A College Guidance Counselor's Perspective (a three-part series). Part One: Rapid Changes in College Admissions

August 19, 2021

n this three-part series, HAI sat down with Krista Sergi, Director of College Guidance at the Beekman School in New York City. Krista shared the rapid changes she has seen in college admissions, what she really wants colleges to know, and the positive lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that can help colleges and high school counselors alike make the admissions process more efficient and equitable.

HAI: Hi Krista. We appreciate you making the time to talk with us. A lot of our readers work in the college admissions field, so we thought it would be helpful for them to hear from an expert on the front line of college exploration and preparation—a high school college guidance counselor!

Krista S: I’m so glad you asked me. There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to trying to help high school students find the right college fit, especially because the landscape keeps changing.

HAI: I’m sure a lot has changed since you first began your career, and you’ve worked at a lot of different schools. What are some things you have seen evolve over time?

Krista S: There have been a ton of changes in the last 10 years, with growth in things like the Common Application versus paper applications. But over the last five years, everything has changed so much every year that it feels hard for everyone to keep up.

HAI: We’re seeing that in the college world, too. What specific things are you noticing in the high school counseling realm?

Krista S: Well, for one, I’m noticing an emerging paradox in which students are applying to more schools because it’s now much easier than it used to be to apply to many schools at the same time with the Common App or the Coalition App or the UC system app. But, at the same time, colleges are requiring more writing. For example, Wake Forest has something like four supplemental essay questions, NYU has a 400-500-word essay question, and BU also has supplemental writing requirements. Basically, because students are casting their nets much wider, colleges are looking for a way to decipher why a particular applicant wants that college. This desire to make things more personal from the colleges’ perspective has created more work for applicants and counselors, so it is an intensely personal process that has gotten wider in scope.

HAI: And the COVID pandemic must be complicating things, too, right?

Krista S: Oh yes, of course. The pandemic led institutions to develop more virtual programs, which in turn allowed students to consider schools they wouldn’t have in the past. So, the shifts have been monumental and fast, and I think we’re all just looking at the data and debriefing now. We’re likely to see more changes in the upcoming cycle.

HAI: That’s interesting because we’re building statistical models and we use historical data to do this. We look at things from the college side and see the reasons why they make changes to the process, like introducing the Common Application to increase applications, or introducing a new essay in order to narrow the applicant pool down to only those who are truly interested. It’s always challenging for us to navigate those changes, but I don’t think we fully appreciated the burden these changes put on applicants and counselors as well.

Krista S: Yes, and the burden shifts quite a bit depending on the type of high school. At a large, public high school, much of the burden falls on students and their parents. Because I am at a small, independent school, part of my job is to really help students and guide them through the process. I ask my students to go to multiple information sessions at each school and write journal entries after each session so that they can use those to write very personal essays. I never let them use the same essay at more than one school, although they will sometimes recycle topics or certain sentences that work particularly well. For me, in December and January, I’m working 60-70 hours per week helping my students with the application process.

HAI: That’s intense. How many students do you typically have each year?

Krista S: There are 100 students at the school, so each grade tends to be roughly 25 students and the graduating class is typically between 25 and 30 students. When I was working at a larger high school, we had three counselors for 100 graduating seniors, so my case load is about the same now as it was then. But, when I talk to other counselors and say I have a case load of 30 students, their jaws drop open because that is typically about 1/3 of their personal case load. In my position, I have a lot more involvement with my students, and I love it!

HAI: That is great. Okay, we have some questions about the pandemic. Obviously there have been huge impacts to education, so how has the pandemic changed your work with students and families?

Krista S: In the past, I worked at a charter school where about 95% of the families were low-income (i.e., from an Expected Family Contribution of $0 to an EFC of roughly $10K); and now I work with a very wide spectrum in terms of income. I’m working with $0 EFC families, but the median AGI is $300K, so there is quite a range. I’m addressing SES because it’s so important in the work I do, particularly in the time of COVID. With higher income families, I would say COVID hasn’t changed the way I do the work. However, with the test-optional piece, a lot of my students who are high income, high achieving, but not great test-takers, ended up casting a net a lot farther than I would like. I try to cap my students between 8 and 12 applications. But this year I had a few kids apply to 20+ colleges, despite my protests.

HAI: That does seem extreme! And what about families where the income isn’t so high?

Krista S: With my low-income families, I found that they were either looking to invest in the full college experience, knowing that the COVID restrictions were being lifted, or they wanted to stay close to home and take advantage of scholarships like the NY Excelsior scholarship. People working in the industries that were impacted the most by COVID—like the service industries—really saw the advantages that people with a college education had, and they were wanting to invest in their kids’ college in whatever way they could.

HAI: That makes sense. How about middle-income students?

Krista S: Those are the families who are really struggling because, if they are not $0 EFC, they’re not getting much financial aid. For example, I might see parents making $100k annually who have an EFC of $20k. Most families in this position don't have that kind of money to spare, despite their calculated EFC. And, often the parents did not learn about 529 Savings plans early enough to save the money they would need. For these families, I am seeing a lot of students go to public colleges. In many cases, their parents are not allowing them to apply to private colleges because they know they cannot make it work financially. I’m also seeing a lot more gap-year interest, especially after having one or two rough years in high school. They are looking into City Year, AmeriCorps, Birthright Israel, things like that that they wouldn’t have considered before.

