University Scholarships in the Time of Covid-19

Listen to “Episode 15: University Scholarships in the Time of Covid-19 – Chaffee Viets” on Spreaker.

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Chaffee!

“What is going to happen with college application processes this year?” While much is still unknown and will continue to be, I know higher education professionals are working hard to answer that question every day. For my part, that work involves considering how applications for major scholarships at our university will be affected. Part of that work includes talking with scholarship program administrators nationwide to get an idea of best practices in a world affected by Covid-19.

There is a lot of uncertainty right now. I would like to draw upon some wisdom from one of my very favorite movies: Hoosiers. Despite the obvious 1980s-era sound editing, this story set in 1950s Indiana has a number of great lessons. One among them? Focus on the present in urgent situations rather than the future. Coach Dale tells his team – which is about to play in, but unlikely to win, their upcoming playoff game – they should not even ask about going to the next stage until they have won the game in front of them. What does that mean? I will come back to that.

Dates and Application Format

Even in a normal year, I advise students to double check the deadlines when applications for scholarships are due. Why? Every year some universities change the date when their applications are due. Date changes are likelier this year as institutions adapt to the effects of Covid-19. I conducted an informal survey with a few of my scholarship program administrator peers and slightly more than half of them said “yes” or “unsure” when asked if their timeline would change.

A few years ago, Georgia Tech moved its early action due date up by two weeks. Despite notifications going up on our main admission site and our scholarship program page, despite information sessions held across the state and in key parts of the U.S., we still had students, parents, and counselors who submitted materials late. Even though we gave a few days’ grace, there came a point when late was simply late, and we could not accept the applications.

The application format can also change, and I suspect that will be truer this year than in past years. Several schools consider you for all scholarships simply because you apply for admission, but many do not. Regardless, typically one or more applications for financial aid must also be submitted, including the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and institutional applications. For some colleges, early versus regular admission does not matter. At Georgia Tech, you must apply for early action admission to be considered for our most prestigious merit scholarships. We have other institutional scholarships which are available to students who apply via either plan (regular decision and early action).

There are still financial aid applications that must submitted as well. One of our sister institutions requires a separate application for their top scholarship and the due date, at least in past years, did not coincide with either early action or regular decision admissions dates. The take home message is, you must check in early fall for instructions on scholarship applications just like you would for admissions.

A few years back, I received in the mail – yes, on paper – a recommendation form along with a letter for the scholarship program I manage. The recommendation form and instructions were from a decade earlier. Yes, 10 years! Rather than checking the internet for current instructions on how to apply, the individual somehow had a paper form from years before they found and submitted. In 22 years of working with scholarship selection processes, it was one of the most baffling experiences I have had!

Take home point: Whatever schools most interest you … check the dates and procedures for applications. Never assume two schools will handle these processes the same exact way or identically from year to year.

Test Scores

Even before Covid-19, questions about the use of test scores for admission and scholarships were being asked. A strong test score may indicate high aptitude or ability. However, issues such as bias, testing anxiety, and test circumstances reveal high test scores don’t always correlate to educational success. Over the years I have seen scholars who had perfect or near perfect grade point averages in high school and college, but weaker test scores.

I do not bring this up to debate the issue. A quick Internet search will provide hundreds of articles on the subject. Rather, I bring it up because of the debate’s possible effect on you. Some schools have moved to test score optional (TSO) situations in which you can choose to report your scores or not. If you choose not to report them, you will be evaluated on all other data available, including your course selection and availability in conjunction with your grade point average (that is at least true for the academic part of a college or scholarship application).

Take home point: Because there is no national agreement on the issue of test scores, you must do the legwork to determine if a school requires test scores for admission or scholarship consideration and if the due dates have changed due to Covid-19 complications and available testing dates. Right now, many schools have still not decided on this. At least one of my scholarship peers says their university will not require test scores, but their scholarship program will. Nearly two-thirds of my scholarship peers surveyed will be test optional this fall.

