There were many long-held educational processes and procedures that were upended during the past year. Completing college applications and essays and submitting them to your chosen schools can be stressful in the best of times. As schools moved to virtual models and scheduled standardized testing dates were canceled, students, parents, counselors, and admissions officers had to adapt to navigate the constantly changing landscape with the ensuing consequences.
With students unable to take the SAT or ACT, many colleges shifted to a test-optional or test-blind admission policy. If a college is test-optional, students may still submit scores for review, whereas test-blind colleges do not look at the scores at all. This is a lingering result going into the 2021 college application cycle with many colleges keeping this policy in place. Many anticipate that the role of standardized test scores in the college admission decision will be forever changed.
The traditional end of semester AP testing schedule also had to be modified, as students moved to taking the tests at home. In addition to the expected hiccups with a test of this size moving to a virtual format so quickly, it also raised questions of fairness and equality to those students who may not have reliable technology at home and for those with disabilities who require assistance or modifications in the testing environment.
Students had to prepare for these tests and try to maintain GPAs while suddenly adapting to an online environment with many teachers who had not received extensive training in virtual learning. Dropping into your guidance counselor’s office to ask questions was no longer an option; counselors began meeting students virtually. Students could not even participate in the tradition of visiting campuses, as colleges and universities called a halt to in-person tours. It isn’t surprising that there was a record number of students in last year’s cycle electing to take a gap year with so many changes and uncertainty. Would campuses even be open in the fall?
So how is this affecting the current application cycle? With vaccines rolling out across the country as we slowly return to normal, there is hope and expectation that campuses will be fully open in the fall and will start to resemble the traditional picture of college life we know so well. No one has a crystal ball and there are many differing predictions for what the application numbers are going to look like after last year. The students I’m working with now have all had time to adjust to various levels of online learning. They are invested in completing the application package and are excited about attending college in the fall. Some schools are resuming college campus tours, and traditional standardized testing procedures are being put back in place. With so many schools remaining test-optional, the application essay takes on increased importance. Even for schools that are still requiring test scores in the application package, the essay is more important than ever after the past year in a holistic review of the applicant. Admissions officers look to the essay to pull the student’s package together and to get to know the student. The essay really is the student’s voice speaking to the admissions officer, and appropriate topic selection is key. It is not about producing a beautifully well-written essay; it is finding that topic that will help a student stand out from the crowd and make an impression.
Students beginning the process now need to remember that they have just gone through a crucial year of high school during very extraordinary times. They should work to put together an application package that really illustrates who they are and what matters to them. When building the list of colleges to apply to, it is important to look at changes and trends in their applications and admissions. This will help them determine realistically which schools are safety, target, and reach. When this group of students transitions to college life after high school, they will do so with the knowledge that they are capable of persevering in unprecedented times. That is a quality that will help them succeed in college and beyond.