HAI: Do you feel like schools have been more willing to grant need-based aid appeals for families that have seen changes in their financial situation?

Krista S: Yes and no. With state institutions, publicly funded institutions, yes. They are much more open to the conversation, but the bar is a lot higher. For example, I was working with a family that had a double-income loss. But, to file an appeal, they had to resubmit everything (W2s, 1040s, etc.) and then also submit proof of unemployment. I’ve also seen a family where a parent has a disability, and financial aid offices asked for health insurance to verify the disability. Not everyone knows how to get all these documents. I’ve had parents in my office, distraught, while I try to log in to their unemployment or to their union system to help them get the documents they need in order to have a financial aid appeal considered. I’ve also seen parents borrowing against their annuities, which then becomes income, and they need to submit documentation around that. So, we have had great returns on financial aid appeals that have been filed, but the amount of work that we’re all doing is enormous.

HAI: And what were/are you hearing from college admissions offices through all of that?

Krista S: Many private institutions have told me they have capped their need-based aid, but that applicants can appeal for merit. But when you have students with middling GPAs or who have had a rough year grade-wise because of COVID the opportunities to get more merit aid can be limited. It’s been one of the most difficult years I’ve experienced as a college guidance counselor. In some cases, this has resulted in gap years because they just couldn’t get the required documents in time.

HAI: Did you see differences in timelines this year, in terms of when colleges made financial aid decisions?

Krista S: Yes. Aid decisions came a lot quicker than I expected, particularly with straightforward cases where there was no change in income or circumstances. This may have just been the results of early FAFSAs, but then we had students in limbo for long periods of time when it came to their financial aid appeals.

HAI: And what about admissions decisions?

Krista S: In terms of decisions, I had a lot more kids put on wait lists this year. Again, in straightforward cases, things happened quickly, but everything else was much slower. I filed decision-extensions for more than half of the graduating class. It got complicated because often I was asking for extensions because we were waiting on financial aid appeals, but it is the admissions office that must grant the extension and the admissions and financial aid offices were not always in communication. I understand that there are often good reasons for this, particularly at need-blind institutions, but I sometimes had to facilitate communication between the offices so that we had the information we needed to be able to decide.

HAI: Did you see schools going out with additional aid, without an appeal? So, the school had awarded merit and need-based aid and then, later in the spring, before any decisions were made by the families, the school offered more aid.

Krista S: I saw far less of that this year than I typically do. I see that a lot with public institutions sending out notifications of a new grant, like a “resident grant” or something similar. With private institutions that serve a particular subset of students, those with HS GPAs between 3.0 and 3.6, I’ll sometimes see them come out with additional merit-based aid. We’ve also seen some ball-playing with the schools that meet full need. We had a student who was admitted Early Decision but had to withdraw because the family couldn’t afford the $10K that was calculated as the EFC from the FAFSA. The student showed the school an offer from another school and the first school increased the student’s award so that they were able to attend. Again, it’s the middle-income students who are really in that tight, tight squeeze and those are the ones I will go to great lengths for.

HAI: Do you find that when a school that isn’t necessarily a student’s first choice decides to go out with additional aid, that the extra money influences their decision?

Krista S: It entirely depends. Oftentimes higher income families are very savvy when it comes to financial aid, and they are influenced by additional money. With the middle income, mid-GPA kids, it has an effect. It will at least bring the school back into consideration. The irony is that we just don’t see this as much with low-income students. They tend to have a lot more options because they get more aid.

HAI: Switching gears a bit, we see that colleges strive to be transparent with their prospective students, but schools are competing for the same individuals. This means that they often must hold their admission and awarding strategies close to the vest. How much of a challenge is that for you? Do you see your students comparing financial aid offers?

Krista S: This is one that also breaks down by income. Higher income families are generally not super fussed about the awarding strategy. When a student with a strong GPA from an affluent family gets an award, they generally are happy with the award. But the affluent families with kids who have middling-to-low GPAs are sometimes dubious. Middle income families are my biggest award-comparers. They do their research, they ask other parents, and they are more and more savvy about the process. With those families, I help them evaluate whether an award offered to their student tends to be in line with other awards offered to similar kids by similar schools. I will help them file an appeal if the award seems to low, given the circumstances. I fight very hard for my middle-income students who are hard workers to get them the financial aid they need. With low-income kids, the awarding strategy tends to be very straightforward and there isn’t a lot of comparison.

Colleges should look closely at their appeals and see how many students used awards from other schools, or awards other students received at the same school, in the appeal.

Note: Special thanks to our guest Krista Sergi for this great insight into the rapid changes in college guidance and admissions. Check back soon for parts two and three of this discussion.

About Our Guest

Krista Sergi began her career as a high school English teacher, and later moved to the field of college admissions at MIT. While completing her grad work at Harvard, she discovered her passion for the field of guidance counseling. Today Krista is the Director of College Guidance at The Beekman School, a small coeducational college preparatory school in New York City, where she also teaches and serves as Student Activities Director.

To learn more about our work in higher education in general, visit our higher ed solutions page.