Applying to college during a pandemic

Applying to college during a pandemic

My middle child is a high school senior and is in the process of applying to colleges for the Fall 2021 semester. The coronavirus pandemic completely eliminated the spring semester of last school year and has brought massive changes to this school year. Even as people and organizations are struggling to find new normals, the situation keeps changing and then changing again.

Covid-19 has thrown the college experience into all new levels of uncertainty and stress.  That terrible uncertainty about what form college will take in Fall 2021 is adding even more anxiety to the process for high-school seniors and parents.

I have watched my daughter and the high school senior age kids of other people I know tried to figure out how to put together strong college applications given the circumstances that Covid-19 has thrown onto everybody. SAT and ACT prep classes where largely cancelled. Many of the test dates for those exams were cancelled, and even when they started conducting them again, locations were subject to closure and cancellation. Some schools switched to pass/fail grades in the Spring term of their junior year, when grades during that semester are traditionally extremely important.

Extracurricular activities and sports vanished during Spring 2020. For students who are getting to go to in-person classes during the current semester, there are very few sports available and very limited extracurricular activities. Locker rooms and lockers are closed. Masks are required nearly all the time. The students must maintain social distance. I’m definitely not complaining about those things, because the safety measures are the most important thing of all.  But the impact it all has upon students trying to apply and go to college cannot be denied.

Even summer jobs that high school students typically get were mostly eliminated because of the pandemic. Summer camps and public pools closed. Beaches were closed and then severely restricted. Movie theaters and bowling alleys were closed. Adults were working at home and didn’t need babysitters or dog walkers. Many adults were out of work and of course were more qualified and more in need of the few jobs that were available. As a result, work experience that high school juniors and seniors can typically get to help acquire skills and demonstrate responsibility simply didn’t exist. Along with that, income they would typically be able to earn to help pay for college or college expenses vanished as well.

What does ‘test optional’ really mean?

There have always been a few colleges that accepted application without standardized test scores. The testing problems caused by the pandemic have led to a lot more of them offering students the option to apply without standardized test scores at all. I don’t have the exact statistics about this because I have found different reports about the percentages, but there is indisputably a huge increase in the number of colleges offering students the ability to apply without submitting standardized test scores. I’ve seen some won’t accept the scores at all. More seem to be ‘test-optional’.  In those cases, the decision to apply test-optional is left in the hands of the student.

If a university lists itself as being ‘test-optional’, then the SAT or ACT test really is optional. For those schools, students never need take those tests. I actually reached out to 4 different colleges to verify that information because it is such a dramatic change from what we are accustomed to being reality.  In each case I was reassured that test-optional really does mean test-optional, with no penalty at all to the prospective student.

The wide shift to test-optional may only be for this cycle of admissions. As with everything else the pandemic has wrought, there’s just no way to know what the future will bring. The standardized tests are big business in their own way … think of all the jobs and money involved in creating, administering and scoring the tests, sending out the scores, the preparation courses, books and materials, tutoring services … when you think about the big picture there is a lot of money involved in those exams.  I would like to see the tests gone for good or made permanently optional because they cause so much stress for already stressed high school students, and take time away from their actual education in order to prepare for those exams.

The SAT and ACT are being administered again in some cases. If a student has taken those, remember to research the past entering score ranges for the colleges being considered before deciding whether to submit the scores or not. If the school is test optional and your score is on the low end, I’d venture to say don’t submit it.

Campus Visits

Because of the situation with my disability we already knew I wouldn’t be able to visit campuses with my daughter. We did have a plan though, that she would be able to visit any schools that interested her by going with my older daughter, a very close family friend, or my sister-in-law.

Covid-19 slammed the brakes on college visits. In one way it’s not a bad thing;  Travel to visit campuses can be expensive and very time consuming. Zoom and other types of teleconferencing have provided the opportunity for much more detailed virtual tours than the brief promo clips that used to be provided, the chance to ask questions of faculty and administrators, and more in-depth tours of housing. Colleges are being put in the position to feature the strengths of faculty, administrators and campus facilities in the most authentic way possible.

The essay is even more important now

High school seniors should write an essay, even if it’s not specifically required by their top choice of school. The Common App, a consolidated and almost universal application, requires a written essay with the word count of about 650 I believe. The essay can focus on important aspects of the student’s life, talk about their plans for the future, or give context to grades the student thinks are not indicative of their potential. Individual colleges do sometimes require any additional essay and typically provide a subject starter for it.

It is so important that the essay be something written by the student. If the school has follow-up questions, the student is going to look foolish not knowing what they wrote in their essay. Plus, schools use plagiarism detection technology software programs. You can be sure that an essay that gets flagged for plagiarism is not going to result in admission of the student to the school.

What next?

I don’t know what schools my daughter will be accepted to, or where she will decide to go. The way things are going with Covid-19, who knows if even by the end of August when colleges will typically open for the Fall semester, if distance learning will be finished. The only certain thing seems to be that life is going to be filled with uncertainty for a long time. So now we wait and see what the next step brings.

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