College applications change amid a pandemic

Avi Shapira and Reggie Teinowitz

As the COVID-19 pandemic runs rampant and the notion of what is ‘normal’ is in constant flux, the college application process is still running as scheduled, albeit with some major changes that could impact the system for years to come.

Much of what has been commonplace in college admissions for decades is now being tossed out the window in favor of new and more accommodating methods in light of the extreme societal changes induced by COVID-19. Both colleges and students have reexamined what is truly important to them with regards to accepting students and are figuring out what works best for them in this new world. 

Many universities have gone test-optional, putting more emphasis on the application essay. For students, the lack of in-person visits has led them to question what they are truly looking for on a college campus, whether that be strong academic programs or a warm student environment.

However, ETHS has been and continues to be fully committed to the needs of seniors during this difficult time as college application season slowly creeps closer.

“I would like the students and the community to know that we are really keeping ourselves, more than ever, abreast of what’s going on,” lead counselor Leah Piekarz said. “Every Friday, we’re meeting and talking about the latest updates and changes in college admissions. We’re taking advantage of all kinds of virtual professional developments, so we’re definitely making sure that we are all informed about all the different changes that are happening.”

To keep up a constant flow of communication between counselors and students, most guidance counselors have set up Google Classrooms to post important updates and information.

“We have just been sending out emails to say, ‘Hey we’re here’ and setting up events via Zoom,” ETHS College and Career Coordinator Beth Arey said. “Some students will share essays through Google Docs to do edits and stuff.” 

Despite the support from the school, ETHS seniors are still feeling the normal stresses of applying to college, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are now a lot more unknowns as it pertains to what colleges are looking for in students and vice versa.

For many seniors across the country, the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the college application process more challenging to navigate. Some ETHS seniors are feeling the pressures of the current circumstances in their own college applications.

“Applying has been so stressful. I’ve been able to meet with my counselor a few times, but, for the most part, I’ve been doing all my own research,” senior Gabi Dylis said. “I know this situation is new to everyone, and it’s challenging figuring out how to navigate it.”

Despite these worries, the college and career services department is seeking to reassure students that the college admissions process is truly different this year with less of an emphasis on standardized test scores and extracurricular activities with more focus being put toward presenting oneself as openly and honestly as possible.

“We’re taking the word of the colleges in terms of being truly test-optional, and our department has not been pushing students to run out and take tests they haven’t already taken,” Arey said. “It’s pretty much, ‘If you don’t have a score, no problem, and if you have one, only submit it if it’s at or above the average that is expected to go to that institution.’”

Piekarz and Arey continued to stress the importance of virtual visits and student communication with guidance counselors or the college and career services department.

“Take advantage of all the virtual opportunities,” said Piekarz. “Even though it’s virtual, it’s still so important to connect with people.”

Arey added that “using our local representatives is helpful because they’re very willing to sit down and have a chat with you through a Zoom meeting. Getting a sense of the students on campus and what they’re looking for students is very important.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth many new unknowns in the college application process. Students aren’t sure if ‘test-optional’ truly means that a lack of an ACT score won’t impact their application; not being able to visit a university in-person adds an element of mystery to students applying to colleges in cities they’ve never been to before. However, the pandemic has also forced American universities to make a variety of accommodations that aim to make the process easier to navigate and run more smoothly.

“With the lack of required standardized testing, it’s going to force many colleges to do full-scale reviews of students instead of weeding out students based on SAT scores,” senior Matteo Mereu said. “I [also] feel that I have a bit more free time, which helps ease the stress a little bit.” 

Fellow senior Levi Rosing indicated that “COVID-19 hasn’t really affected me in terms of college applications” but that the “biggest challenge I have had thus far has been watching people not take the pandemic seriously through social media.”

“Mental health is a big concern,” Rosing concluded. Many of his fellow students agree. The pandemic as a whole has caused widespread panic and anxiety and the added pressures of applying to college make it harder to get those tasks done.

“With COVID-19,” Mereu added, “colleges are constantly changing what they want or don’t want, which I find very stressful and gives me a lot of anxiety because I don’t know what to expect.”

When asked about advice they have been giving to students seeking guidance, both Arey and Piekarz highlight the necessity of taking advantage of all the virtual opportunities ETHS and colleges are offering to make the college application process as simple as possible.

“I think that, because there are so many differences this year, it’s really important that you authentically tell your story through your application, so they get a sense of who you are,” Piekarz said.