What the College Application Process Entails During a Pandemic

By Aditi Shukla

Gainesville, Florida

The process has largely changed for the 2020-2021 application cycle (Photo Credit: Today Show)

Every year, millions of high school students go through the long and arduous process of applying to college. About 4 million students use the Common App, one of the most frequently used college application sites. However, not all schools accept the Common App; for instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California (UC) Schools and Georgetown University all use their own application portals. For many schools, students can choose to either apply ‘early’, which usually occurs in October or November, or to apply in the rolling admissions, which occurs in January.


Most colleges also require students to submit at least one writing sample. This essay is a more personalized reflection of the applicant, providing an opportunity for students to explain to the admissions officers that they are more than just numbers and statistics. In other words, the essay allows students to show their personality and who they are as prospective students and individuals. However, students must also find a way to put themselves down on paper in a concise way, as the essays have word limits. For instance, the main essay on the Common App has a word limit of 650. Some other factors that colleges typically consider are standardized test scores, high school transcripts and personal information. The application process has largely changed for the 2020-2021 application cycle due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as much of the previous school year having been spent in quarantine. Many applicants will be submitting applications without standardized test scores, as many test dates have been cancelled this year. Many colleges are now opting to weigh other application components, such as essays and recommendation letters, more heavily.


I decided to look into what specifically happens in the college application process and if it has really changed for seniors. I interviewed many seniors on the local high school math team, known as the Buchholz math team––all who are interested in STEM. Each of them had a different perspective on the application process as a whole. They all have submitted at least one application, so they all have gone through the process of actually submitting their application to a college.


The first girl I interviewed was a Korean-American girl who currently lives in Korea due to the pandemic but attends Buchholz High School in Florida through a digital academy. She has so far applied to seven colleges and might apply to two more. Her list did not really change due to COVID-19. She talked about how the college essay process was very insightful, as she thought about “how my high school experience had molded me into who I am right now.” She believes that the most different thing about the college application and admissions process this year is test scores. “Test scores have been a very big factor in college admissions so far, but this year they can’t really use it because it might exclude other students from applying to other colleges.” In fact, many Florida schools have not removed the requirement of test scores, which has led to a significant drop in the number of applications due to the fact that many seniors were not able to complete an SAT or ACT. The best help on her college applications, she said, came from Reddit. Reddit is a website on which anyone can upload advice or questions asking the world, and there were many subsections dedicated to applying to college. Though many of her friends are already in college, they have not experienced applying during COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, some of her plans for the summer were cancelled. For instance, this summer, she planned on working at Mathnasium, a math tutoring center for kids; however, it was cancelled, so she could not include the working experience on her application.


Angela Cao, another senior at Buchholz, is a principal flutist who has been on the math team since middle school. This year, she is applying to about ten schools. She believes that many of the colleges she is applying to are handling the college application process quite well and are able to normalize it for many of the students applying. For her personal essay, she explored various topics: “For me, writing has always been a one and done, which is not necessarily good for college apps, but I think I really did try to make my first draft as good as it possibly could have and of course there were mistakes so I went back and edited.” She said she had more time to work on the college applications as COVID-19 cancelled a lot of things, but she doesn’t think much of the process has changed. In her situation, she doesn’t really have life changing circumstances due to COVID-19, so she hasn’t included much of that influence in her application. She said, “COVID-19 hasn’t substantially affected me. It’s just been so short compared to everything else I have the potential to write about. Why focus on something that lasted about six months and why not take advantage of having extra time to do stuff?” Quarantine has actually given her time to work on and explore her art, which she ended up putting on her college application and has shown how quarantining has had a positive effect on her life. Though she hasn’t been able to physically visit any colleges, she was impressed with some of the college’s virtual tours, especially Columbia. Columbia’s tour was done by a student and was not in a webinar format, so she was able to ask more questions and subsequently became interested in the college. She also said that COVID-19 has changed the interview format for many of the colleges; rather than having in-person interviews, many are held virtually, which is both COVID safe and a lot more convenient for many people.


Another Buchholz senior, Sam Han, is applying to about fifteen colleges this year. He has already applied to four schools. While working on his application, his main thought was “how do I present myself to colleges?” For instance, his main interests are in STEM, so his application was centered around that. He started his application very early and looks at the essay questions as very similar, but it is mainly the process of catering the essay to each school that is the most time consuming. He said the main difference in the college process this year isn’t necessarily in the application he’s sending, but how he plans on deciding. “I think mostly it’s you visiting the colleges that you can’t do anymore, so you don’t really get an on-hand experience.” Han hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will get better, so he can visit the colleges he is accepted to before having to commit to a school in May.


Olive Lee competes in various math competitions and is also on the science team. She is currently applying to about eight schools. She is doing online school this semester. She said she had a lot of free time to write her college essays during COVID-19, but it’s easy to get burnt out, and it’s important to have a balanced schedule. When writing her essays, she would ask for edits from alumni, take what she learnt from those edits and rewrite the essay. Though she rewrote the essays multiple times, she never really changed her topic for the essay because she knew that is what she wanted to talk about. Lee’s thought on the main change in her essay writing process, “I felt like I would be able to bounce my ideas off of people more often, and talk face to face, but I think with COVID, it’s definitely more independent, and all of the ideas are coming from you and bouncing off yourself.” However, she says the essay writing was the most important part of the process, as not only it shows the admissions officers who she is, but it helped her know more who she was as a person too.


Kelvin Dong is applying to two colleges this year. Originally he wanted to apply to ten schools but realized that he was only genuinely interested in two of those ten. His main interests are math and tennis. He learned about the college application process in July. The main change in the college application process this year, Dong said, is the section that the application sites like the Common App have added for addressing COVID-19 circumstances, for which there is a 250 word limit. Dong participates in spring sports, which were cancelled this year. Many colleges pushed back their deadlines this year, which Dong noted was quite helpful for seniors. “On the same date as November 15, there was a 23 percent drop in application, but then overall, around 100,000 people turned in their applications in the last three days. I guess people needed the deadline, because covid probably gave them a lot of stress, and they had other stuff to do.” One of the biggest things Dong learned in the process is that “if you’re struggling to write your essay, it’s completely normal. There’s probably something that’s shaped you; you just gotta find it, and take some time.”