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College Process in Disarray Amidst Pandemic

By Yassie Liow ’21

The college admissions process for rising seniors this year is anything but normal (Photo Credit: Forbes)
The college admissions process for rising seniors this year is anything but normal (Photo Credit: Forbes)

I fluffed up my pillow and crawled under the covers. I was not getting ready for bed—I was waiting for a little blue timer on the College Board website to tick to zero. I would be taking both of my Advanced Placement (AP) exams in bed this year.

When I took the AP United States History test last year, I was in a classroom writing furiously as my hand cramped up. This year, as I lay in bed taking the AP Biology test, I was consulting for formulas while analyzing the graphs on my screen. When I finished my exam, I was greeted by a webpage that congratulated me for being part of “AP history.”

Last year, I envisioned my future self in the car with my parents for hours on end, arguing over different schools as we spent our spring break touring colleges in the northeast. I could imagine myself sitting through so many information sessions and staring at so many campuses that I would lose track of which was which. None of these visions became my reality.

It happened quickly. My spring exams were canceled half-way through out of “an abundance of caution” due to COVID-19. College tour cancellations inundated my inbox. Google Meet became my classroom. Assignments were graded credit/no credit instead of with letter grades and percentages. Standardized test dates were canceled. Many colleges became test-optional. Visiting a college campus became a matter of sitting in bed and clicking my trackpad. Listening to an information session was not much different. Within a few months, the defining characteristics of the college process had been eviscerated by COVID-19.

In the absence of a typical college process, the class of 2021 has forged an uncertain new normal.

“I think ultimately I know that it’s beyond my control, so I haven’t been stressing about it too much. I’ve been focusing on things that I can control,” said Bob Wang, Collegiate ’21.

Wang was part of the majority whose standardized tests were abruptly canceled. “I was very upset since I had spent a lot of time preparing for the March SAT, and since it was canceled it felt like all the hard work I put in was put to waste because I would have to reprepare in a few months,” said Wang.

For the lucky ones, test cancellation was a blessing in disguise. “I got my [major] testing done already, so testing was already gone from my mind,” said Allison Gorman, Brearley ’21, with a laugh. “Maybe I would take another SAT Subject Test, but when testing was canceled I was like ‘thank God I don’t have to take another standardized test.’”

Rising seniors often fill their summers with adventures and academic programs, partially to note them on a college application. The pandemic disrupted Wang’s summer research internship at a lab. “It’s a lot of stress because I feel like I should be doing something, but there’s not really much that I can do. I know a lot of people say nobody expects you to be doing anything, but I feel like being a part of a prestigious institution like Collegiate, I feel like I need to differentiate myself more than not doing anything, but I’m not really sure how.”

With all of these cancellations and sudden shifts, what lies ahead is impossible to predict. “It feels fake,” said Gorman. “Everything feels fake in online learning because everything is so different. I’m doing everything from home, and I have a blanket on my lap as I go to class.”

Though, as Gorman notes, much of a typical college process is already filled with uncertainty. “I think that [uncertainty] would have happened regardless with the whole ‘oh no, I’m a senior, I’m applying to college now,’ but I feel like it would have been a lot more real to go to a college campus instead of getting out of bed, getting my computer from downstairs, going back into bed and listening to an information session.”

For some, the college process was always a mystery. “I had no expectations. I’m just going to dive right into this, like swimming, and roll into the pool, have some fun. I had no idea what was happening. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What’s happening? That’s fun. That’s cute. I guess I have to write supplements now,’” said Gorman.

What the class of 2021 lost in immersion, we gained in convenience. “The ease of going to online information sessions. It’s so much easier to learn about a random school online instead of going in a car and driving to Pennsylvania. That’s so much more exhausting as opposed to doing two information sessions a day from your bed,” noted Gorman.

The uncertainty about college spans beyond our applications. Much room for long-term and short-term change remains. In terms of short-term change, Gorman wonders, “Once we get into colleges, are revisits going to be the same? Are colleges going to be in session? Are they going to let visitors come in the spring or winter? Are they going to extend [application and decision] deadlines because of online learning?”

Wang thinks the pandemic may be a catalyst for creating a better college application system. “Hopefully, by the time we’re in college, more colleges will stay test-optional. I do feel like the SAT and ACT aren’t perfect indicators of a person’s intelligence.”

“Ultimately, [the 2020-2021 college process] will benefit people in private schools in NY because a lot of college endowments are screwed right now,” added Wang. “They’re looking for people who can pay full tuition. I do feel guilty because it’s an underhanded advantage. There isn’t much I can do about it.”


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