Thom Golden

To say that things have changed in the last six months would be an understatement. As a matter of fact, COVID-19 seems to be changing things around us by the day, hour and minute.

Many families have adapted to social distancing guidelines by participating in distance learning, hybrid home/in-person school schedules and even “drive-by” graduations. So, it should come as no surprise that the pursuit of higher education has changed as well.

In fact, Dr. Thom Golden of Golden Educational Consulting, a Hendersonville company that helps guide families through the higher education selection process, says that the college admissions experience is evolving by the moment.

“A lot has changed in a very short period of time,” says Golden. “I’ve never seen anything like it. About two-thirds of schools aren’t even requiring ACT and SAT scores anymore for admission.”

In recent weeks, the list has expanded to include historically selective schools like Harvard University, University of North Carolina and Cornell University.

The reason for that? Incoming students are finding it increasingly difficult to take the tests. In some instances, students have scheduled their exams several months in advance, only to find it gets cancelled or postponed. A handful of Golden’s clients have even experienced their tests being rescheduled to a location up to 300 miles away from their residence.

The College Board, which runs the SAT, said last week that of the 363,000 students scheduled to take the SAT on Oct. 3, only about 200,000 were permitted to take the exam due to testing site closures.

Although some schools’ admissions processes are mandated by state legislation, a large number are now exploring admitting students based on other factors, like quality course load, GPA and essays.

“Auburn University, for example, will ask you to submit a paper that you’ve already written,” says Golden. “It’s a much more holistic review. The whole list of schools now that you can potentially consider, might be completely different, and to me that’s very exciting.”

Golden, who spent more than 20 years in selective admissions at some of the top universities in the world, including leading recruitment and admissions at Purdue and Vanderbilt University, is optimistic about this process.

“We’re back to a better conversation, which is, ‘Where is it a better fit for me?’ No longer is a test telling you where you get to go,” he says.

And with the uncertainty of in-person classes at many schools for the foreseeable future, Golden says many families who had not previously considered deferred enrollment, or what some refer to as a “gap year,” are now doing so.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling describes deferred enrollment as "an opportunity for a student who has been admitted to delay or defer enrollment for a year or a semester.” Many times, this will include international travel (which may not be realistic at this point) or a structured gap year program that includes service projects and work experience in specific subject matters.

When Golden is consulting with his new clients about their specific college journey, he says the beginning of the conversation now starts with a simple question: “What is it that you’d like to learn?”

“We try not to spend a huge amount of time picking a major anymore,” says Golden. “Students need to understand that this economy they’re moving into is highly flexible. Job functions across the board operate differently than they used to—lawyers, bankers, medical professionals.

“Those nice clean divisions are falling away and that’s why you see statistics that say only 20 percent of people are working in their major within five years of graduating. In a COVID environment, that flexibility is even more key.”

Although the class of 2021 is up against a different set of obstacles than any of their parents encountered at their age, Golden is excited about the changes and thinks they will ultimately be an incredibly positive thing. It will allow children and their parents to see the college search from a different perspective and may even open doors to schools they had not previously considered.

Golden, whose dissertation for his Doctorate in Educational Psychology explored how to help young people deal with the stress of applying to college, says families should first open their minds to different possibilities of what their college experience might look like. After deciding what they would like to learn about, he can help guide prospective college students through the “new” admissions process, that will likely look a little different for each school.

To learn more about Dr. Thom Golden and Golden Educational Consulting, visit

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