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Walsh said there were some on-campus tours, but most were virtual.

JMU regular decision applications for freshman admission were due Feb. 1., marking the first class to apply to JMU during the pandemic. With the need to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19, the admissions process at JMU had to adapt.

Reflecting a nationwide trend of declining applications to small and mid-sized universities in the U.S. this year, Michael Walsh, dean of admissions, said JMU applications did decrease by 8-10% compared to the 2019-20 cycle. 

“I wish we could have done a little bit better, but I feel very comfortable that we will get our class,” Walsh said. “That will not be a problem.”

In a typical admissions cycle, Walsh said nearly 45,000 people would visit campus from April until the application deadline.However, he said that while some familieshave visited campus to participate in small, self-guided tours, the majority of admissions events this year have been virtual.

“We’re doing group presentations over Zoom and during the summer when it’s [usually] really busy with visitors,” Walsh said. “We were running many of those Zoom presentations, and staff were holding group, individual and family chats throughout the week.”

In addition to having prospective students visit campus, JMU representatives and alumni typically visit schools and college fairs throughout the U.S. Chris Gothard, a JMU admissions counselor, said such visits have shifted to virtual formats this year.

“There were still a good number of opportunities,” Gothard said. “Attendance was quite variable. Overall, I think we as an office made the most of the virtual opportunities and reached some places we haven’t been able to visit when we travel physically.”

To compensate for the limitations of in-person visits, Walsh said the admissions office stepped up its promotional mailings and became more active on social media. However, he said, JMU’s biggest selling point has always been its welcoming environment, which can be difficult to convey over a screen. 

The pandemic has also changed the application process, yielding challenges related to standardized testing and virtual learning. Danielle Brino, a guidance counselor at Harrisonburg High School, explained the challenges related to college planning for the senior class.

“I think students were just a little bit behind in even thinking about what their plans would be,” Brino said. “All throughout high school, we talk with students about what their postsecondary plan is, but we didn’t really have that time with any of our students, including juniors, last year to listen to what their plans [were].”

Brino also said the seniors have dealt with a variety of challenges related to the pandemic, including financial security, mental health and family or work responsibilities.

“Students [are] even questioning if they should go to college, [if they] will have money for college or, with colleges being somewhat online, if they should take a gap year,” Brino said. 

Gothard said that in order to ensure that admissions committees have a holistic understanding of students’ experiences since the start of the pandemic, JMU added a new section to its application. Following the optional personal statement, applicants can write 250 words or less on how COVID-19 has impacted their life.

“We had been doing our due diligence in understanding what that transition has looked like for students and taking all of that into consideration as we make our admissions decisions,” Gothard said. 

Contact Sydney Dudley at dudleysl@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.