An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling 

In June 2018, the college counseling office hosted a Zoom webinar attended by 25 Upper School parents and guardians. We had envisioned that a virtual event would make attending easier for families, and feedback conveyed it did. In the 2018-2019 school year, we hosted two more webinars, and in fall 2019, we conducted all our evening College Talks over Zoom. When the pandemic hit, the college counseling office had already hosted almost a dozen Zoom webinars. 

For years, the college counseling office had been incorporating virtual meetings into our program. Juniors attending School Year Abroad, The Mountain School, and other off-campus programs followed the same college timeline as their classmates by meeting over Skype (and later, over Zoom or Microsoft Teams) with their counselors. The counselors always meet with each rising senior in August, and in 2018, we began offering virtual meetings for students who were travelling. In August 2019, we met with all seniors over Zoom to minimize students commuting to campus, and to be equitable to students who lacked the means to travel to campus.  

When much of the world was upended by COVID last March, the college counseling program wasn’t. Fewer than 24 hours after Head of School Bernie Noe announced Lakeside’s closure, we had transitioned our in-person platform to a virtual space almost entirely. As schools nationwide began to close, colleagues at other schools reached out for guidance. Many had never operated virtually in any way. “Your office is so cutting-edge,” one colleague told me. “No wonder you guys are making it through these unusual times so smoothly!” 

Yet our goal was never to be “cutting edge.” Rather, it was only to serve all our students (and by extension, their families) very well. Using Zoom (or any virtual platform) was simply a tool to help us achieve our goal.  

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve committed ourselves to being outstanding college counselors. We know that providing uncompromised, high-quality counseling would require us to be nimble, flexible, and adaptable. And we have been. Below are a few examples of how we continued to provide outstanding service to students and their families: 

  • When colleges closed last spring, our office immediately began brainstorming how to help students understand campus “vibes” without the benefit of in-person college visits. Tiffany Fujioka, senior associate director of college counseling, proposed virtual “alumni chats” — Zoom meetings where Lakeside alumni in college would speak to current students. In mid-April, we hosted more than 50 virtual alumni chats. As I listened to our alumni and students engage, I was reminded that the meaning and value of the Lakeside community extends far beyond campus, even Seattle. Most of the alumni and current students had never met, but they were connected by Lakeside: a connection that allowed for deep and authentic conversations, questioning, laughter, and candor. Our students found the virtual alumni chats so helpful that we will continue them, even after the pandemic. 
  • As we prepared for the start of school, our office worried about Zoom fatigue. In most years, almost 100 colleges visit Lakeside during the fall to speak with students. Most high schools were merely replacing in-person meetings with virtual meetings. We wondered how to enable students to connect with colleges to ask questions, demonstrate interest (many colleges consider demonstration of interest in their decision-making), and make a brief, positive impression — but without adding more Zoom meetings to their schedules. Associate Director of College Counseling Mal Goss suggested Flipgrid, a platform where students upload brief videos introducing themselves and posing questions. After watching their videos, the college responds with a Lakeside-specific video. While these interactions utilize screen time, they’re less time-consuming, and students engage at their convenience. (Many colleges have told us they’re excited to try this new approach!) We’re hopeful this model might provide another way for colleges to connect with our students, even after the pandemic — for example, when scheduling conflicts prohibit a visit, or when a college doesn’t travel to our region. 
  • While the counselors have long been accessible to students by email in between meetings, working and learning remotely has eliminated the ability for students to “pop in” with questions. The counselors respond quickly to emails, but email is not a quality substitute for conversation. So I’ve begun offering my students the option of communicating through Flipgrid. Rather than writing an email, students can post a private video posing their questions. I receive an email alert and then respond in Flipgrid with a video. This “asynchronous conversation” continues until the student feels their questions are answered or until their concerns are resolved. 

The pandemic has caused many changes in the college admissions and college counseling landscape, and I imagine some of those will become permanent. There have been extensive changes in standardized testing requirements (see my summer communication here for details). Colleges have launched robust virtual programming, giving prospective students easy access to panels of students, faculty, and residential life administrators, as well as virtual tours with student guides — a contrast to the traditional on-campus visit where students’ interactions are typically limited to one tour guide and a college admissions officer. Colleges are already stating they will continue their virtual program, even after their campuses reopen to visitors. 

The admissions landscape will continue to evolve after the pandemic. While I can’t predict exactly how, families should feel confident that our office will continue to look for innovative approaches to best serve students, no matter how these approaches require us to adapt. That was our mentality before COVID, and will continue to be our approach post-COVID. 

If that makes us “cutting edge,” so be it.