Today I’m interviewing Cigus Vanni known as ‘Cigus the College Fairy.’ Cigus attended Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr College as the first member of his family to attend college and graduate school. Cigus has been helping students since the 1970s in an array of areas. In the past, he’s been the admissions director at Swarthmore, residential director for both Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania, advised at multiple elementary and secondary schools, and been a volunteer counselor at both the Child Abuse Effort and Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. Currently, Cigus dedicates his time to Project 440 assisting underrepresented students, advising as a college selection assistant, and thrifting at various thrift stores for vintage college t-shirts! He’s here to give the Class of 2021 insight on how they should begin their college application process with the on-going changes due to the pandemic.
What would you say is the most crucial change that has happened so far with the college process?
I think there's three, I have to separate them. So the first is that technology and online education is now much more valued than it used to be. The second thing is, if there's ever going to be any kind of normal, it's going to be sort of a new abnormal, as opposed to a normal. I think eventually we'll get back to doing what we used to do. But now, we all have these ideas in our minds about how we're better prepared for the 'what ifs'. You know, I think our rainy day funds now are going to be much bigger than they used to be. When you think about the minimal amount of money that governments have been putting away, in case something like this happens and now our federal government, our president, has borrowed an absurd amount of money. I mean, not that our national debt was high, to begin with, but I'm so sorry because it's your generation that gets stuck with this. Maybe we'll learn that we didn't need these fornicating SATs and ACTs. Currently, some schools are doing two and three-year experiments so to speak, one year is not going to make a difference. It's not like the quality of MIT applicants is not going to go down or up in one year. But in three or four or five years, if there were no testing, and they still ended up with the same quality applicants, they are going to think to themselves: why did we worry about these things to begin with? And I would find that to be a very, very heartening since the SAT and ACT answers to no one. They're not beholden students. They're not beholden to parents. They're not beholden to schools. Allegedly colleges are members of the college board. They're not beholden to the government. So it would be nice for a change.
Do you suggest that students take the SAT/ACT? If so do you have any guidance when they should take them?
Yes, I would say for present seniors. I would say that you want to take the test certainly no later than December. There are tests after December, but the decisions will already be beginning probably around January 1st or later. There's no SAT right now from December to March. I would say to the seniors do it as soon as possible. The ACT has added three test dates. So there's going to be opportunities. The problem is that in some states, the governor's haven't lifted the school's prohibitions yet. So for instance, in a lot of places there might be an ACT, but 85% of the sites are closed, they can't open.
Now I'm going to also ask my juniors, as eager as they might be, and as ready as they might be because the math on the SAT and the ACT is behind where most students are. I understand why juniors who have taken algebra two are wanting to take this. I'm imploring them, begging them not to take the test until after December. Let the seniors take the test. Don't go squeezing them out. You know, I say this, especially to some of my suburban folks. They're like, what are you talking about? I'm talking about being compassionate. I'm talking about being empathetic. I'm talking about giving your senior buddies a chance here first because you're taking seats away from them. So I would say to my juniors wait till after December. You'll be fine.
Do you think schools will be biased towards students who send in their scores/ don’t send in their scores? Do you have any insight on how they will be weighing each component of the application process?
Yes, absolutely. A couple of reasons. Number one, if you look at some of the most selective schools and read their statement, on test-optional, Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, places like that, it's almost as if they've written it with clenched teeth. It's like, “alright, you don't have to take these tests”, but you can tell that they still want them.
Those old patterns do not die quickly. Plus, I guarantee you if I'm Georgetown, and I get an application from somebody who lives in Gladwyn, Pennsylvania, and I know what Gladwyne, Pennsylvania is like, I'm thinking to myself: you live in a wealthy community, you had the time and resources to take this test. If you didn't, you probably didn’t do great at it. That's why you're not sending it. I don't mean to judge as much as I do. I'm sorry. I do mean to judge some of my colleagues, but that's the way they're going to look at this. If you don't apply to the super selectors, and you send them a test score, it's tantamount to me going to Burger King and getting this really good chocolate milkshake. Then you suggest to me, let me put some whipped cream on top of it. That's what the whipped cream will do. For many students, it will give them an enhancement. It doesn't mean that the students without whipped cream are at a loss, but the whipped cream gives them an enhancement. So maybe now they get a Merit Scholarship that they hadn't received before.
At the end of the day, students own their test scores. So, if you take it and you don't do well, what have you lost? Time, sleep, money, maybe some pride. You'll get over it, but you do not have to share your scores with anyone. So yes, I say that you should. Now some have suffered from testing. Some are only applying to test-optional schools. If your school is historically tests optional, then don't take the test. If you're applying to a GW they've been test-optional for 10 years. If you're applying to Clark University, they've been test-optional for 20 years. Don't take the test, but these newbies I'm a little worried about some of those newbies. So I would take the test as a precaution for some schools.
How far along should students be in their college research process?
Seniors right now should have a pretty firm list of schools where they want to apply, but can be fluid. It should have reached schools, target schools, and likely schools. Let's not apply to the nine most selective schools in the world thinking one is bound to take me. No, no, we're not doing that. Why wouldn't you want to apply to a college that wants you? You know, everybody in the world applies to Stanford, whereas Stanford's like, we don’t want you, you know, go away. So that's number one.
