Inside Mackenzie: Navigating Admissions Amid Covid-19
Lawrenceville Admissions: On March 10, 2020, Lawrenceville’s annual decision date, the admissions team spent the day stuffing acceptance letters with pendants, stickers, and invitations to on-campus revisit days.
Lawrenceville Admissions: On March 10, 2020, Lawrenceville’s annual decision date, the admissions team spent the day stuffing acceptance letters with pendants, stickers, and invitations to on-campus revisit days. Within 24 hours, the escalating peril of the coronavirus rendered those invitations superfluous, prompting admissions officers to begin planning virtual revisit days. At the time, they simply worked to accommodate revisit days in an online format, but once in-person visits and tours were cancelled for the following school year, the team faced a new challenge: conducting the admissions process for the Class of 2025 in an entirely remote format.
As admissions officers brainstormed ideas for virtual offerings, their primary focus was “figuring out how to do the best job and make a lasting impression on applicants,” according to Assistant Dean of Admissions Christine Ding. This incentive inspired two new initiatives: a virtual tour, hosted by Tour Guide Council members Dylan Welborne ’21 and Marcos Maldacena ’21, and the Best For All series, webinars focused on different facets of life at Lawrenceville hosted by various faculty members and students.
Dean of Enrollment Management Greg Buckles appreciated the admissions officers’ ingenuity when adapting the admissions process to a virtual format. “When the usual tools and tactics are not available, to be as creative and responsive as our staff has been this season has made me extraordinarily proud,” he said.
While face-to-face interactions are invaluable, the admissions office aimed to preserve aspects of the in-person experience wherever possible. “We sincerely believe that people fall in love with Lawrenceville [when] they come to our beautiful campus, meet [Visit Coordinator] Patricia MacKinnon, and speak with a tour guide. It’s the people that allow applicants to become truly immersed in our community during their visits,” Ding said.
In order to forge these critical relationships online, tour guides reached out to prospective students via email, offering to answer any questions about the School. Head Tour Guide Bernice Hightower ’21 noted that MacKinnon “does her best to match up students based on shared interests” and Hightower “make[s] sure to convey this element of personalization in [her] emails.”
According to Head Tour Guide Henry Murray ’21, students felt more compelled to apply to boarding school, and specifically Lawrenceville, this year, after connecting with current students through the unique pairing process and noticing the School’s initiative to go in-person despite the pandemic. “One student I chatted with really appreciated being personally paired up with someone....this was actually one of the main reasons he was attracted to Lawrenceville, especially since he did not have the same experience at other schools,” Murray said.
In addition to connecting directly with students, the Tour Guide Council also brainstormed ideas for reaching prospective applicants through social media, primarily the Lawrenceville Admissions Instagram, in their weekly meetings. Each Friday, the admissions office posts a fun fact about the School and periodically features members of the Tour Guide Council, who share pictures along with their favorite memories or traditions at Lawrenceville. Murray noted that the Instagram features are especially informative because “each person has [his or her] own favorite experience at Lawrenceville” and “it’s important to share those unique anecdotes with potential applicants.”
This year, the School welcomed four new members to the admissions office: Senior Associate Dean of Admission and Coordinator of International Recruitment Dana Brown, Assistant Dean of Admission and History Teacher Douglas Davis, Associate Dean of Admission and Athletic Recruitment Coordinator Jonathan Posner, and Director of Financial Aid and Associate Dean of Admission Sara Tucker. Dean of Admission Operations and Assistant Director of Financial Aid Lauren Gold was enthusiastic about the new perspectives each director offered: “It’s easy to find yourself in a ‘Lawrenceville mindset’ after so many years of doing the same thing. The answer should never be ‘well this is the way we have always done it,’ so it was great to have new admissions directors pushing everyone along.”
Despite the various changes implemented this year, Lawrenceville has received an overwhelmingly positive response from prospective families. In fact, Hightower believes that certain aspects of the admissions process from this year such as “reaching out to international students via email and hosting Best For All webinars,” may be “promising initiatives to continue in future years.”
Reflecting on this year’s admissions cycle, Buckles “enjoyed connecting with prospective applicants,” and when conducting interviews, he often posed one question,in particular: “If you had one day off, post Covid-19, what would you do?” According to Buckles, almost every interviewee stated that he or she would spend as much time as possible surrounded by people. “There is a level of additional perseverance and resilience [that] I see in these particular students. It will be interesting to see how this class participates in the community and chooses to share their energy once they arrive at Lawrenceville next year,” he said.
