Picking the right college is challenging in the best of times. Doing so with a pandemic still lingering makes things even tougher.

Should upper-level high-schoolers just push ahead and visit desired campuses, assuming that normalcy (however we define it now) is coming? Or might they consider other options, such as a gap year to work, travel or do community service?

For perspective, we turn this week to Rich Aune, associate vice president and dean of admission at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Aune has been in the admissions field for 37 years and has launched three of his own now-grown kids through the college process.

Q: You see young adults on a daily basis who are considering Gustavus, or other schools. What are you hearing from them?

A: In 37 years, I've never seen more high school students ready to be done. They tell me, "I need to be someplace else. I need different. I need a change." It's an exaggerated senioritis. Reading student files, you see a lot of students who are doing very well in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, and then they have had to do it again as seniors and there's a fall-off. That used to be due to personal issues such as a death in the family. Now it's simply, "I can't do this online thing anymore."

Q: Spring break is a popular time for students to begin touring potential colleges and universities. But should they be plowing ahead like this, or maybe taking a step back and considering a gap year?

A: They might take a gap year if they are questioning whether they are ready to go to college. They are the best person to make that decision. Have they dealt with some mental health issues over the past two years? Do they just need a break? It's certainly OK to say, "I'm not quite ready." What you don't want them to do is sit. That would just reinforce bad habits. It's legitimate to just want to take a break right now, but students will benefit from having a good plan and thinking carefully about next steps.

Q: What might you guide them to in this case?

A: Volunteer work maybe. Work and save money. Travel. I would assure them that if you're not certain you want to start college, it's OK not to start. I would say this also to college students thinking about professional or graduate schools. It's OK if they need to hit the refresh button.

Q: For students who do want to enter college right out of high school, do you find that admissions offices are more lenient as they consider the past years?

A: Transcripts are being looked at differently. Admissions counselors tend to be cognizant of a lot more that's been going on. For example, let's say you've got a typically straight-A student who has a couple of C's thrown in there … I'm probably not going to be concerned if I can see a return to a normal pattern. But some transcripts look completely different.

Q: And it's not just a shift in grades.

A: We're also seeing some developmental stages that are not on the same curve as pre-pandemic. I've heard from school counselors that some 11th-graders seem more like 9th-graders in terms of soft skills and readiness to be independent. For two years, they have not had normal social interactions. All colleges and universities are seeing some lack of preparation in the students, through no fault of their own. Our faculty are aware of that and might ease off at first on the grading. We're also adding more orientation sessions to better prepare students and their parents. Gustavus is back to offering in-person parent sessions, introductions to people in student life, information on how to contact the counseling center. I'm very happy we're returning to that.

Q: I'm a huge fan of community colleges and trade schools. Might those also be good options?

A: Any community college is a great option. They might visit Normandale Community College, North Hennepin Community College, or South Central College. If students are thinking about eventually transferring from a community college setting, they should make sure that the courses they take will be accepted at a four-year college.

Q: How do you think college is going to look in the next year or two?

A: I doubt we're going to be "done" with COVID. There will be some long-term impacts, such as the need to shift to hybrid models. That might look like three days in the classroom and one day online with asynchronous or synchronous teaching. But we know that in-person is the way that most students learn best.

Q: And COVID has taught them some important skills, like the ability to pivot and be resilient, yes?

A: I tell students that I commend them for their efforts in dealing with this challenge. We recognize how hard it is. Together, we can do this. I tell them, "You've made it here. Congratulations, and on to better things."