A College Guidance Counselor's Perspective (a three-part series). Part Three: Lessons Learned; Looking Ahead

October 12, 2021

or the final installment in our three-part series, HAI sat down, one last time, with Krista Sergi, Director of College Guidance at the Beekman School in New York City. Krista shared the lessons she has learned since our worlds were reshaped by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and some of the positive things she saw come from the chaos.

HAI: In our previous discussion, we talked about what you’d like college admissions offices to know. For our final installment, let’s share some of the positive things that came out of the chaos caused by COVID, and how higher ed institutions might use those insights to improve outreach and parity.

Krista S: Sounds great! For me, personally, the pandemic made some things a bit easier because Zoom allowed me to have more facetime with my students and allowed colleges to reach more students with their information sessions. Just in terms of the impact on the college application process from my viewpoint, I found, in general, there were more positive changes than negative ones.

HAI: What are some of the positive changes you hope to see continue, moving forward?

Krista S: In my opinion, Zoom had a positive impact on education. I know a lot of teachers would disagree, but, as a counselor, it made things easier. I am not part of a union and I understand that those who are, must work set hours. But for me, being able to meet with a family at 7:00 PM to do more counseling, made such a positive impact. I could meet with parents and kids separately, and then meet with them both together, which I love to do. It was incredible to be able to do that.

HAI: How else did you see Zoom affect the process for families?

Krista S: Well, virtual information sessions are the best thing ever created, in my book! They allowed students to learn about schools that they would not have been able to visit in pre-pandemic times because the visits just weren’t practical, and suddenly they were able to attend multiple info sessions and webinars at each school. I also found that colleges were valuing communication more. Because I have the luxury of working with a small group of students, I could have them make pros and cons lists after every info session, send questions to the schools, and send nice thank you notes.

HAI: And were there any places where you saw hiccups or issues?

Krista S: National Portfolio Day did not go well because it was the first time it had been done and they didn’t expect the volume that they received, which is no one’s fault. However, it started email communications between kids and people reviewing portfolios and that line of communication had never been there before. I think that several of my students got into their top colleges this year when they might not have in previous years because they were able to be more communicative.

Summer programs have also been great. Schools have been offering virtual summer programs that are typically lower cost and even awarding financial aid for these programs, so students who wouldn’t have had the ability to attend an in-person summer program in the past were now able to have that experience.

Also, personal virtual info sessions with admission staff have been so helpful. When I worked in Boston, I had college reps visiting every day. At my current school, we can’t do that because we are using every room in the school, all the time. The virtual sessions allowed my students to have an experience that they would not have had in the past.

HAI: That’s interesting because one of the biggest struggles for us during the pandemic is that campus visits are typically strong predictors of enrollment, so we’ve heard a lot of concerns about how the virtual interactions would compare with the in-person visits and whether a virtual tour or info session would be as impactful. But it’s interesting that the virtual interactions have allowed students to get some exposure to schools that they would not have otherwise. It could even be the case that the virtual visits allow more one-on-one interaction and more personal attention for each student.

Krista S: It’s a bit of a catch-22 because some schools did an amazing job with the virtual visits. I’ll give a shout-out to American and Clark – they were so on-top of their game. They ran contests with prizes for the applicants who participated in the most webinars or info sessions. In other cases, however, schools couldn’t have the students on camera or the students weren’t able to ask questions. Some just had major technical challenges and those experiences ended up pushing some students away from particular schools. The same can happen with in-person experiences. If you have a great tour guide, that can really increase a student’s interest in a school. But, if you don’t have a good experience, that can sometimes push students away. What I saw with my students is that, once on-campus visits opened, they were more likely to go to one if they liked the virtual visit. There were some schools that did not provide any virtual info sessions and my students were not interested in learning more about those schools.

HAI: Do you think the virtual experiences are here to stay?

Krista S: I don’t know, but I really hope that schools will continue to offer some. To be effective, they have to be interactive; they can’t be pre-recorded, and it can’t just be a PowerPoint presentation. And, when students contact a school after a session, the school needs to send them a non-generic response. Students love that – it just delights them, and they feel like the college is looking at them. It makes a big difference.

HAI: That is great perspective for the schools that we work with to have.

Krista S: Students like to be seen, but they don’t like to be over-spammed. When colleges email them every day, it can be off-putting. Students now are looking for colleges that match their identity. If they are spoken to directly by someone at the college, in a non-generic way, it means so much to them.

HAI: I know that none of us really know what will happen in the next cycle, but what are you expecting, in terms of changes?

Krista S: I’m hoping we will see a hybrid approach for the next cycle – something that combines virtual info sessions with in-person experiences. I’ve had a lot of colleges ask me if we want them to visit, if we want to bring students to them, or if we want virtual sessions. The fact that so many schools have already asked me this tells me that the virtual component is not going to completely go away. I think hybrid interactions are the way of the future and are best for both the students and the college admission reps.

I also suspect we will see a change in students’ lists of schools they are interested in. I think this experience has made students more savvy. As I mentioned, we’re doing a lot more identity work with students and they want that from colleges. To give another shout-out, Sarah Lawrence does amazing identity work with their application, getting students to think about who they are and whether they are a good fit for Sarah Lawrence, and vice versa.

All my rising seniors are ready to go this year. They want to attend virtual visits this summer so that they can plan in-person visits for the fall. This is one of the best changes I ever could have asked for in my career: students are not choosing schools blind anymore. They come back to me with questions after their virtual sessions and together we evaluate whether the student should give the school another look or not.

HAI: Helping students find the right fit is what it’s all about, so that is great to hear. Thanks again for making the time to talk with us and share your insight with our readers. And best of luck with this year’s class of college applicants. They are lucky to have you in their corner!

Krista S: My pleasure. I feel just as fortunate to be able to do the work that I do. It’s so rewarding to help my students make choices that set them on firm ground for the future.

Note: This is the last installment of a three-part series. You can read part one here, and part two here.

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.

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