CCO & College Admissions: When their counselees stepped foot in their offices for the first time this fall, Directors of College Counseling Holly Burks Becker P’06 ’09 ’12 and Jeffrey Durso-Finley P’13 ’14 ’19 ’22 immediately noticed how tall they were. Somehow, the students’ heights conflicted with the images the two counselors had conjured in their minds, having only seen the students’ upper halves on Zoom. That being said, Burks Becker’s shock of meeting her six-foot-three counselee was just one side-effect of the larger changes that Covid-19 has brought to the V Form’s college process.
As we check the news each day to inspect the everchanging statistics of Covid-19, the College Counseling Office (CCO) has also been engaging in, as Durso-Finley described, a “relentless pursuit of new information.” From scouring publications to requesting information from colleges, the team has diligently worked to keep track of updates in the world of college admissions.
When Lawrenceville went virtual in the Spring Term, the CCO wasn’t “very practiced in having Zoom calls to get to know people,” as Burks Becker said. While it is more exciting to interact with students in-person and host “Donut Day” every Tuesday, Durso-Finley noted that operating virtually was convenient, especially since students could schedule more one-on-one appointments than in past years. “If it’s February and there are 12 inches of snow on the ground, walking over to Mackenzie is less appealing than jumping on Zoom for 15 minutes,” he said.
Although students met with their college counselors frequently, they faced uncertainty and stress due to other challenges posed by the pandemic. Across the globe, standardized tests were canceled for months on end, prompting colleges to adopt a test-optional policy. Recently, the CollegeBoard announced their decision to discontinue SAT Subject Tests altogether. According to Durso-Finley, some colleges stopped requiring these tests prior to the pandemic, and the CollegeBoard’s decision has only reinforced the declining importance of standardized testing as a whole.
Lawrenceville’s adoption of a pass-fail system in the Spring Term also worried students, as IV Form grades are an important marker of a student’s academic standing. However, as Durso-Finley noted, a pass-fail transcript was not “a localized phenomenon—it was a nationwide, if not a global phenomenon—so everybody’s in the same boat.”
Beyond academics and testing, Covid-19 hindered student-athletes’ recruiting prospects. “The two biggest hockey tournaments and recruiting hubs of my [IV Form] spring were cancelled right in the prime of my recruiting process,” Girls Varsity Ice Hockey goalie Devon Cole ’21 said. As a result, Cole primarily communicated with coaches via email and shared six-month-old footage, unable to demonstrate her present skill level and abilities. She added that coaches this year were especially “keen on knowing what she was doing off the ice,” such as strength and conditioning exercises, as it “signaled passion and proactivity during times of uncertainty.”
The inability to tour schools in-person is another obstacle students have faced this past year. Having driven through a few colleges already, Hadley Flanagan ’22 noticed that she “couldn’t really see how students interacted with each other on [Covid-19]-restricted campuses,” making it difficult to envision herself at a particular school and gauge its campus culture. As an alternative, colleges instituted online information sessions, pre-recorded guided tours, and opportunities to connect with current students and alumni. When compared with in-person visits, Burks Becker believes that virtual offerings allow students to develop objective opinions about each school as they finalize college lists and decision plans.
The pandemic coupled with the enormous influx of applicants this year also restricted colleges from offering in-person interviews. Grayson Miller ’21 was only able to interview at two schools and noticed that they “were hit-or-miss over Zoom”; while one went as smoothly as it would have gone in-person, he felt that the other was “more choppy, filled with lagging response times and awkward pauses.”
Now that V Formers have filed their applications, the CCO has turned their attention to IV Formers, who attended their kickoff meeting on Zoom in mid January. While in most years, the IV Form gathers in the Heely Room, buzzing with excitement as they receive their counselor assignments, the CCO struggled to sense that spirit this year. Nonetheless, they look forward to working with the “fresh, eager, and energetic” IV Formers over the next year.
As IV Formers begin the college process, Durso-Finley and Burks Becker have one main piece of advice: don’t stress. Why? According to Durso-Finley, many of the issues posed by the pandemic have been addressed: the value of standardized tests for colleges is declining, colleges have employed “remarkably comprehensive” online resources, and “pass-fail grades are now a year away.”
“College applications can be a fun process; [students] need to engage and not be scared of what’s different,” Burks Becker said. “Whatever the process is, embrace it, be open-minded, and make the most of the opportunities available.”