Detour Ahead: How the Pandemic Upended the College Admissions Process
Will Sharps | July 2021
The campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI (2013)1
ow should a college applicant cope when our society’s most-travelled road to success takes on a cumbersome detour? When faces and images on a screen replace otherwise-fruitful social interactions crucial to learning more about a particular school? When those networks of social and advising relationships so integral for proper choice of a university become “canceled?”
Every year thousands of high school juniors and seniors embark on a daunting and complicated journey: the college admissions process. For many people the college admissions process carries great weight, as one’s navigation and success during the process will ultimately decide where they will spend the next four or more years of their life. The process is extremely complex: entailing numerous campus visits, standardized test prep, resume building, and essay writing. As with so many aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed this already complicated process.
Last year campuses suddenly closed, tests stopped being offered, extracurriculars were in many cases suspended, and students were barred access from the people that they relied on during this trying time. A variety of pieces of the college admissions process were radically altered by the pandemic, and these changes will have severe implications for a post-pandemic society.
In my experience, visiting different campuses and observing the students, faculty, and overall vibe of each school was the most important aspect of my final decision-making process. Many students were barred from this opportunity as the pandemic shut down many campuses by the Spring of 2020. Unable to see schools in person, students turned to virtual tours to gain a basic understanding of their prospective choices. Online tools, such as youvisit.com, allowed students an inkling of what each college had to offer.
Despite the ability to tour schools virtually, students in this admissions cycle certainly suffered from the inability to fully grasp what life is like at each school. Upgraded virtual tours will have a role in the future of college admissions, as students may use them in different ways. Virtual tours could be particularly beneficial for students at the start of their application process when they still have a large number of prospective schools, as well as those who wish to preview schools that are far away, or for students that do not have the financial means to visit the schools in which they are interested.
Yet while in-depth virtual tools and other online resources that were created to help students simulate the experience of coming to campus will certainly remain and be used in the decision-making process, it is unlikely that virtual tours will become the dominant means of visiting campuses. There is so much that can be gained from an in-person visit experience, and I would expect campuses to be busy with visitors the moment virus-related restrictions are lifted.
Preparing for and Taking a Dubious Test
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the college admissions process was further complicated during the past year. Many people hold that our current standardized testing system is inherently flawed and promotes inequalities, as wealthier students can gain a significant advantage through enrollment in schools geared towards test achievement, private tutoring, and the ability to take tests multiple times.
In response to the pandemic, many colleges and universities around the nation opted to become test-optional for this admissions cycle. Some schools, including Wake Forest University in North Carolina, had already adopted this policy, as they believe that it leads to a more holistic review of each applicant’s profile.
Despite institutions’ becoming test optional, some families went to extreme lengths to ensure their children could sit for either the SAT or ACT in the midst of the pandemic. In some cases people traveled across the country to sit for a test that was unavailable close to home them due to the coronavirus. Whether this process is fair or not, it is undeniable that students with sufficient wealth were able to purchase themselves a means to separate their profile from others in a year where such an opportunity was very limited. Even if universities operate on a test-optional basis, there is no denying that a good score will boost an applicant's profile. Doree Lewak of the New York Post notes that most schools are not “test-blind,” further indicating the importance of standardized testing in giving the wealthier a leg up in the admissions process
The switch to test-optional policies in this admissions cycle may become standard practice if colleges and universities find that they are able to secure their desired classes without the use of standardized tests. The merit of the SAT, ACT, or the overall practice of standardized testing is facing fierce scrutiny, and results from this year's admissions cycle will be pivotal in determining these tests’ place in society’s future.
Separating Yourself from the Pack
With a near-complete shutdown of our everyday society also came the stoppage of almost every extracurricular activity. Traditionally, students are able to use their participation in extracurriculars to separate themselves from their peers and bolster their college resumes. While the virus raged, sports seasons were canceled or postponed in every state, community service opportunities dwindled with stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates, and clubs were unable to meet as schools switched to virtual learning. Outside of volunteering to assist in some way with the containment of the pandemic, which certainly was not an opportunity made available or appealing to all students, there were few things that high schoolers could do to continue setting themselves apart.
A letter signed by over 250 admissions deans illustrated just how much extracurricular involvement would be impacted by the pandemic. The deans went so far as to emphasize that they would not penalize anyone for a lack of extracurriculars. Additionally, there was a section in college applications that urged students to note any added responsibilities they took on during the pandemic. For instance, taking care of a sick relative would shed favorable light on an applicant. Even with the assurance of hundreds of deans, students still had to deal with the stress of finding ways to supply schools with a unique application.
Access to An Outlet
Understanding how difficult it is for any one person to navigate the college admissions process, it comes as no surprise that many students rely heavily on teachers, other students, and college counselors for guidance. While many of these meetings are informal, when I was applying to colleges, I can remember gaining both understanding and confidence through the input of others. The virtual environment does not lend itself to this kind of interaction, isolating students from answers to important questions. Advisors and teachers were available through video chats or calls, but not in the same manner to which students are accustomed. Additionally, students with limited access to technology were further disabled from reaching professional advice. A Harvard-led study involving 948 high school counselors reported that counselors themselves experienced difficulties during the pandemic as they were not able to get the same face-to-face interaction with students and were often barred from providing input in their schools’ COVID-19 response planning.
Having the ability and experience of online counseling and advising will undoubtedly make counselors more available to their students in the future. Students will be able to meet with counselors from a distance and at a wider variety of times. Much in the same way as virtual campus tours, the innovations made to deal with life in the pandemic will serve as an auxiliary tool as the traditional practice of in-person meetings with counselors becomes prevalent again.
The college admissions process is an ever changing mechanism that will arguably be forever affected by the coronavirus. There are changes that are critical in determining the future of standardized tests. It could very well be that a growing group of schools ditch testing in favor of a selection process that favors one's ability to achieve in their unique high school academic environment.
There are also changes that will be small, yet helpful in the future. Virtual visiting tools will give students a better understanding of each school in which they are interested with the click of a button, and counselors will be effectively trained in remote communication. Admissions committees have also changed how they view applicants;familial obligations may gain increased appreciation after so many people now understand the burden that one may take on when a family member or friend is left ill.
No matter how large the changes are, or what area of the college admissions process they affect, one thing is for certain. The process has been altered radically, and will continue to do so in the future. For now, we can only watch, as the detour sign at many universities has still yet to be lifted for good.