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Number two, once that list has been created, the next step is to call a parent meeting and say, here's my list. Let's talk about cost and distance. I mean, seriously, let's do that now. Because you don't want your parents to be your friend here. In all honesty, you know, maybe your parents think that they're being nice in allowing you to apply to Berkeley, and they have no intention of letting you go to California or not saying something about all the 70 thousand dollar colleges that are on your list. So now it's March and you get in and your parents like you can't go. You know what, I'd rather you hate your parents now than next March. The third thing would be to take your list and look at what applications you need. Are you on the common app exclusively? Will you need to use the coalition application? You only need to do one. If your school is on three different applications, you don't need to apply three times. One application is enough. Create your account and you start entering data.
The next place you need to be is to be creating drafts of essays now. I think some students are better off in school while writing their essays. As in you're better off writing when you're writing every day. But, you need to at least brainstorm and draft now. Next, you have to assign your teachers to write your recommendation letters through Naviance, only if your school uses it. Now, this is assuming you asked them ahead of time, but if you haven't, then go make sure you ask them to do that. You don't have to ask your counselor. That gets done automatically, but make sure to ask those teachers. And if you want to do a supplementary letter, take care of that too.
So that's where I need to be as a senior. Then in your free time, you need to be doing the virtual tour at American. You need to be doing the information session at Boston College. I need to set up a 15-minute meeting with the person that is Richmond. That's the other stuff that I need to be doing. Getting colleges attention
How do you feel about the students in the class of 2020 possibly deferring for a year because of online learning?
Everyone else has to, so they should too. If they have had a sense of actually wanting to construct a true gap year, in other words, doing something that you've planned to do for, I don't know, a year or so. A plan that you have articulated, sure, but if you just don't want to go to school because school is going to look a little bit different, I don't have a lot of sympathy for that. I don't, because everybody else has to do that. Also, you can stay at home and do your classwork from home. Colleges will allow you to do that. That's fine. A lot of colleges now are at the point where they're not going to let students and they don't have to. I mean, they can say I'm sorry, we're not going to give you a deferral. You're welcome to apply again next year. They can do that. Tulane has reached its point, Middleburg has reached its point, they're not taking anymore to do that. So to me, I'm thinking and I don't mean this in any kind of cruel way. I'm thinking, okay, make the best of it. Everybody else is dealing with this. make the best of it. Talk to some of your friends. Maybe they're going to the same school, start your little study group here in the area. I just don't think that just because it's different is not a good reason not to go.
Do you think colleges have properly anticipated the crowding of freshmen as they go back to campus?
Some have, but some have not. That's all I can say. I know the schools that are going to come off best at this are the small liberal arts colleges. I know about the Swarthmore plan because I'm part of that. Swarthmore is going to bring back the first-year students, the second-year students, and most of the seniors, juniors, and half the senior class is going to stay at home. So they're gonna have 900 students on campus. Everybody has a single room. There's no issue with crowding in the rooms. The dining hall is going to have different times of eating. But there's one dining hall, at Swarthmore, yet it can accommodate 600 people. Even if you do the Covid-19 procedure and make it 300 people, so there are three shifts, not a big deal, Brynn Mawr is going to be the same. The schools that are going to hurt are the 'Penn States". Even if they only bring back one-fourth of the students, that's 10,000 people to do. So some schools, I think are doing it right. Other schools, I'm a little bit concerned about them. I don't know that we have the resources to do the testing and the contact of tracing that we need. I mean, some states seem to be doing a little bit better with that, but overall, this nation is not.
How do you feel as a counselor about the abundance of resources emerging from social media apps like Tik Tok?
It can only make things better and yes, there will be some goofy things that students say, like bring bleach so you can wash in bleach. Yes, there's always going to be some goofy stuff, right? But students are in the moment, and they're the ones that are going to be part of this. Many of them come up with some wonderfully creative things to do. So I think it can all be for the better.
What would you say is the ideal role that school counselors can play in a high school setting regarding these changes?
To provide them with three things: comfort, strength, and chocolate. Comfort in the sense of empathy. It's all we can do to go through this. Instead of getting mad at the darkness, let's light a light together. Look at how amazing you are, look at how well you've done so far. Let's use those skills and pick them up. Chocolate meaning let's not forget to have fun. Let's not forget to be part of this. You know, you can have fun in a zillion different ways. It doesn't have to be with 3000 other people on the beach at Ocean City. I think high school counselors need to get a lot more training in college admissions counseling. A lot of that isn't their fault. Many of the master's degree programs that certify a school counselor don't even offer a course in college admissions. So they're kind of on their own to learn this. I think the assumption is, oh, well, you went to college, you know what to do, which is kind of like saying, oh, I was sick, I can be a doctor. It makes no sense at all to do. I've taught courses in college admissions to counselors since I have the experience. It's been a wonderful thing to help show them what's out there for them to do that. Yet, it's almost impossible for public schools to have their counselors do this because their funding is just so limited. You know, I could complain and moan or I could love and respect. I'm going to choose love and respect because I willingly choose comfort, strength, and chocolate, just like that.
Official Transcript of the Interview: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GxDRJobFYLxcqG0jAlWwgfWfUTXBQmgPJmJ4ZoC9tS0/edit?usp=sharing
COALITION APPLICATION SCHOOLS 2020-2021: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1v5uoP-aKEwOjHTITh2WqcWN7BYfhcEiS58Ywa_IFlL0/edit?usp=sharing
HOW DO I INVITE A TEACHER TO WRITE A COLLEGE RECOMMENDATION FOR ME IN NAVIANCE?: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jGiipevBv4VLYHmMnCo4c-YbXd1madpq0OpO6L8BE4k/edit?usp=sharing
SCHOOLS THAT HAVE GONE TEST-OPTIONAL: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cz86uyUHOuJ1fDYrpo0geTFVkTEF1qCrmoM4GtZ2_oE/edit?usp=sharing