COVID-19 and the College Application Process

Adelaide Parker, Editor-In-Chief

The college application process has changed a lot over the past two years. The pandemic and its effects have altered everything from testing procedure to essays and acceptance rates, leaving many would-be applicants at a loss. Increasingly competitive application pools, coupled with these shifts in procedure, have changed many students’ responses to college admissions—for better or worse, redefining the application process itself.

“The pandemic makes the application process a lot more isolating than it usually is, and makes you feel like you have to go through the whole process by yourself without any support,” says Yvonne Kim, a student in West’s IB Program. “This makes the process so much more stressful and intimidating than it should be.” As one of West’s top students, Yvonne is planning on applying early action to Yale this coming November. But, facing new admission criteria and an unusual lack of support, Yvonne has been forced to complete much of her application on her own.

One of the biggest changes created by the pandemic is the shift from colleges requiring test scores to becoming test-optional. The SAT and ACT have long been an important part of the college admissions process – indeed, many students spend dozens of hours taking practice tests just to ensure themselves a good score. However, because of the pandemic, standardized testing is not available to all students. In response, U.S. schools have gone test-optional: eliminating this process for a significant chunk of applicants. If test scores are submitted, colleges will take them into account; if not, they will place higher value upon GPA, class rank, and the other academic components of one’s application.

The decision to become test-optional is controversial among would-be applicants. Because high test scores are no longer required to get into elite universities, the acceptance rates of many top schools have fallen significantly. After the decision to become test-optional was made, Harvard’s acceptance rate dropped by more than 20%, sinking from 5.3% in 2019 to 3.4% in 2020.

Yvonne, however, supports these changes:

“Standardized testing shouldn’t be as big of a component of your application as it has been in the past,” she says. “The pandemic has shown that colleges need to be a lot more flexible and accommodating to students who are applying from all different backgrounds, and they must be more understanding that some kids can’t test and that testing doesn’t show who you are as much as extracurriculars do.” Yvonne agrees with these college’s decisions to eliminate standardized testing requirements. Standardized testing, which was already a poor measure of intelligence—indeed, an article by the New York Times found the SAT to be a better indicator of parental income than success throughout college—became even worse at measuring capability during the pandemic. Because of reduced access to testing centers, test prep, and many other resources that come with in-person school, a test-optional form of admissions allows for more equity as U.S. students continue to experience the detrimental effects of the pandemic.

Not only has the pandemic made it more difficult for colleges to select their students, it has also made it more difficult for students to find potential colleges. Most campuses were partially shut down during the 2020-2021 school year, meaning that most of this year’s seniors have not been able to visit the colleges that they are interested in applying to.

Despite this setback, West High’s seniors have still found ways to learn about the colleges they are interested in.

“I did a lot of research on what I wanted to study and figured out a realistic plan as to where and how I want to apply,” said Kalina Manova, another West High senior. By doing research on schools’ specific strengths and programs, and by attending colleges’ virtual tours and information sessions, Kalina was able to find out information on her dream college without ever setting foot on campus.

“[This year], I think that this year there will be a lot more applications submitted, which would make it harder to get accepted into colleges. But I also think that the application process won’t be as cutthroat as it is usually portrayed because of the pandemic and the limitations and obstacles it has given most if not all students. I think admissions officers will be a lot more forgiving and understanding of our individual situations than [they have been] in the past,” says Yvonne.

Although this year’s college admissions process will undoubtedly be difficult, West’s seniors are well-prepared:

“If you know what you want to do in the future, start there,” says Kalina. “Figure out a plan you think is most suitable for your situation. Most importantly, don’t overthink it! Where you go to college isn’t everything, it’s a lot more about what you can learn from it and how you can apply your knowledge. Usually, that’s what will make you successful.”