In Partnership With Five Other Colleges, Admissions Goes Virtual

At a time when in-person campus tours and other college application norms have been stifled by pandemic restrictions, the Office of Admission and Financial Aid has joined forces with five other liberal arts colleges — Bowdoin, Carleton, Pomona, Swarthmore and Williams —  in an unprecedented and coordinated effort to communicate with prospective students, parents and guidance counselors. The transformations, launched under an initiative called the “Six Colleges,” are intended to make information about admissions, student life and financial aid accessible at a time when traditional, in-person forms of student outreach are limited. Under this new partnership, the colleges continue their search for improved virtual outreach programming, a process they’ve been honing since the spring.  

“The college search is already stressful for students and families,” the Six Colleges website says. “This year it’s even more difficult. So Amherst, Bowdoin, Carleton, Pomona, Swarthmore and Williams are putting our own competition aside, and hosting a series of virtual events for students, families, and counselors.” With its first webinar launched on Aug. 26, he site serves as a platform where individuals can register for individual events, watch uploaded videos, and find direct links to each of the college’s webpages. 

The changes in admission outreach accompany other modifications in the college’s admissions policies brought about by Covid, including a waiver of advance tuition deposits, a one year suspension of the SAT/ACT testing requirements and more lenient consideration of transfer credit. And as admitted students weekends came to a standstill last spring, the Office of Admission experimented with digital platforms like ZeeMee to connect applicants with current students and one another.

To reach students from diverse geographic and economic backgrounds, the college has also decided to supplement non-digital forms of contact like mail, college fairs, college tours and telephone calls.

The six colleges range in location — from Maine to to California — but have similar statistics regarding admissions rates and cost. In spite of the collaboration, individual admissions and financial aid decisions will continue to be made by the respective colleges. 

Since Sept. 7, the coalition has had two virtual events. The events were one hour in length, hosted by a dean or director of admissions from each school and held question and answer sessions at the end. The first event explained the schools’ decision to work together  — rather than compete  — as a demonstration of the value in a liberal arts education. About 1,150  registered prospective students attended from 48 states and five continents, according to Zolkos.

The second event addressed topics including faculty, classes options and undergraduate research. At this session, over 1,800 attendees joined. Upcoming lectures will be set up in the same format and will cover one of the following: financial aid, the QuestBridge match program and international applicants. 

For Claudia Marroquin, director of admissions at Bowdoin College, the Six Colleges initiative serves to highlight the commonalities among the partnering institutions. “The collaboration is meant to help students understand the shared values and practices at our schools at a time when students, counselors, schools (high schools and colleges) are adjusting to the fully virtual ways of engaging with college admissions offices. The collaboration is a one-stop to being introduced to our six schools and important topics,” she wrote in a statement.

Marroquin added that it is still too soon to determine whether the collaboration has been successful. But with the turnout rate for the first two events so high, the early signs look upward. “We had more questions submitted than we could address live, so there is clearly a need and an interest in this type of programming,” she said.

“In a year in which it’s exceedingly difficult for students to visit colleges across the country we feel it is important to work together, in a noncompetitive way, to connect with students in ways that are intended to help provide information more efficiently and with greater collaboration,” said the college’s Dean of Admission Catherine Zolkos. “In a typical year, admission officers travel to high schools, community organizations, community colleges, college fairs and conferences to connect with prospective students in their own settings. We also welcome many visitors to campus for tours, information sessions, and open houses. Outreach, even definitionally, is about reaching students who may not find us on their own.” 

Zolkos added that the college will continue to focus its outreach efforts on “students who are the first in their family to attend college and students of color.” This aligns with the Trustee Statement on Diversity that was released in 1996. According to the college’s most recent Report to Secondary Schools, 47 percent of students in the class of 2022 self-identify as students of color, while 15 percent identify as first-generation college students and 30 percent are Pell grant eligible.

Zolkos emphasized that the team is “working hard to build and maintain connections with prospective students in the virtual world. Since the middle of March, all of our outreach has transitioned to virtual spaces. While we pivoted to entirely remote outreach, we are hopeful that we may be able to engage students who in the past have not been able to visit campus or attend high school-based information sessions, in addition to students who may already be familiar with Amherst.”

She also expressed that Amherst has expanded outreach efforts by offering admission officer-led information sessions on Zoom to students across the globe. Outreach is offered according to geographic regions, time zones, community-based organization affiliations, or even high schools. 

For the time being, the college has replaced in-person visits with virtual tours. This semester, tours will be held over zoom and will be shortened from an hour to 45 minutes. To accommodate as many time zones as possible, there will be tours as early as 8:30AM EST and some as late as 8:30PM EST. 

Aditi Nayak ’23, a tour guide, said that the tours will consist of “a presentation to show places on campus and our experiences at Amherst. “We each personalized our own presentation so that it best showcases our individual Amherst experience,” she said. “Like in person tours, visitors can ask questions at any point during the tour. One thing I’m excited for is the themed panel discussions, where we can go more in depth into specific topics (like STEM, FLI, athletics, etc.) because we often run out of time to answer these questions during tours.”

The team has also enlisted the help of summer interns to share their experiences in recorded sessions. These videos, which are posted on the Amherst webpage, are meant to provide additional insight for students.

The Office of Admission acknowledged that they are new to remote admission outreach. “We continually assess our efforts and look for ways to improve outreach to prospective students. Much like our students have had to change the ways they learn, and our faculty have had to change the way they teach, in admission, we have had to change the way we connect with prospective students. While we are still new at remote admission outreach, Amherst is working hard to take a leadership role in supporting prospective students,” the office said in a statement to The Student. In this process, the virtual six-college partnership is just one step, but, to the college, it’s a crucial one in expanding information to students without any of the conventions relied on for years.