for counselors who don’t want to travel to really appreciate the intense visits, the college has arranged for hotel stays -- in the counselors’ hometowns -- so the counselors can have the experience of being away from their regular responsibilities.

The college has also worked on the language it uses with students.

For instance, the college originally sent applicants a text message that said, "Thank you for submitting your Ursinus College application. Our records indicate that we are missing the following item(s) from your file … Please submit any outstanding documents ASAP. Thank you and have a great day!"

Now the college says, "Thank you for submitting your application to Ursinus College! If you haven’t already, please submit/request the following items … If they are on their way to Ursinus, you are all set. Thank you and have a great day!"

Zottola said that relatively small change seems to have had a positive impact on students -- and the counselors they reach out to when they receive the text.

The other findings from the 259 responses (78 percent of whom worked in a high school and 22 percent of whom were independent counselors):

  • Fifty-seven percent said students last year applied to the same number of colleges, as they likely would have before. Of the remainder, 29 percent said they applied more colleges and 14 percent to fewer colleges.
  • Sixty-five percent said that their students applied to more colleges close to home than did so before the pandemic.
  • A large majority -- 80 percent -- said they were encouraging students to apply to the same number of colleges as before the pandemic. Twenty percent said they were encouraging students to apply to more colleges.

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