Application Questions

It is common for scholarship (and admission) applications to change each year to avoid predictability and issues with candidate authenticity. Certainly, the old standby of “pick a topic of your choice” will be there in many cases, but you need to be prepared to answer a new question, or variant on an old one, for each scholarship application you submit.

I am no soothsayer, but I suspect some applications will include a question on either Covid-19 or race/police issues. Others will probably avoid those types of questions in favor of something more distinct. No matter what you find, it’s going to be important to show your unique voice or perspective. It will be very easy to fade into the background and repeat the same frustration, rage, sadness, trite solutions, etc. Being able to express your thoughts on those topics perhaps and of course others in an authentic and thoughtful way will be very important.

Take home point: Not only should your essays be strong, but also tailor them to each school or scholarship to which you apply. For example, if one question asks how you spent your time during Covid-19 quarantine, and another asks how you felt leadership handled Covid-19 related issues, only a rare essay could realistically answer both questions adequately. Be prepared to vary your responses.

Interview Formats

This may be the easiest element of scholarship evaluation to predict. Let me say up front that many scholarship applications do not require an interview. So, this section is only relevant for scholarships that use an interview as part of their evaluation process.

If the spring is any indicator, and I think it is, we will see more video interviews this year. For large processes that have regional or semifinal interviews, moving to video has not only become technologically easier due to available software, it will save money and time. Once upon a time, a phone call or video interview was thought of as a poor alternative to a handshake and face-to-face interview. Now, multiple people in various cities can conduct an interview by video that achieves nearly the same goals in getting to know you, all with social distancing and reduced cost. To that end, none of my scholarship peers surveyed said they would use entirely in-person interviews, though a few anticipate offering hybrid options. Most said they were unsure; only one said they would use video alone.

Campus interviews or visitation weekends may be a different story. Last year we held our Scholars Weekend the beginning of March. This included not just interviews but campus introduction activities, get-to-know-you panels, and a banquet for finalists. Within a week, almost all of our peer scholarship program weekends cancelled their on-campus events and moved to a video format. What will Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 bring in such cases? There’s no way to predict this, considering the level of variance among how national, state, county, city, and institutional leaders have handled Covid-19 in their regions.

Take home point: Be flexible. Adapt to the circumstances. Be prepared for video interviews but ready if they are on campus. If travelling to a campus puts your or a loved one’s health in jeopardy, ask for an exemption. If you participate virtually, pay attention. Do not grow weary. Scholarship weekends and campus visits are designed to show you the environment you will experience if you join that particular scholarship program or attend that school. Virtual replacements can never fully suffice, but if you tune out, you will be basing your college and scholarship decisions on the shiny bits alone, not the authentic package you are being offered and showcased.

Prepare to Have an Open Mind

Remember the Hoosiers story? I am not going to ruin the film and tell you if they won that game or not. What I will say is many questions which are vital right now regarding your admissions applications must be answered by various universities before the next round of questions can be addressed.

So, reduce your stress and anxiety and focus more on what universities and scholarship offices DO know right now, rather than what they will not know until later in the year. Covid-19 has thrown normal prediction models out the window.

You have already had to adapt to life in a Covid-19 world, and you may be tired of doing so. Sadly, the world isn’t going to stop moving simply because of that. Set your mind to be open to whatever application processes throw at you this year, and do your best to meet those challenges head on.

Remember, you’re not alone—everyone else is being thrown by all this too. That means everyone has adversities to overcome and that should help you feel a little better about your own chance at success.

Chaffee Viets has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. He joined Georgia Tech in 2011 where he oversees a team that selects the Institute’s top merit scholars and then develops them along the lines of scholarship, leadership, progress, and service. His experience with various prestigious scholarship programs at four universities drives his passion for selecting and mentoring student scholars.

Author: Rick Clark

@gtadmission