Aug 19 2021

Giving Guidance Virtually — School Counselors Take an Online Approach

Applying to college online isn’t new, but last year counselors were forced to help high schoolers virtually with the application process. Here’s how it went.

When looking for the right college and learning how to navigate the application process, many high school students turn to their district’s counselors for advice. Beginning in March 2020 and continuing through the following school year, the pandemic forced counselors to make adjustments to the way they guided students through the college application process.

On top the stress that students typically feel when applying for college, school counselors also had to help them deal with pandemic-related anxiety. To avoid leaving students feeling stranded, counselors took various online approaches. The goal was to reach students, their families and the community in the new world of virtual learning.

Technology Connects Counselors with the Community

Counselors’ online approaches aided juniors and seniors with their applications and, in some cases, involved parents to keep them informed. Zoom extended beyond the classroom in these cases, allowing counselors to meet one on one with students and also host virtual events.

“We had a monthly parent night through Zoom where we would update parents on what’s going on,” says Dennise Villalpando, a college counselor at Cristo Rey de La Salle in Oakland, Calif. “There was always a portion of that meeting dedicated to talking about college-related things, like FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and tax information, which was at least 15 to 20 minutes long.”

To help students and their families through the process, some counselors turned to unconventional methods of communication. They reached out on social media and disseminated information there.

“A TikTok account has really helped me to get students interested in learning about scholarships,” says Amy Miller, a high school counselor at the School District of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. “Most of the time, my TikToks are really thinking in the mindset of my students, what I think they would really go for and want to apply for.”

Villalpando notes that her team frequently communicated with students via the school’s Instagram account. “Anytime I saw a scholarship go out, or free workshops being offered in the community, I would include them there,” she says.

Tech Solutions Diminish Pandemic-Imposed Impediments

For some students, connecting with their counselor wasn’t as easy as having a video appear on TikTok’s “For You” page. Some had trouble making the adjustment to online meetings, and others faced pandemic anxiety that kept them from connecting.

“Our seniors, our class of 2020, had the most difficulty adjusting to COVID-19. They were the kids who had no clue what virtual was about, how to get on a Zoom call,” Miller says.

RELATED: A survey shows students’ post-graduation plans are shifting in response to the pandemic.

Tackling new technology tools with only months — or, in some cases, weeks — remaining in their high school career left these seniors reeling. With the academic year almost over, the School District of Philadelphia opted for Google for Education tools in addition to Zoom. “We quickly learned the Google Classroom basics, we learned Google Meet, we learned Zoom, and we just went with it,” Miller says.

Amy Miller
We quickly learned the Google Classroom basics, we learned Google Meet, we learned Zoom, and we just went with it.”

Amy Miller High School Counselor, School District of Philadelphia

At Browning Public Schools in Montana, Marissa Krupa, Browning High School liaison for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) federal grant program, found that students weren’t attending her senior-specific webinars in the early months of 2021. “I did them twice a day,” she says, “on a variety of topics. One was on the essay, another was on building a high school resume, another was how to get your Social Security card if you didn’t have it.”

To get the information to students, she began compiling all of the webinar links in a newsletter and eventually copied the information to the class of 2021’s Google Classroom.

Students Discuss Their Experiences with Virtual Platforms

Each school district found the technology that helped them best connect to students. For the class of 2021, some approaches worked better and were more memorable than others. Here’s what three students found the most valuable about counselors’ online guidance during the college application process.

Videoconferencing: For many students, finding time to videoconference with counselors via Zoom or Google Meet proved too draining or nearly impossible to schedule. “It was just too much to manage multiple Zoom calls on top of the Zoom calls from my typical classes because, at that point, everything was just online,” says Sabrina Perez, who graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, N.J., in 2021.

Emily Barosin, a 2021 graduate from Locust Valley High School in New York, found virtual meetings helpful when she was able to schedule them. “Because everyone wanted to set up a Google Meet, sometimes it got a little competitive to get a slot,” she notes.

Email: Many students found that communicating with their counselors via email helped them keep track of the information they were receiving. “Most of our communications were through email, which I found particularly useful because it kept everything that we said in one place,” says Perez. “You can look back and see what they were saying and what their recommendations were, and that was very useful because I would refer back to those emails when I was filling out my common application.”

While keeping track of the information helped some students, others found that mass emails sometimes caused more confusion. “When people weren’t as adjusted to communicating virtually, a lot of the communications from our counselors were sent out en masse, and there wasn’t much individualized assistance or aid,” Barosin says. “It would have been nice to have more accessibility to my counselors.”

Webinars: Often combined with newsletters or other forms of communication, recorded webinars proved most useful for many high school seniors.

“They would do webinars on how to apply to colleges and how to navigate the websites,” says Karla Rodriguez, who graduated in 2021 from California’s Paramount High School. “I am a first-generation student, so it was difficult to do it myself.” She adds that the school recorded the webinars for students who couldn’t attend them live. This allowed them to watch and absorb the content at their own pace.

MORE ON EDTECH: Find audiovisual tools that support hybrid and virtual learning.

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