COVID-19 and High School Counselors

Raquel BermejoAssociate Vice President, Market Research and PlanningMay 15, 2020

Admission professionals and school counselors are doing their best to adapt in a world of school closures, test cancellations, and a generally uncertain future. Each day seems to bring new test-optional announcements and event disruptions.

RNL and High School Counselor Connect surveyed nearly 2,700 counselors from public and private schools across the U.S. on how COVID-19 is impacting their work both with colleges and the students they serve. The survey included questions on a variety of issues, including their preferred communication methods and what they feel are the most pressing issues for students and families.

COVID-19 High School Counselor Survey
Nearly 2,700 high school counselors participated in our survey on how COVID-19 is impacting their work. See the findings.

By and large counselors say the information they have received from colleges and universities has been helpful, but also somewhat overwhelming. As you might expect, there was an initial onslaught of emails, webinars, newsletters, and calls from colleges trying to do their best to keep their counselor colleagues in the loop.

Hear what three counselors from across the US had to say in this RNL podcast:


One-on-one insight from a high school counselor

One of our participants was David Chehey, a college and career counselor in the Boise, Idaho area. Each year he works with more than 500 juniors and 500 seniors from fairly diverse backgrounds. We spent some time on the phone debriefing the survey results and recommendations, along with discussing how things are going “on the ground” personally and professionally. Like many of you, on the “Britney scale” of 1 to 9 (with one being peak Britney Spears circa Toxic and nine being shaved head smashing things with an umbrella), we are both hovering between a 3 and a 6.

David shared that the RNL survey was timely and relevant, but in retrospect some of his responses would now be quite different, even just days later. In the early days of COVID-19, he signed up for nearly every webinar, institutional update, and news list. He felt like he was fielding information not only from a ton of colleges, but also from College Board and ACT, test prep companies, gap year and scholarship outfits, along with managing hastily-arranged faculty, department, and district meetings while addressing the backlog of frantic student and parent emails.

The influx of updates seems to be slowing down somewhat, but he acknowledges that he is also filtering information much more intentionally. He’s feeling a sense of relief in having answers for some student, family, and teacher questions. (Will there be a June SAT? Nope. Spring AP exams? Yep.) He is also disappointment about cancellation of graduation and other end-of-year traditions, as well as his own plans for professional development and upcoming campus visits.

Like many of the counselors surveyed, his juniors are focused on the disruption to the admissions process. They are primarily concerned with the inability to complete college entrance exams, their spring grades, transcripts, participation in athletics, extracurriculars, and community service that would normally be critical components of a selective admission application. He also indicated that the changing definition of today’s “essential worker” may spark interest in majors and future career choices that might not have been as popular in the past.

David also noted that for his seniors and families, the biggest shift has been with students’ college plans. There has been a lot more discussion about gap-year programs, working, or sitting out for a semester. There are concerns about financing college and paying higher tuition if campuses continue to deliver coursework exclusively online, as well as missing out on the anticipated social aspects of being a first-year student.

In addition to the cost and experience concerns, he indicated that families are considering more local options to avoid travel and other logistical issues should another wave of coronavirus hit. For seniors, his primary advice has been to wait, reassuring them that they don’t need to make any major decisions right now, recognizing that many of his families—and college advisors and admissions folks!—are just living and sharing updates, day to day.

(For more insights into how COVID-19 has impacted senior attitudes, see our blog on a survey we did with college seniors.)

The vast majority of counselors are utilizing college websites to gather information and almost all (99 percent) indicate that they prefer to be contacted via email. While students prefer video chats, social media, and text messages, very few counselors reported that they prefer these channels. Similarly, counselors are predominantly communicating with their students via email, as well as by phone with parents. David shared that he continues to emphasize the importance of opening (and reading) email with his students, as it is the primary way to receive information not just from the school and district, but also from universities and testing entities.

Eighty-five percent of those surveyed indicate that the best thing colleges can do right now is to provide information that the counselor can then relay to students. Changes in admission criteria, deadlines, and updates related to scholarships and aid were cited as the most important issues. Takeaway for colleges—up your website game, write some catchy subject lines, and understand that Zoom fatigue is real!

In terms of best practice, the colleges that are doing it right are keeping it real by addressing the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental and emotional health. Students are dealing with a sense of loss and disappointment, when they want to be excited and focused on their future. “My students don’t necessarily want to read generic sentiments from a college president, they want to hear direct understanding, advice, and encouragement from their admission counselor or from current students.

One particular update that stood out to David was a webinar presented by the University of Arizona. “It started out by sharing how the U of A is supporting their current students through COVID-19. Seeing and hearing /Hearing how a college treats them (students)—as well as how individual schools are communicating to us and our families—can be an interesting and hopefully reassuring metric to indicate how their upcoming campus experience could be.”

Often in crisis comes opportunity, and this is a reminder of the wide variety of needs among the broader college-going population. For a profession that intensely values face-to-face interaction, this crisis has forced admission offices to focus on the quality of their online content and re-think virtual engagement. Right now a major concern for both admission officers and school counselors is the inability for students to participate in college tours and summer programs. It has never been more important for institutions to provide a top notch virtual tour experience.

As David and I wrapped up our conversation, we agreed that in some ways COVID-19 seems to have leveled the admissions playing field, as we are all in pretty much the same boat this spring and for the fall application season. Not all students have had easy access to a school or independent counselor, have resources to visit colleges in person, are able to participate in summer enrichment opportunities, or have the ability to retake standardized tests.

One positive outcome of the current situation: across the entire profession we are collaborating to swiftly identify problems and barriers, and aiming to develop new and creative solutions. Moving forward, our comradery, empathy, adaptability, and collective sense of humor (and self-care) will enable us to more sharply focus on what really matters—the well-being of our students.

Key takeaways on COVID-19 and High School Counselors

  • Messaging matters. Be genuine, timely, and compassionate in your communications with students. Your tone during the crisis sends a signal to students and families that you will care for them when they are part of your campus community.
  • Maximize the investment that you are making in virtual engagement to rethink your recruitment plans. You may be able to reach students who have traditionally missed out on campus visits and other face-to-face activities with enhanced online engagement.
  • Focus communications to school counselors on important deadlines, requirements, trends, and scholarship opportunities as a part of your ongoing communication planning.

See the results of this survey and contact us to discuss your enrollment strategies

Download the survey findings.

I hope you have found my conversation with David interesting and the survey results illuminating.

Contact RNL

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you, please contact us. We can discuss:

  • Surveying your Fall 2020 admitted students about their plans
  • See if your competitor set has changed through a Competition Analysis
  • Price Sensitivity research
  • Recruitment services
  • Financial aid services

About the Author

Raquel Bermejo

Dr. Raquel Bermejo analyzes existing search, inquiry, and conversion data in addition to conducting original research with college-seeking students and parents to understand trends and student behaviors. Her research informs and enhances the services the...

Read more about Raquel's experience and expertise

Reach Raquel by e-mail at Raquel.Bermejo@RuffaloNL.com.

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